Senator Wyden pushes VA for assistance to Qarmat Ali veterans

Our toxic exposure case for Oregon National Guard vets exposed to sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali facility in Iraq continues. The case is against Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) and its various offshoots.  Background: Link to NBC Nightly News story and reflections on the case here.  Earlier updates on the case here.

Meantime, worth noting is that Senator Ron Wyden’s sent a letter today to Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding the matter. Here is a pdf copy-  Qarmat Ali vets letter fr Sen Wyden.

I am appreciative that Senator Wyden continues pushing on these issues. As well, Senator Merkley, Rep. Schrader, and Oregon Sen. Shields have carried this issue, too.  Some of this is about good constituent service, I suppose.

But in talking to Sen. Wyden, Sen.  Merkley, Oregon Sen. Shields and their staff members, I know that this is about more than simply providing service to voters.  We all agree that we owe our vets better. To my way of thinking, this includes that KBR face its day of reckoning.

To all of our leaders who continue advocating for our soldiers-I am sure you know from your own conversations that our Qarmat Ali vets deeply appreciate your continuing efforts.  One of our vets’ father served in Vietnam. He quietly shared with me his appreciation that a senator or a busy lawyer would come to the aid of his son. As he explained it, usually soldiers think that they can only rely on other soldiers.  I thanked him for his kind words and simply said that it was the very least we could do.

Add U.S. Chamber of Commerce to losers list on health care reform

Good post here at the PopTort, about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s latest legislative loss. This time it’s health care reform. But as the PopTort article goes on to note that loss is the latest in a string of losses for the U.S. Chamber, which also opposed financial regulation, EPA action on greenhouse gases, and Sen. Franken’s efforts to limit defense contractors’ use of mandatory arbitration clauses.

On my prior blog, I’ve noted the problems with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They supported Bush-Cheney policies that led us to financial crisis. The U.S. Chamber rails against lawsuits and verdicts for consumers. But when a big business obtains a $300 million verdict, they remain silent.

I imagine the talking heads will be sorting winners and losers over last night’s historic health care reform vote. Let’s be sure to add the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the health care reform losers. To be fair, they are not alone.

At our house over the weekend, my teenage daughter asked whether health care reform was a good idea.  Her mom and I talked it through slowly, pointing out that over 30 million Americans who previously lacked insurance would have access to health care. We also explained the the dread and indefensible pre-existing condition snafu that would bar all four members of her immediate family from care in the current environment.  But we were quick to say that there were a lot of unanswered questions about the bill.

My own take is that the bill did not go far enough. I don’t think that access to medical care should be a luxury, and as a small business owner, I have serious doubts about the wisdom of continuing to tie health care to employment. Still, a step forward is better than none.

I was struck by the tenor of the opponents. They would not negotiate. They hurled horrifying epithets. They wanted to make it all or nothing, and now–having lost–they complain bitterly about the process. By choosing a loud and nasty campaign, they galvanized the middle against them. I’m not much of a legislative geek, but from my perspective, the anger and distortions helped drive the ambivalent to support the bill.

As the debate unfolded over the weekend, I followed with keen interest the comments on Twitter.  (Yes, I’m on Twitter–@DavidSug.) Lots of trash talk about Speaker Pelosi and President Obama.  Seemed like it was pretty simple. They did what none of our prior leaders could do. I’m impressed by their political skills and dedication in getting it done.

So as to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, I can’t help but wonder how that high spendin’, loud talkin’ worked out for you.  Feel free to let me know.

From the editor-That darned spam filter and comments

I just realized that our askimet settings may have been a bit too extreme in filtering out real comments. Apologies if you posted and didn’t see it. I blame Mr. Sugerman.  You should, too.

-Ed.

Thanks for your comments. Apologies if you thought I didn’t appreciate them. And as for this Ed. dude:  I’m seriously thinking about canning him. Too much attitude. Sadly, he works for cheap. And he generally does pretty good work, so I’m reluctant to pull the trigger. Feel free to weigh in on whether I should ix-nay Ed.

David Sugerman (aka “Ed.”)

Payday loans trap consumers

Thinking about a payday loan? Please check out this article on the hazards of on-line payday loans. The author, Herb Weisbaum, is one of my favorite consumer news resources. He writes the ConsumerMan column for MSNBC.

