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Penn Law alumnus Frank White L’16 uses fellowship to combat predatory lending in auto industry

The Hampton Roads area of Virginia doesn’t have strong public transportation. People need cars to gain access to jobs, and for low-wage workers and the working poor, that often means purchasing a car financed through the sub-prime lending market.

These workers frequently end up the targets of unfair and predatory lending practices, which can cause them to end up with a car that doesn’t run, putting their jobs in jeopardy.

But with the support of an Equal Justice Works Fellowship, Penn Law graduate Frank White L’16 is fighting these practices. Based out of the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia, White serves an area that includes many rural counties, along with the three largest cities in Virginia, and he is focused on combating predatory lending and fraud in the auto industry.

“It is a sad reality that some businesses prey upon those who can least afford it, said Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean for Public Interest Programs and Executive Director of the Toll Public Interest Center. “Frank has identified a critical need in the Hampton Roads community that is a game changer for people who are simply trying to support their families.”

“Frank is a strong advocate who is working with low-wage workers to stand up to unscrupulous business owners and hold them accountable,” she added. “His powerful, community and client-centered advocacy makes Penn Law proud, and makes such a difference in the lives of his clients and in the well-being of the community.”

A car is one way for low-income workers and the working poor to pull themselves out of poverty in the sprawling Hampton Roads area, White explained. They can travel from low-wage areas to high-wage areas and make multiple trips in a day.

Car dealers, however, often make misrepresentations about the condition and nature of their vehicles. When someone purchases a car, it can either break down or need major maintenance, and dealers balk at refunds.

Because White’s clients often finance their cars, they then end up paying for a vehicle that they aren’t able to drive, which can lead to them losing their jobs.

White comes in at various stages of this process. If a client comes to him early, he can often interview the client quickly and communicate to the car dealer to undo the transaction and get any down payment back for the client.

But other times, he ends up on the back end of the transaction, where a client is stuck with inoperable vehicle, and they’ve tried to negotiate with the car dealer. In those cases, White files a lawsuit on the client’s behalf in order to get them their money back or receive whatever remedies the law allows.

“Typically, what ends up happening in this situation is that my client ends up being taken a lot more seriously because they’ve filed a lawsuit and they’ve gotten an attorney who will actually take some kind of affirmative legal action,” he said.

Often what happens, he added, is that he’s contacted by opposing counsel — who is looking to settle as quickly as possible.

While at Penn Law, White had an internship at the housing unit at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, where he saw the unfair and predatory practices taking place in the mortgage industry. He made the connection that the same types of activities were happening in the auto industry in his hometown.

“One thing that really stuck out to me was the fact that this work is at the intersection of civil rights and consumer rights,” he said.

White noted that the most influential class he took at Penn Law was Advanced Torts with Professor Regina Austin L’73. The course taught him that it’s not enough to know the law, he explained, you have to know the context in which the law operates, which means knowing how people struggle to live within and outside of the law’s contours.

“That course had a profound impact on me because it reminded me to not only use the law as a tool,” he said, “but to look beyond the law to see the underlying problems that individuals and vulnerable populations face.”

In his work, he sees that often the targets of this predatory behavior in the auto industry are minorities, particularly women of color.

“It’s very hard to hear clients express their vulnerabilities and feel like their status is a basis for discrimination or some type of unfair or predatory practice,” he said.

“Sometimes,” he added, “the most important thing that I can offer my clients is simply to listen to them and make them feel like the attorney-client relationship is an interaction of respect. I hope that my attempts at mutual respect show my clients that they matter and that they are deserving of justice.”