Paralegal complaint: Who gets it?
June 20, 2005 5:36 PM   Subscribe

I believe a paralegal I spoke with this afternoon was unethical and out of line. Where do I go to file a complaint against this person's actions?

This morning the paralegal called and left a message saying he needed to get in contact with Person A "who may or may not be related to you." Person A, it turns out, is related but lives about 600 miles away. The paralegal was calling in regards to a case involving Person A and wanted us to "urge him to call" the paralegal. Turns out Person A has a creditor filing suit against him and the paralegal handling the case started placing calls. He spoke with Person A's wife, but wouldn't address the situation and then called and left the message at my house. (No, we're not connected to the suit in any way.) When I called the lawyer's office back, the paralegal proceeded to rattle off part of Person A's SSN, phone and address when I asked to confirm if we were talking about the same person.

I was very surprised. First, why would he be calling us? Just because we have the same last name and it is unusual, thus easier to find? Second, should he be giving out so much information? If he should not have called or revealed so much over the phone, who do I contact to file complaint against this guy? I have his name and contact info so I'll be able to identify the specific firm employing him.
posted by onhazier to Law & Government (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations has something called the Model Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility and Guidelines for Enforcement, and you can find more about it here on their site.

Because of the organization name and the title of the code, I'm guessing this is a national umbrella organization and that there is a local Paralegal Association in your state that would (optionally) implement the model ethics code, or some equivalent. You should probably find said association for your state. Ah yes, from that same site, we have this list of member associations. It doesn't appear that every state has one, at least not one that's a member of this federation-thingy. Look for your state in this list, if you can't find it, google (for instance) "Idaho Paralegal Association" and see what you come up with. They should have a reporting process, and a corresponding malign neglect process, for ethics complaints such as yours (not that I'm jaded).
posted by rkent at 6:04 PM on June 20, 2005


Collection agencies go to great lengths -- often illegally great -- to collect debts. It's their business. They probably need to serve a notice on person A, and they're trying to find him/her more cheaply than by hiring an investigator to track him/her down.

There's no harm to you in the paralegal telling you person A's info, except perhaps if the paralegal won't stop calling you, makes threats, or something like that. However, it's possible that the paralegal is violating rules or laws, and that person A could do something about it.

You could file a complaint with the FTC, and you might want to notify the state bar of the state where the paralegal works. I don't think either of those actions will make much difference immediately, but if the paralegal or collection firm annoys enough people, then a bunch of complaints may make it more likely that the FTC or state bar will do something.
posted by spacewrench at 6:06 PM on June 20, 2005


I'm not sure that this paralegal has gone beyond the norm in debt collecting. As spacewrench said, debt collectors can go to great lengths, and it seems like all he did was call you up to see if you knew where person A was.. what else do you expect them to do in order to collect a debt?
posted by reverendX at 6:11 PM on June 20, 2005


spacewrench and reverendX, I mentioned in my initial post that the paralegal did speak with Person A's wife before calling my number. What I should have elaborated on a bit is that the paralegal knew he had the correct contact information and what time Person A could and would return his call today. So, why would he call someone in a different state "who may or may not be related"? Was he cold calling everyone in the country with our last name?

Sure, no harm was done to me when he revealed Person A's partial ssn, home phone and address. However, he didn't even know at that point if we were speaking of the same person. So, what if I wasn't the relative who would protect the information revealed to me?

rkent, thanks for the links! After reading the code of ethics, I am going to follow up on this because the paralegal didn't keep information confidential and never revealed that he is a paralegal to me. I learned his role when I spoke with Person A and wife later in the evening.
posted by onhazier at 6:34 PM on June 20, 2005


So, what if I wasn't the relative who would protect the information revealed to me?

So the deadbeat finds out the hard way that playing hardball with his debts will make his life bad even if he hides.

Yes, you could have stolen that info and done bad things with it. The paralegal won't care. The credit agency will be happy (more pressure = deadbeat more likely to crack). For all of them it's a sweet deal either way.

I doubt its illegal, either. I expect confidentiality is for the client only. And I assume the client gave the paralegal permission to disclose the info.

But you can always try! Good luck!
posted by shepd at 6:41 PM on June 20, 2005 [1 favorite]


For whatever it's worth, from your description it sounds like this paralegal did not necessarily do anything out of line. Tracking people down can be a tricky, dirty business. It's unfortunate you had to end up in the middle of it, but hopefully you can also see the paralegal's perspective as well -- he was doing his job.

If you feel strongly that a complaint is warranted, I would complain in the first instance to the paralegal's employer, which in this case sounds like a law firm. If you know the name of the supervising attorney handling this matter, write him or her a letter explaining what the paralegal did and why it was inappropriate. If you don't have that information, you might find the name of a senior lawyer on the firm's website, or you could always just send a letter to the firm c/o "Managing Partner."

If you receive a satisfactory response (e.g., an apology for the paralegal's conduct), you may feel that's enough and drop the matter. If you receive no response or an unsatisfactory response, you can try one of the avenues the other posters suggested.
posted by brain_drain at 6:42 PM on June 20, 2005


Person A might be able to file a complaint under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Note in particular section 804 and section 805 subsection (b).
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:13 PM on June 20, 2005


brain_drain's got it, and I speak from authority, being employed as a paralegal. Just talk to his boss, the attorney, and tell him or her what the paralegal did to which you objected. The NFPA, while a fine organization, doesn't really have much to do with this situation. I'm not even a member.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:20 AM on June 21, 2005


If the paralegal did not indicate to you that this was a debt collection effort, then he did not violate Person A's confidentiality. It sounds like you learned the nature of the interest in A from A's wife. No problems there.