The Weisbaum article focuses on the nastiness of on-line payday loans. Consumers who are desperate for quick cash can get sucked in to horrible deals with on-line payday lenders who often evade regulation.

The article notes a few horror stories that are worth marking. When on-line lenders charge interest rates of 800 percent, the borrower will be so deep underwater so quickly that the borrower can never pay down interest.

On-line lenders often require the borrower to provide social security numbers and bank information and automatic payment from the consumer’s bank account.  I suppose I could write a long and technical explanation about this using flowery legal language/ Not necessary. This is very simple. Don’t do it. It is a trap.

It’s easy for consumers to assume that regulations protect them in these transactions. Truth is that many states have no real regulations on payday loans.

Some states, like Oregon, cap interest rates. But the cap is 36 percent APR, and that does not include origination fees.  Yikes! For those who like things a bit more concrete, let’s do some basic math to show why these are bad deals.

If you borrow $3,000 for one year at 36 percent interest, your monthly payments will be $302.78 on that loan. That, of course, is a new payment on top of all the other obligations like food, rent, auto and the like. Assuming you manage to pay it off without rolling it over, you will have paide a total of $3,616.68. Not a pretty deal, and it gets worse if you don’t get it paid off and have to roll it over.

So here’s how it gets even worse with the on-line payday lenders. Many will set up shop off shore and claim that Oregon laws don’t apply to their loans. So instead of the high rate of 36 percent, they’ll charge 800 percent annual interest.

Here is what a small 800 percent interest loan looks like. A one-month $300 dollar loan adds over $200 per month in interest. And of course that interest payment is on top of the $300. So borrowing $300 for a month at 800 percent annual interest means you will owe a bit more than $500 in a month’s time.

It’s easy to see how people fall deeper down the hole in that situation. Look at this explanation from the Federal Trade Commission on how payday loans work to see how easy it is to get sucked under. The FTC piece is a bit dense, but it also contains suggestions on how to avoid the traps.

This isn’t a new issue. But the Weisbaum article prompted me to think about it again. In these tough economic times, I have no doubt that these loans are tempting. Just say no.

For further information:

Oregon consumer payday loan information (pdf) from the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services.

Oregon statutes relating to payday loans (scroll down to ORS 725.600 – 725.630)

Summary of states’ payday lending laws (Author’s note: I haven’t verified that this is accurate or up to date.)

Comcast late fee class action update: ruling striking defenses

This is an update report for those following our Comcast late fee class action.  In this certified class action, Oregon Comcast cable television subscribers claim that Comcast illegally assessed late fees for cable TV service. The class seeks damages. Here is the last update on the case. Go to my old blog, here, if you want a copy of the class certification decision.

So Friday, Tim Quenelle and I returned to court to argue discovery and pleading motions. We did something a bit unusual and filed motions to strike various affirmative defenses raised by Comcast.

Judge Baldwin ruled today. He granted the class’s motions to strike the following eight defenses:  Reduction of damages based on losses Comcast claims to have suffered (Sixth Affirmative Defense); Subscribers’ breach of their cable TV subscription agreements (Ninth Affirmative Defense); Failure to timely assert rights under the late fee statute (Tenth Affirmative Defense); Estoppel (Eleventh Affirmative Defense); Laches (Twelfth Affirmative Defense); Ratification (Thirteenth Affirmative Defense); Reservation of Rights; and Comcast’s prayer for attorney fees.

Judge Baldwin denied the class’s motions as to four affirmative defenses: standing of the class representatives, voluntary payment, unclean hands, and set-off for class members’ unpaid balances.

Judge Baldwin’s rulings limit Comcast’s defenses and narrow the scope of the case. It’s another step forward for the class. While there is still far to go, we’re counting it as a great day.

Western Culinary Institute class action featured in New York Times story

Peter Goodman of The New York Times does a nice job here of looking at the problem of for-profit trade schools. The story mentions our class action against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland.  And while it’s all exciting to see the case written up in the Times, that’s hardly the point.

The Goodman article points out the disparity between the costs of trade school education and expected earnings.  I was taken by a Sr. Vice President, Brian Williams, comment, “You go in the industry and work your way up.”

I don’t have any idea how much Mr. Williams knows about labor statistics. But the cold reality is that there are very few high-paying jobs in the culinary field–at least as compared to the scads of low-wage kitchen jobs that require no training. In short, there isn’t much “up” to reach.

