An 87-year-old Walnut Creek resident lives in a lovely apartment close to the Senior Center. She plays bridge twice a week and bingo once a week. She still drives herself and is proud of her small garden, which she maintains. She is able to afford this apartment because she receives money from renting a house she built and lived in for many years. Her daughter used to handle the rental but in late 2009 she refused to turn over the proceeds to her mother. Without these proceeds, she had no means of paying the rent, and was concerned that she would have to give up her apartment and move in with family members. This senior – we’ll call her Mrs. C – continues to live independently thanks to the assistance of Contra Costa Senior Legal Services (“CCSLS”). CCSLS filed suit on Mrs. C’s behalf and, after nearly a year and the commitment of countless attorney hours, won a judgment against the daughter requiring that she turn over $1,000 per month of the rental proceeds to Mrs. C.
CCSLS is a non-profit organization that has been providing free legal representation to seniors such as Mrs. C throughout the county for over twenty five years – and in spite of these challenging economic times, it hopes to be able to continue to be a viable and important resource for years to come. CCSLS is located in Richmond, where attorneys and staff assist area seniors 60 and over with help in civil legal matters such as housing, income maintenance and finance, elder abuse and credit and consumer issues. Our mission is to provide “free legal advice, representation and education to elderly residents of Contra Costa County, with an emphasis on seniors who are in the greatest social and economic need.”
Many of the problems facing seniors are similar to those faced by the general population, but often the consequences are far more severe. One such client, Brenda Z, a 62 year-old woman, lives in a mobile home park. She suffers from chronic depression and anxiety attacks. One source of comfort is her Australian sheepdog, Shadow. While the park allows animals, it has a weight limit of 20 pounds. Shadow, acquired as a puppy, eventually grew to about 40 pounds. In spite of the fact that Shadow created no problems for other residents or for the park itself, the park filed suit to evict Brenda from her home. CCSLS agreed to represent Brenda and when the park refused to consider a reasonable settlement, took the case to trial. The judge ruled in Brenda’s favor, safeguarding her right to stay in her home. Without the services of CCSLS, she faced the unhappy prospect of giving up her companion or being forced to move. At CCSLS, the staff recognizes the vital importance of senior housing, whether government subsidized or otherwise, and vigorously defends those, like Brenda, who do not have the resources to simply move. Sometimes, without senior housing, these seniors would be homeless.
CCSLS also assists seniors with issues involving consumer debt. This area of law is particularly important because many seniors live on limited incomes and are at a time in their lives when they are not as able to resist unscrupulous or high pressured sales tactics as they once were. One outrageous case involved Harry C., an 82 year-old retired firefighter. He saw a television commercial for the new Harley-Davidsons and since he had once loved riding them, determined to check them out. Harry had recently suffered a stroke and had not driven a vehicle of any kind for years. He also had recently been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimers. His granddaughter agreed to indulge him and drove him to a dealership to see the bike. She waited in the truck while granddad looked at the Harleys. Two hours later, Harry had agreed to pay $25,000 for a 750 lb., 1500 cc hog, and another $2,000 for a six year extended service plan. Harry couldn’t ride the motorcycle home, obviously, so the dealer delivered it to his house the next day. Harry’s daughter, who was at his home when the bike arrived, immediately called the dealership to try to cancel the contract and return the bike, but they refused. Eventually, the dealership’s finance company sued. Attorneys at CCSLS were able to convince the finance company to dismiss the suit on the basis that Harry’s age and physical and mental condition entitled him to the protections of the elder abuse statute that now includes undue influence. Had Harry been the vigorous, vital young man he once was, he never would have fallen prey to such high-pressured tactics and would not have needed the services of an organization like CCSLS.
Unfortunately, cases such as Harry’s are common. We had one senior who was convinced to purchase a $3,000 vacuum cleaner from a door-to-door salesperson–this despite the fact that she made less than $800 a month and did not even have carpeting. After sending a letter informing the vacuum company about the statutes pertaining to financial elder abuse and undue influence, we received notice from our client that the company agreed to void the contract and accept return of the vacuum cleaner.
There are also situations where seniors, as with consumers in general, simply cannot convince retailers to comply with their legal obligations. Several years ago we had a very elderly woman approach us for help. She lived on less than $800 per month but needed new hearing aids. She purchased them from a large retail establishment. She said she was careful in entering into the contract and only did so after being assured that she had 30 days to return the hearing aids if they did not work for her. The retailer had our client apply for a credit card (with a very high annual percentage rate) and immediately charged nearly $4,000 to her account. She received the hearing aids weeks later, and immediately had trouble. She could not hear as well with the new hearing aids as she could with her old ones. She went back for adjustment time and again, and then finally, asked for a refund. The retailer refused, arguing that the 30-day return period had passed. By the time the client called us, she had paid three month’s on the credit card at a whopping $200 per month –one quarter of her meager income. She was having trouble paying her utilities and finding money for food. We agreed to represent her and when we were unable to resolve the matter informally, we prepared a complaint. Only after we called the retailer to learn the name of the agent for service of process did they agree to refund our client her money and void the contract. The client was immensely relieved and very grateful for the assistance we were able to provide.
CCSLS was incorporated in 1986 under the name of Contra Costa County Legal Assistance for the Elderly and was a successor organization to Senior Paralegal Project founded in 1976. Legal services are provided by in-house paid and volunteer attorneys and paralegals. In addition, CCSLS trains and utilizes community volunteers to assist in providing services. Projects include a Consult-an-Attorney program and a Wills Clinic which are conducted in association with various county senior centers. We assisted nearly 900 seniors last year. While the majority of the cases concerned housing and consumer or financial matters, we also assisted seniors with elder abuse cases, helping prepare restraining orders for the victims of abuse, for example. We have also helped seniors with numerous other civil legal issues relating to education, employment and long-term planning for nursing home placement.
We are in the third year of partnering with the Contra Costa Superior Court to provide services to pro per clients at the Senior Self-Help Clinic. This drop-in clinic is available to seniors 60 and over who are not represented by an attorney. Approximately a third of our cases involve assistance with elder abuse restraining orders. We provide information about how to apply for a restraining order, help clients to prepare the application and assist clients with follow-up issues, such as service of process and preparation for the court hearing. The clinic is one of a number of support services offered to seniors using the innovative Elder Court, presided over by Judge Joyce Cram.
At the clinic, staff also provides general information about simple civil cases and court procedures, including landlord tenant and credit card cases, as well ashelp in preparing simple demand or settlement letters. The clinic also provides referrals to other self-help resources, to public agencies and non-profits and to the Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service. Later this year, we hope to expand our services to clients seeking assistance with pro per conservatorships of the person.
CCSLS is funded by grants from the Area Office on Aging, the California State Bar Equal Access Fund, the Contra Costa County Bar Association, the Contra Costa County Community Development Departments and by block grants from the cities of Antioch, Concord, Pittsburg, Richmond and Walnut Creek. We are also funded by private donations from those who share our commitment to providing this essential service to our local seniors. We invite you to learn more about our program by visiting our website, ccsls.org, and to consider volunteering. Those who have done so will tell you that it is immensely rewarding.
— Verna Haas is the staff attorney at Contra Costa Senior Legal Services.
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