It's when the collector/solicitor/whatever calls people and says, "we're trying to get in touch with A because he owes us money," that they're out of line with the law. The wife of A is exempt from this.
posted by yesster at 5:26 AM on June 21, 2005


Are paralegals licensed? Is there any penalty for misrepresenting yourself as a paralegal? Could the caller be just some joker at a collection agency who's too smart to say he's a lawyer (which I believe is illegal if he's not one), but still wants to be all scary and lawyer-ish?

I believe the confidentiality that onhazier is concerned about is the giving of his relative's idntifying information to a (possibly) total stranger, not the fact that there's a debt-collection going on. I would say that giving out that identity- information is a violation of confidentiality.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:46 AM on June 21, 2005


OK, according to a list of licensed professions that jessamyn posted on another thread, only Georgia licenses paralegals, at least under that title.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:53 AM on June 21, 2005


I would say that giving out that identity- information is a violation of confidentiality.

It's tricky-- how do you specify whom you're talking about without revealing confidential information? onhazier said that the paralegal recited "part of" the person's information, which sounds perfectly legitimate to me. Saying, "I'm trying to get in touch with John Smith of 123 Main Street, Owings Mills, Maryland, 21117," is risky. Saying "I'm trying to get in touch with John Smith of 123 Main Street" strikes me as just fine.

And for what it's worth, there's nothing special about paralegals. With the apparent exception of Georgia, it's just a job title that means an assistant to an attorney. It requires no licensing and does not convey the authority to offer legal advice. According to Bar regulations, attorneys are fully responsible for the actions of their paralegals.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:00 AM on June 21, 2005


I also want to point out that a well-functioning debt-collection system is essential for our consumer credit system.

A contact once every few years with someone trying to collect someone else's debt is a very small price to pay for having access to more, and easier credit, than pretty much anyone else at any point in human history...
posted by MattD at 6:29 AM on June 21, 2005


The paralegal rattled off part of Person A's ssn and all of his home address and phone number. Keep in mind, the guy knew he had the correct info. He had spoken to Person A's wife. She let him know what time Person A would return home from work and have an opportunity to call. So, why, oh why, would the paralegal need to call us? Especially since he didn't know if we were relatives or not.
posted by onhazier at 6:50 AM on June 21, 2005


IANAL

I suspect this kind of thing happens a lot.

Ratting off a person's SS# to an unknown third party sounds very problematic to me (though difficult to prove, since we're talking about a phone call). Access to this information in our corporate HR database, for example, is highly restricted by some Privacy Act.

That said, I don't think the firm in question gives a rat's ass about your privacy concern, and anything you do will be denied vehemently and fruitless.

True story: A friend of mine went to Sleepy's to buy a mattress. Knowing that I had gotten a good mattress there earlier that summer, he tried to suss out the model from the sales guy. Said sales person went to his computer and, based on my name, showed my friend my entire file, unsolicited. I went to the store to complain, and the guy I spoke to immediately insulted me, insulted my mother, and wanted "to take it outside". The security guard intervened at that point. Subsequent calls to their corporate HQ went unheeded. Don't ever buy from them.

A contact once every few years with someone trying to collect someone else's debt is a very small price to pay for having access to more, and easier credit, than pretty much anyone else at any point in human history...

I, and many others, would argue that "having access to more, and easier credit, than pretty much anyone else at any point in human history" isn't necessarily a good thing, as it encourages people to live beyond their means. But I digress more than usual...
posted by mkultra at 9:43 AM on June 21, 2005


Faint of Butt is right... NFPA and NALA are, I believe, the only two national paralegal organizations and there is no requirement that a paralegal belong to either one. They are good for networking and resume-building but they carry no authority. The paralegal's supervising attorney, however, is responsible for the actions of the paralegal, and held accountable. Considering the consequences an attorney can suffer for professional wrongdoing or missteps (malpractice suits, disbarrment), a call to this paralegal's supervisor is not likely to be ignored. Of course, it may only result in a reprimand to the paralegal, but that's really all that may be required.
posted by amro at 10:07 AM on June 21, 2005


"when I asked to confirm if we were talking about the same person..."

...then the person on the phone provided the information. You solicited the personal information from the person on the phone. I don't see any problem here.
posted by mischief at 11:53 AM on June 21, 2005


I don't see any problem here.

Says the Ayn Randian, in whose perfect world no-one would have any rights.
posted by goethean at 3:05 PM on June 21, 2005


Here's why I think it could be a problem:

I worked with a guy I will call John Brown. When we worked together, he was several years into trying to get out from under another John Brown in a neighboring state, who was continuing to incur debt and assign it to my co-worker.

So now we see this alleged paralegal phoning someone whose last name is the same as his collection target's, then supplying that person with some amount of identifying information on the target. Let's suppose that one of the people the paralegal calls is not a relative, but is an identity thief. Having the same name makes theft so much easier, especially when he's got a bunch if the target's identity handed to him.

You may say onhazier "solicited the personal information from the person on the phone," but that doesn't mean that the person on the phone should give it out.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:05 PM on June 21, 2005


Says the Ayn Randian, in whose perfect world no-one would have any rights.

There aren't rights, there's only wrongs.
posted by shepd at 5:25 PM on June 21, 2005


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