Some suggest that this is not different from an expensive law or medical degree or a BA in liberal arts from a four-year school. I suppose it’s tempting to take that view, but in reality the differences are profound.

Let’s look at them.

Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu say in their catalogs that they provide entry level training. In the lawsuit, we take issue with what they don’t tell students.  A culinary degree doesn’t provide a student much in the way of qualifications for an entry level kitchen job. By comparison, you simply can’t practice law or medicine without degrees and licenses.

In marketing the program, the school tells its prospective students about high placement rates–above 90 percent. But they don’t talk about the pay.  The school collects initial placement and earnings for its graduates. As the New York Times article explains, the vast majority of students earn very low wages upon graduation. Those low earnings won’t allow most students to repay their loans.

Defenders of for-profit trade schools also cite the profoundly expensive four-year bachelors degree problem. They are right about the high cost of four year schools, but wrong to compare the two. Ivy league schools cost far in excess of most middle income families’ abilities to pay, leading many students to incur heavy debt loads.

But several things are different.  The liberal arts program doesn’t sell itself as “vocational training.” Nor does it tout its placement statistics or skill-based career training as the reason to attend. And the universities aren’t run by billion dollar corporations who are concerned about their Wall Street performance.

Our case has taken two years so far. If we succeed, students who suffered losses will recover money that will help pay down their debts.

We need better oversight of these schools, these loans and these lending practices, as students who enroll at for-profit trade schools often are underwater from the day they graduate.  Effective oversight of trade school programs and educational loans would prevent these types of abuses.

Toyota cover-up much worse than the acceleration problem

The Toyota acceleration problem has gotten a lot of press play. Most recent is yesterday’s story about a Prius that went berserk on a California interstate.  Looks like the engineering staff at Toyota doesn’t yet have this thing corralled.

One of the interesting things about the work I do representing consumers is that I’ve learned that juries are often fairly forgiving of institutions and mistakes. Here is what I mean. In court when businesses, hospitals, or government agencies admit to mistakes, my experience is that jurors are very understanding.

On the surface, it appears that Toyota is taking this, “mistakes were made” approach to defending the sudden acceleration cases.  But underneath is a story that so far has not gotten much play.

Apparently, Toyota has known for years about the problems with its cars. Not a big surprise.

But much worse, Toyota may have hidden the defects and may have violated all sorts of court rules and orders by hiding evidence and stonewalling in cases.  At least that is what one of Toyota’s former lawyers claims.

If this is true and if the story gets traction, Toyota is in major trouble.  Apart from sales issues, their liabilities will go through the roof when–not if–these Book of Knowledge documents are ordered produced.  Seems like their only hope is to completely discredit their former counsel.  I suppose it’s possible that everything he says in the linked CNN interview is fiction. But I doubt it.

The linked story talks about Toyota’s trade secrets.  Toyota thinks it doesn’t have to disclose those in injury cases. Toyota is wrong.

But as long as we’re on the subject, here is a trade secret from a consumer-side lawyer who toils in the trenches. Representing an injured consumer in a  design defect case is tough.  It’s hard to communicate the technical parts of the case. Leading the jury through the thicket of complexity to a just result for the injured consumer is a major challenge.  On the other hand, when that complicated design defect case becomes a case about hidden or destroyed evidence, the business is very likely in big trouble should the business choose to go to trial.

Ken Starr defends lawyers who represented Gitmo detainees

It started with a political noise machine.  Before their appointments to the U.S. Department of Justice, it seems that several current DOJ lawyers defended Gitmo detainees on a pro bono basis.

Apparently former Vice President Cheney’s daughter, Elizabeth Cheney, is connected to the group that posted this YouTube video smearing lawyers who dared to represent Gitmo detainees.

It’s a bit shameless because Ms. Cheney apparently employs a double standard on terrorism.  It seems amazing that her group attacks Department of Justice Lawyers.  Remember the white supremacist who attacked the Holocaust museum, killing innocents? Ms. Cheney held forth on that one, discounting the connection between “political discourse,” terrorism,  and the white supremacist who shot and killed people there.

Her attack on lawyers who served the system annoyed me to no end. That’s why I was heartened to see this video clip of former Whitewater Special Prosecutor Ken Starr explaining why Cheney and her ilk are so very wrong.

