A Legal Challenge to Rules Against Legal Advice from Nonlawyers

A Legal Challenge to Rules Against Legal Advice from Nonlawyers

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at a lawsuit about legal advice from nonlawyers. We’ll also look at a dog run that was linked — on social media, at least — to the bacterial disease leptospirosis.

Liz Jurado, who lives in Bay Shore, N.Y., and works for DoorDash, was hit with a $12,000 default judgment for an epidural anesthesia bill she said she had never received.

She says she could have benefited from legal advice from someone like the Rev. John Udo-Okon, above, a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx. Pastor Udo-Okon wants to join a training program run by the financial education and civil rights nonprofit Upsolve, which would teach him how to walk people through the early stages of fighting a lawsuit from a debt collector.

But there is a problem: Offering tips on fighting such lawsuits is probably against the law.

[They Need Legal Advice on Debts. Should It Have to Come From Lawyers?]

My colleague Andy Newman writes that New York, like most states, has rules that make it a criminal misdemeanor to practice law without a license. And giving individualized advice to someone facing a lawsuit is generally considered practicing law.

Upsolve hopes to clear the way for volunteers like Pastor Udo-Okon to help people whose debt problems are long past telephone calls and certified letters from collection agencies. Lawyers representing the nonprofit filed — what else — a lawsuit against the state attorney general’s office on Tuesday, arguing that prohibiting nonlawyers from giving advice that is “straightforward and does not require significant specialized legal training” violates the First Amendment. Pastor Udo-Okon is a co-plaintiff in the case, filed in federal court in Manhattan.

Upsolve sees an imbalance in the legal playing field: Overwhelming numbers of people named in consumer debt cases do not retain lawyers. In 2018 and 2019, a total of 265,000 consumer debt suits were filed in city and district civil courts in New York State. Over 95 percent of the defendants were not represented by a lawyer, and of those, 88 percent did not respond to the suit, according to figures from the state court system.

“What we have isn’t legal rights under the law,” said Rohan Pavuluri, a co-founder of Upsolve. “What we have is legal rights if you can afford a lawyer.” Upsolve wants the court to carve out protection for its volunteer-counselor program, much as New York does for nonlawyers who pass an exam to represent workers’ compensation claimants.

The office of New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit. The New York State Bar Association, which represents lawyers, said it would not comment on pending litigation.

Jurado said she received a notice from the Suffolk County sheriff’s office in 2019, soon after her husband lost his job and she went to work full time. The notice was about a bill for an epidural she had been given during labor more than a decade before. She said she had never been served with legal papers. But the notice from the sheriff referred to a default judgment against her and said that she owed an anesthesiologist over $12,000.

When she gave birth, doctors “didn’t give me an option and say, ‘Oh, by the way, this is not covered’ — there was no talk about insurance,” she said.

The debt forced her into bankruptcy. She said that even if she had been aware of the case before the default judgment was entered, she was living paycheck to paycheck and a lawyer would have been beyond her financial reach.

“If I could afford the lawyer fees,” she said, “I would have just paid the bill.”


It’s a sunny day, New York, with temps in the mid-20s dropping below the 20s at night.

alternate-side parking

In effect until Monday (Lunar New Year’s Eve).

New York’s indoor mask mandate will go back in effect, at least temporarily, after an appeals court judge blocked a lower-court ruling issued on Monday.

The state had turned to the appeals court after the Monday decision by Justice Thomas Rademaker of State Supreme Court in Nassau County. He said that the rule requiring masks was unconstitutional.

Letitia James, the state attorney general, quickly filed a motion to stay Rademaker’s ruling, effectively putting it on hold while the state filed a formal appeal. On Tuesday, Justice Robert Miller, an appeals court judge, agreed and scheduled another hearing for Friday.

Rademaker’s decision had caused confusion among parents and teachers who scrambled to decipher whether children would be required to wear masks in schools. It also rekindled politically charged disputes over mask wearing, with the state’s top Republicans celebrating the initial ruling.

On Tuesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who had imposed the mask rule, applauded the appeals court “for siding with common sense.”

Social media lit up last week with rumors that a dog run in a Brooklyn park had been linked to cases of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease spread by a perpetual urban scourge, rats.

The Health Department did not confirm reports of an outbreak in the park, McCarren Park in Williamsburg. But it said it was working with the Parks Department to keep rats out.

For now, it is keeping the dogs out of the McCarren Park Dog Run, along with everyone else, while it makes some upgrades. It considers the dog run a “makeshift area” heavily used by dog owners, but not an official dog run. The rest of the park remains open.

Dog owners went on high alert last week after Lincoln Restler, a councilman who represents the area, tweeted that his office had received reports of “multiple dog fatalities” and that “dog owners are concerned about leptospirosis.”

Dog owners beyond Brooklyn became alarmed, because the bacteria that causes leptospirosis can fester in puddles and damp areas. It is tricky to diagnose quickly because the symptoms are nonspecific — vomiting, fever and lethargy — and usually don’t appear until a week or two after exposure. It is treatable with antibiotics.

But midwinter is an unusual time for an outbreak. The bacteria usually surge in late summer and fall, said Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, a veterinarian with Bond Vet, a local chain.

Some 15 cases among people were reported citywide last year, five times the annual average since 2006, and at least one of the 15 died. Health department officials said that most had been exposed to severe rat infestations. Fifteen cases among dogs were also reported last year, down from a high of 29 in 2018.

Dr. Fadl said the Bond Vet practice had not seen any cases this winter at its locations in Williamsburg or Cobble Hill. Animal Care Centers of N.Y.C., which has centers in four of the five boroughs, has not recorded any, either, a spokeswoman said.

The Parks Department said it had received only two 311 complaints regarding rodents in McCarren Park in the past year. But after the tweets last week, it installed rat-resistant metal trash cans and sent in an exterminator. This week it began replacing the wood chips that line the ground.

Humza Rizvi, who lives in Williamsburg, said fears about the disease and the park’s general lack of cleanliness had kept him from taking his golden retriever Ollie there.

“It’s a dog park, so it’s going to be dirty,” he said. But, he added, “sitting water and things that can apparently spread the disease are always there.”

Dear Diary:

It was a bitterly cold day on York Avenue: slush, ice, snow and wind.

I had just left the dry cleaner’s when I saw an older woman wearing a fur and tugging on one end of a taut leash.

At the other end, a soup bone of a dog was tugging back with great determination.

“C’mon,” the woman said. “We have to go home now.”

The dog just sat. It wouldn’t budge.

The woman pulled harder.

The dog pulled just as hard the other way.

There was no give on either end.

Finally, the woman looked down and addressed the dog.

“All right, already,” she said. “We’ll take a cab.”

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