Attorney Jean Murray drove more than three hours and had a few choice words for her car's GPS before she arrived in Newfane last month to defend a client in a debt-collection case. But once she arrived in court, it was all over in a hot minute.
The opposing counsel, attorney Michael Williams, had no witness and was unable to proceed with the case, he told Judge Michael Kainen. With a bang of the gavel, Kainen cancelled the $5,688 debt of Murray's client, a 78-year-old man from Westminster West.
Murray didn't appear to be surprised. She's the primary attorney defending Vermont's poorest debtors against a massive collection industry largely hidden from the public eye.
For the past 10 years, she's seen firsthand how lenders, mostly credit card companies, lure in vulnerable people with "rewards" and other enticements that wind up bankrupting them. "I think people want to pay back what they borrowed," said Murray, who grew up poor in Chicago. "But when illness, job loss, death in the family or divorce makes that hard, credit card companies make it harder: A missed payment means, for many cards, that the company imposes a penalty interest rate of 25 to 30 percent."
The companies are "taking what I see as unconscionable advantage of people," she said.
Murray goes to bat for those Vermonters and wins by showing judges that the plaintiffs, who are often large corporations that specialize in collecting bad debts, lack the goods to proceed. They "just don't have the evidence," she said. Murray didn't lose a single one of her cases last year, including the 36 she represented in court.
One resolved tragically when a St. Johnsbury widow fell into debt to pay for her husband's cancer treatments, according to her son, Charlie Brooks. Pat Brooks died before the company trying to collect the money finally dropped the case. She was 61. With interest, Pat Brooks' $17,319 debt had mushroomed to more than $25,000. Atlantic Credit & Finance garnished her $10.50-an-hour hotel housekeeping wages, taking $100 a month. But her interest on the debt was $125 a month.
Murray's work isn't glamorous. She spends her days slogging through reams of court filings and crisscrossing the state to appear in court. Nights at home in Montpelier, she enjoys the TV show "Supernatural," whose main character faces down different forms of adversity.
"If I had said 'Jean Murray is going to change the world,' I don't think I would have picked collections," the 58-year-old lawyer said wryly.
But for Chris Curtis, head of the public protection division in the Vermont Attorney General's office, Murray's mission makes perfect sense. "She's a single mom who broke the cycle of poverty ... and has spent her entire adult life giving back," said Curtis, who worked with Murray at Vermont Legal Aid. "This is more than just a lawyer's duty to their client," he said. "This is personally and professionally significant for Jean."
Murray's empathy for the underdog started with her own upbringing in suburban Chicago. As a child, she would tag along with her mother, who ran after-school programs for low-income kids in the downtown YWCA. Her disabled father didn't work, and Murray — the third of four girls — remembers a "go without" childhood. She and her sisters shared two bicycles until Murray's friends all chipped in to buy her a Schwinn 10-speed on her 16th birthday.
Two years later, she was married. She divorced at 19 — after giving birth to her only child, a daughter named Erin.
She moved back in with her mother and grandmother, and the three took turns caring for Erin. Murray found work at an insurance company and attended classes at night. She recalled bringing her pajama-clad daughter along when she had evening exams.
By the late '70s, Murray had decided she wanted to become a lawyer. Her resolve strengthened when she was fired from a job — unjustly, she said — and later, when she felt that a landlord treated her unfairly.
"I was tired of being on the underside of things," she said.
In 1987, she got her undergraduate degree from SUNY Empire State College and headed to Boston for law school. While pursuing her Juris Doctor degree at Northeastern University, she spent every summer volunteering for legal aid organizations.
Postgraduation, Murray landed a paid job at a legal services organization in Massachusetts before becoming a staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid's Poverty Law Project in 1998.
She took on her first collections cases in 2007 but didn't get fully immersed until two years later. She agreed to cover for her fellow lawyer and significant other Guen Gifford at Law Line of Vermont so that Gifford could take a year off. As Murray advised consumers on how to deal with collection, she witnessed how easily poor people with access to credit can become indebted. "If you are unwell, or aging, or disabled, or only able to get minimum-wage work, it isn't carelessness that makes it hard to pay the bills for the things you need," Murray said. "If you are low income, keeping up is a difficult balancing act. The way credit card companies behave is partly responsible for some people losing their balance."