Let’s be clear.  Those who slaughter innocents should be tried. And if convicted they should be punished. But let us not forget that we pride ourselves as being a nation founded on the rule of law.  I suppose Ms. Cheney falls victim of that great myth that anyone accused must be guilty. So if that’s true, had her father been indicted for war crimes, would she simply agree that he was guilty? Of course not.  That can’t really be different because this is a hard case. We either presume innocence, or we don’t. No double standards. No special exceptions for accused terrorists.

Those who presume that anyone at Gitmo is guilty are taking the government at its word.  Call me crazy, but I don’t think that’s such a good idea.  I prefer trials. With evidence. And judges.  Yes, I am totally old fashioned.

Rev 10 March 2010

Oregon injury claims (Part 3)-hiring a lawyer

This is the third of a 3-part series on information for Oregon consumers about Oregon injury claims.  This might make a little more sense if you have reviewed the background in Part 1 (claims and the Oregon system) and Part 2 (case process and uncertainty) so that this makes better sense.

Like everything else in our complicated world, the practice of law has become more specialized over the years.  While some lawyers still manage to handle a wide range of cases, most limit themselves to one or a few areas. Personal injury tends to be one of those areas that requires a lot of special experience.  For that reason, you’re generally better served by someone with significant experience in the area.

There are several considerations in hiring a lawyer to handle an injury claim. Most Oregon injury lawyers are content to work on a contingent fee. Under a contingent fee system, the lawyer gets paid for his or her time based on a percentage of what the lawyer recovers for the client.  All of this should be in a written fee agreement that the lawyer explains to the client.

In addition to paying for the lawyer’s time, the client must also take responsibility for out-of-pocket expenses.  Oregon law requires that the client remain legally responsible for costs. The rule is based on the theory that that if the client must be take responsible for costs, there will be less lawsuits.

The client may choose instead to hire the attorney by the hour. While this is certainly an option, in my experience, most middle income clients can’t afford to pay a lawyer by the hour. That’s why the contingent fee/percentage  system works. Without it, access to the courts would be limited to corporations and wealthy people who can afford to pay legal fees by the hour.

The other advantage of the contingent fee is that it encourages your attorney to do whatever is necessary to get the good outcome. Contingent fee attorneys don’t have to worry about whether they’re over-billing or spending too much time on the case. That’s a good thing. As we say around this office, “Whatever it takes.”

Having said that, there are still times when you should consider hiring an attorney by the hour. When, for example, your case is simple and straightforward, an hourly arrangement may be appropriate.

Here is when the hourly arrangement is the better choice for consumers. In rare situations, your losses greatly exceed the amount of available insurance, and the attorney’s role is limited to confirming coverage and making sure the settlement agreement protects you. In that situation, the consumer comes out ahead by paying only for the time that the attorney spent on the matter.

As I said at the beginning of this series, this is advice I would rather that you not need.  Still, better to be informed so that you can make the best choices as you move forward.

Oregon legislature provides consumers with tools to fight bank fraud

Yesterday, the Oregon Senate passed legislation that provides Oregon consumers with a powerful tool to fight bank fraud.  HB 3706 amends the Oregon Unlawful Trade Practices Act so that banking and credit practices are now included in Oregon’s signature anti-fraud law.

The bill previously passed the Oregon House. But there were a few amendments along the way, so I believe that there will need to be a reconciliation process before the governor can consider it.

Rep. Nick Kahl pushed the bill on the house side. He’s proving himself a tireless advocate for working Oregonians. On the senate side, Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D. Beaverton) championed the bill, continuing her great work for Oregon consumers. News report here. Our Oregon stood up for consumers on this bill. They deserve our appreciation.

The bill is important for consumers because it ends special rights for banks. The Unlawful Trade Practices Act sets modest standards that protects Oregon consumers from fraud. For years, banks and insurance companies have been exempted from it.  Why shouldn’t they be held to the same standards as car dealers and cable TV companies? If a bank engages in fraud, it should have to answer to consumers. This is not particularly difficult.

I’m especially taken by some of the grumbling from those who opposed this legislation. I guess its easy to forget bank bail-outs, CEO salaries, and the lack of meaningful banking reform.  The legislature provides consumers with modest protections against nickel and diming and fraud, and banking industry cheerleaders complain that it will simply cost banks more? Amazing. Maybe they were asleep or comatose when the economy melted down.

So at bottom, it’s a good day for consumers because Salem showed leadership.