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Lawmaker targets burdensome pre-settlement funding by proposing cap on interest rates

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

Funding companies woo plaintiffs in need with promises of quick cash for their pending settlements without oversight in Indiana. That soon could change.

“There’s really nothing guiding this practice at all at this point,” said Marty Wood, president of the Insurance Institute of Indiana, which is backing legislation sponsored by Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, that would cap interest rates on lawsuit funding or pre-settlement advances. Wood and others said annual interest rates in the deals can exceed 100 percent, sometimes leaving plaintiffs out of their own judgments.

hammond-jeff-mug Hammond

The sales pitch is simple: Companies such as Oasis Legal Finance, Fairpay Solutions and a host of others front a portion of an anticipated settlement that a litigant repays only when the case settles. It can be an easy sell to struggling litigants with bills to pay, and even opponents of the practice recognize the companies’ function.

“There’s legitimacy to these,” Lehman said, but not without limits. “Some of these loans, at a minimum, are 60 to 70 percent interest. That’s not good public policy.”

Lehman’s House Bill 1205 would require a cap on interest rates, that the agreements be filed with the Department of Insurance, and that a plaintiff’s attorney sign off on the transaction.

“We regulate payday lenders, pawn shops,” Lehman said. “The public should never be put in a position where they have to borrow money at an extremely high interest rate.”

But the industry says the transactions aren’t loans at all, but rather an investment that carries a risk that the security may never materialize. If they were considered loans under the law, they would be subject to usury laws and much lower interest-rate caps under the Uniform Commercial Credit Code.

Industry representatives were among those who testified before a summer legislative study committee that returned no recommendation on pre-settlement funding. Kelly Gilroy of the American Legal Finance Association in New York presented model legislation that would include a five-day rescission period and require a plaintiff’s attorney to sign off on the transaction, which she said is a current practice for ALFA-affiliated financiers.

But the model legislation doesn’t include a cap on interest, and Gilroy said the agreements don’t include interest, but rather recurring fees.

“We’re completely OK with regulation, but it needs to be regulation that’s unique to the product because it’s a very unique product,” Gilroy said. People who receive funding repay nothing if they lose their case, and companies evaluating potential settlements are dealing with unknowns, she explained.

“The fees do reflect the risk, because the companies are taking a huge risk,” Gilroy said, noting that for borrowers, the money can be a lifesaver. “Consumers are never in a worse position, and they have to have a specific set of circumstances to even be considered” for pre-settlement funding. ALFA-aligned companies, according to Gilroy, typically front no more than 10 percent of an anticipated settlement amount.

“A lot of times these are people who’ve already used their credit cards, they’ve gone through their savings, and it’s like a lifeline for them,” Gilroy said.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have tried to rein in the practice, but prior attempts have failed.

Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and said lawmakers appear to have been torn in the past.

“I don’t like the whole idea of this, but these people are desperate,” Steele said referring to litigants. A ban of the practice would never pass, he said, and allowing it to continue is “the lesser of two evils, the way I see it.”

Indiana Department of Financial Institutions associate counsel Connie Gustafson said it is an open question how the transactions may be regulated. “We do see it as our job to look out for the public whenever there is any sort of product offered that relates to financial services,” she said.

Gustafson doubts the industry claims of extreme risk. “The reality is, they’re in the business of determining which cases are most likely to result in a settlement, and therefore whether the risk is as high as they say it is is somewhat questionable.”

Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Sarah Jane Hughes said the transactions could be seen as akin to contingency fees, and various companies structure them differently. Some simply purchase the settlement while others extend a portion to be repaid when the case resolves.

But whether the advances are loans, investments or something else is likely to be decided by a court and by the way the Department of Finance and attorney general view them, she said.

For litigants, the business represents a form of gap funding and perhaps the only available credit, Hughes said. “One size does not fit everybody,” she said. Opting for pre-settlement funding is “a very personal decision and should be made after careful reflection.”

Cohen & Malad LLP associate Jeff Hammond represents medical malpractice and personal injury plaintiffs. “I generally caution clients against these loans and try to advise them as to what they are and let them know what can happen,” he said.

At the same time, some clients have immediate needs. “They’re not trying to buy a new truck. They’re trying to keep the heat on.”

Hammond said he’s never had a case where pre-settlement funding has impeded settlement. But, he said, “If there’s a way they can regulate this industry and put in some protections for vulnerable consumers, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

Greenwood attorney Patrick Olmstead serves as general counsel to several law firms and chairs the Indiana State Bar Association’s ethics hotline. “I hadn’t seen it a year or two ago,” he said of litigation funding. “Now I have some friends who are seeing it in probably a third of their cases.”

Funding companies rely on lawyers to advise them what a case might be worth when a client seeks an advance, Olmstead said. “Where it really hurts is on the backend because the victim gets some money up front, and at the end if you don’t get the settlement you want out of it, (the victim) may wind up with nothing else at the end of the case. It doesn’t incentivize the client to settle.”

Olmstead said some attorneys have cut their fees to make sure clients who’ve received funding up front will get something out of a settlement. He wouldn’t blame attorneys who raise their contingency fees for clients who use pre-settlement funding.

“I just really feel bad for the lawyers, because they get put in a trick box,” he said.

Indianapolis attorney Lance Wittry represented a couple in a medical malpractice negligence suit over their child’s stillbirth. The case didn’t get resolved until a favorable ruling in the Indiana Supreme Court eight years later prompted a settlement.

One of the parents had signed a pre-settlement funding agreement and received $50,000, Wittry said. He said the company four years later claims it is owed $1.3 million.

Wittry now is representing the parent in federal court in the Southern District of New York, where the company has sued, seeking to compel arbitration.

In response, Wittry claims the agreement was unconscionable, because, among other things, it contained a monthly interest rate of 4.99 percent. Wittry also says the company’s bid to enforce arbitration violated an agreement with former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, in which a number of pre-settlement companies agreed to ax arbitration clauses from their deals.

Wittry dismisses the industry’s claim that it’s providing a needed lifeline to people who need cash fast.

“People always need money right now. We all need money right now,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of people.”•

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  1. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

  2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

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