November 3, 2011

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Protecting, advocating for Ohio's consumers

Linda Cook ’87 has spent her entire career in legal aid. Now, as a senior attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, she focuses on consumer rights by advocating for change and protection on a statewide level.

Cook started her career with Southeastern Ohio Legal Services in Chillicothe. She worked her way up to a managing attorney in the direct-service office. Because it was a rural program, attorneys had to be generalists in order to handle the variety of cases. However, Cook always was interested in consumer law.

“In Chillicothe, I pretty much litigated on a case-by-case basis. While you can affect change with litigation for your client population, it seemed like the Ohio Poverty Law Center provided an opportunity where I could do much more policy advocacy and play a part in more systemic changes,” Cook said.

Specifically, she works with the Legislature to strengthen consumer rights, change the ways the system operates, and lobbies against changes that would undermine the rights consumers in Ohio currently have.

For example, there is a bill in the Ohio House of Representatives that would change the remedies section of Ohio’s main consumer protection statute. Under the proposal, after a consumer files suit, businesses could offer money or goods and services to make the consumer whole. Should the consumer decline, go to trial, and fail to recover more than the cure offer, the consumer would not receive costs, attorney fees would be capped, and damages would not be trebled.

If the bill passes, Cook said, it would undercut Ohio’s Consumer Sales Practices Act and create a “race to the bottom” in business.

“When the statute was adopted 40-plus years ago, it balanced the interests of consumers, supported fair business practices, and deterred unfair and deceptive practices. I’m not suggesting all businesses are deceptive, but changing the balance lowers the cost of bad business,” she said.

Cook is working with a group of consumer advocates to fight the proposal. They will meet with the bill’s sponsors to find out what problems they are trying to address and share their own concerns about upsetting the balance in the CSPA. Then, Cook said they will talk with committee members, listen to testimony in support of the bill, and formulate their own testimony in opposition.

“Engaging in the legislative process is a complicated field. You try to find out who your allies are and get groups who represent the people who will be adversely affected to voice the concern with you,” she said.

Cook has worked on other initiatives as well, helping to found the Ohio Coalition for Responsible Lending and serving as the statewide coordinator of the Ohio Foreclosure Project. The latter has helped more than 12,000 homeowners in Ohio, from giving them advice to representing them in court to negotiating loan modifications and more.

Initially, a majority of foreclosures dealt with subprime loans. When a client walked into a legal aid office, attorneys would immediately look for the tell-tale signs: adjustable rates, falsified applications, rushes to close, and balloon payments. Following the burst of the housing bubble, Ohio peaked at a record 89,053 foreclosures in 2009, Cook said.

There were approximately 15,000 foreclosures filed in the second quarter of 2011, she said. While the rate is slowing, the sheer number shows foreclosures continue to be a problem in Ohio. Most of the clients seeking help now are those who had fixed-rate loans that made sense at the time. Many mortgage servicers, who are supposed to try customers modify their loans under state and federal programs, still fail to follow up in all cases though.

“Even after you have finalized the loan modification, lenders still can’t get people’s accounts corrected. It’s going to be years before this is cleaned up,” Cook said.

She jokes that one could call her a bleeding heart, but Cook takes seriously her role in protecting the rights and advocating on behalf of low-income Ohioans.

“The people with the least amount to lose are the most targeted by scams and unfair practices. I’ve never quite understood that, but that is the way it goes. Low-income people already have fewer choices in the marketplace, and the equation between consumers and businesses is pretty unequal anyway,” she said.

“I really do think you have an obligation to contribute to the betterment of society and help those who do not have a voice.”

This article was written by Monica DeMeglio.

SideBar is a monthly electronic newsletter for Moritz College of Law alumni. Questions regarding this publication should be directed to moritzlawnews@osu.edu.