SANTA CLARA, Calif. (CN) - A Los Angeles law firm claims in court that Santa Clara University's pro bono law center is practicing law for poor people illegally.
The Brachfeld Law Group sued Santa Clara University and Scott Maurer, supervising attorney for the university's Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center, in Superior Court.
Brachfeld claims that the Community Law Center improperly uses Maurer's law license to collect attorneys' fees, which Maurer shares with the university.
"I've asked them how they can practice law and collect attorney's fees when they're not a law firm, but they refuse to discuss it at all," Brachfeld attorney Jonathan Birdt told Courthouse News in a telephone interview.
"Maybe what they're doing is perfectly legal, but they won't tell me how. All my research indicates that it's not."
The Community Law Center describes itself on its website as a pro bono clinic that has been serving low-income clients for more than 15 years. It estimates that 1,000 people, many of them minorities and immigrants, visit the Center each year seeking legal advice and representation in areas such as consumer rights, worker's rights, and immigration law.
Brachfeld Law Group, also known as Brachfeld Collections, is one of the largest collection firms in the country. Its client list includes "several of the world's most prestigious financial institutions," according to its website.
Santa Clara Law School, founded in 1911, is a private university that offers degrees in several fields, including social justice, business, and intellectual property law.
According to Brachfeld's complaint: "Maurer co-teaches a variety of clinical skills courses at the Law Center, where his students provide advice and legal representation to low-income residents on consumer protection matters
"SCU operates an entity, form unknown, called the Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center, hereinafter referred to as ACL.
"ACL is provides [sic] pro bono advice and representation to clients in the area of consumer rights.
"ACL is a student clinic that educates law students through client representation under the direct supervision of experienced attorneys.
"ACL is funded by government agencies, law firms, foundations, and individuals who provide financial support to the Center based upon its representation that it provides free legal services in the areas of consumer law.
"ACL is not a law firm, but instead is the alter ego of SCU and is engaging in the illegal practice of law using the bar license of Maurer and collecting attorney fees and adding them to its general fund, and or specific fund to support its educational activities.
"ACL uses tuition paying students to staff the ACL as certified law student.
"Maurer claims and collects attorneys fees for his activities in the course and scope of his employment with SCU utilizing the services of students working the ACL and thus collecting and sharing fees with a non-lawyer.
"ACL is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law."
In the interview, Birdt expressed support for the Center's pro bono work, but questioned its legal right to collect what he called exorbitant attorney's fees.
"I think what they are doing is a wonderful thing," Birdt said. "But when they try to hold a small business hostage by charging $40,000 in attorney's fees, there's something wrong."
The $40,000 refers to the fee the Law Center allegedly charged for representing a woman in a federal lawsuit filed against Brachfeld and its client, LVNV Funding, alleging unfair debt collection.
According to the joint preliminary pretrial conference statement, LVNV sued Blanca Santos for the outstanding balance on her Sears credit card. Santos claimed she paid the debt before LVNV took her to state court, but that LVNV still "took her default, then levied her bank account and garnished her wages."
In a series of emails dating from June, sent to Courthouse News on Wednesday by Birdt, Tim English, the certified law student working with Maurer on Santos's case, wrote that his client was willing to settle as the prevailing party for $7,069, plus attorney's fees.
Birdt wrote that he would pay Santos $7,000 to settle the case immediately, but English replied that Santos would accept the offer only if it included $40,000 in attorney's fees, according to the emails.
In another series of emails between Birdt and Maurer, in August, Birdt sent Maurer a copy of the initial complaint and expressed a d esire to settle outside of court.
Maurer rejected the offer, claiming Brachfeld had "no basis" for its allegations against the Law Center, according to the emails. He called the complaint "nonsense and clearly an attempt on your [Birdt's] part to leverage a more favorable settlement" for Brachfeld.
In reply, Birdt wrote that "this entire matter would end today" if Maurer would explain why he is entitled to collect attorneys' fees though he is not employed by a law firm.
Maurer replied: "The inner workings of the SCU and the KGACLC are none of your business. If you are going to sue, sue. Know that I will not respond to any further communications on this subject."
Birdt expressed frustration at Maurer's refusal to resolve the case.
"I've tried very hard to do the right thing. I've thrown money at them, but they won't even give a counteroffer," Birdt told Courthouse News.
"This has just been incredible, unlike anything I've ever dealt with before," he said. "I don't know what their motive is. When I've asked them to explain, they refuse to tell me why they are entitled to attorney's fees. It's very frustrating."
Brachfeld says in its complaint that it "has been forced to expend significant resources to protect itself from this illegal conduct."
Birdt estimated the costs are at least $15,000.
Brachfeld seeks a court order declaring that Santa Clara University is illegally practicing law, and that Maurer is illegally sharing attorney's fees with the university.
It also seeks damages for negligence, and disgorgement of attorney's fees.
Calls and emails to Scott Maurer seeking comment were not returned.