Gifford never returned from her sabbatical — she died in a paragliding accident in November 2009. But when Murray resumed her work at Vermont Legal Aid, she had a new focus. She said Gifford's death inspired her to intensify her efforts to help Vermonters who are too poor to defend themselves against the giant, faceless companies that buy up their debt.
Debt collection is a $13 billion industry nationwide that affects 35 percent of Americans, according to a 2016 report from the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Credit card companies extend borrowing privileges to just about anyone, but when a cardholder can't pay the bill, the creditor waits about six months to cut him or her off. The company then typically sells the debt to a third-party collector at pennies on the dollar in an effort to recoup its loss. The debt might be sold several more times before a collection agency files suit against the debtor.
As a result, out-of-state companies such as Encore Capital Group own thousands of outstanding debts in Vermont. These collection cases clog the state's court system. Some debt collectors' attorneys have become notorious for "robo-signing" cases, filing dozens at a time. There is no data on the number of Vermonters facing debt collection nor on how that number compares to other states. Multiple collections agencies and attorneys denied requests for comment.
What we do know: During fiscal year 2016, debt collection comprised 44 percent — 1,091 cases — of the total small claims court matters in Vermont, according to state data. In addition, collections cases made up nearly 20 percent of all civil cases.
"The reality is that most credit debtors are not poor," said Alan Bjerke, a Burlington attorney who has represented collection agencies and now runs his own small collections company. "They're disorganized."
Asked if the system is fair, Bjerke deferred. "I think the system has a number of safeguards built into it," he said. "People have very different conceptions of fairness."
Murray's is clear. "She sees a system that is all too often stacked against the poorest," Curtis explained. "That commitment to social and economic justice is not just a mantra but something that is slowly realized over time."
She's honed her craft, too. Julie Carp, who handles some debt-collection cases for Vermont Legal Aid, called Murray the "debt-collection guru" in Vermont. She phones Murray with questions, Carp said, and refers to Murray's case filings when drafting her own.
"She's always bringing up new ideas, new suggestions," said Curtis. When he worked down the hall from Murray, he coined a term about his coworker's creative persistence. Instead of a Hail Mary, he said, "I call them 'hail Murray.' She'll try just about anything to get a result for her clients."
In 2013 and then again in 2015, Murray advocated for new court rules that the Vermont judiciary agreed to adopt. As a result, debt collectors now must provide more information to debtors and the courts when they file a suit.
This year, she and fellow VLA attorney Wendy Morgan have been working to increase consumer protections legislatively. They back H.482, which would decrease the statute of limitations on collection of credit card debt from six years to three, and prohibit collectors from charging interest when debtors are exempt from collection — such as when they're receiving public assistance.
The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development is taking testimony on the bill on Thursday.
Last year, Murray met for months with court staff and lawyers on a judicial commission that worked to make debt collection more efficient and effective, recalled the group's chair Dan Richardson, a Montpelier attorney and acting judge in the Washington County small claims court. After countless meetings, Richardson hashed out a compromise that won support from the judges and collections attorneys, and was meant to be included in legislation.
Murray alone opposed the suggested measures, contending that it violated the privacy rights of consumers.
"She wouldn't sign onto it, and the process broke down," Richardson said.
He was frustrated at the time but acknowledged, "She's tenacious, and she's certainly smart and sticks to her guns. She believes in the rightness of her cause."
In the end, the commission disbanded without making progress.
Murray stands by her decision. "It was another one of those situations where I'm the only one at the table representing debtors," she said. "The people need a voice."
It worked for the 78-year-old man Murray represented in Newfane. Reached by phone, he said he always paid his credit card bills on time until he started racking up debt in 2012, when a small café he ran in Putney went under. Interest and late charges grew the $2,000 debt to $5,688, and Citibank started leaving messages on his answering machine.
He called Murray after he was sued and summoned to court last year. The man, who lives off a monthly Social Security check, worried he'd be arrested, or lose his apartment if he couldn't pay. "This is not the kind of person I am," he added. "It kind of made me sick."
In the end, he didn't even have to come to court the day Murray got his case dismissed. That evening, he said, he sat by his woodstove and opened a bottle of cider to celebrate. "I was very relieved," he said.Correction, April 6, 2017: An earlier version of this story incorrectly included the name of an auto-finance company as a third-party debt collector. The reference has been removed.