We must ensure our 9/11 first responders are protected — they acted to protect us
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It sounds odd to express happiness over being sued. There are, however, situations where being sued shows that you are fighting for justice and what is right. That was the position I found myself in when I was sued by a predatory lending company that was targeting 9/11 survivors.

Just recently, the New York State attorney general and the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) accused a third-party lending company, RD Legal, of fraud and predatory business practices.

It was the latest twist in a saga that began because former New York City Police Officer Elmer Santiago was forced to retire due to severe lung disease he developed as a result of exposure to the toxic dust at the World Trade Center site following the 9/11 attacks on our nation.

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It was the same disease that took the life of another of my clients, NYPD Officer James Zadroga, for whom the federal Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act is named, and to whom the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) is dedicated.

 

The Zadroga Act was originally enacted in 2011 with a five-year expiration date. In 2015, the topic of extending healthcare coverage and compensation for injured 9/11 victims was heavily debated in Congress and the media. In December 2015, Congress reauthorized the Zadroga Health & Compensation Act. Healthcare coverage was extended through 2090 and compensation was extended through 2020.   

In 2014, the VCF awarded Mr. Santiago compensation for his injuries and future lost income. At the time, he had been forced into retirement and, with no income, was in dire financial straits, living out of the back of his Jeep, his family sleeping on friends’ couches. As part of the normal VCF protocol, Mr. Santiago had to wait until 2016 to receive his federal compensation.

Desperate to provide his family with a home and relocate to an environment that eased his chronic breathing problems, Mr. Santiago utilized his federal VCF award letter as collateral for a loan from that third-party lender and purchased a modest home in Florida.

The lender gave the disabled former police officer a $355,000 loan at 19 percent interest, an unusually high rate, especially given that his collateral was backed by the most secure entity known, the United States Treasury. However, due to his family’s dire financial straits, Mr. Santiago agreed to those arduous terms.

Eighteen months later he received his full VCF award payment. He was shocked to discover that RD Legal was demanding not just the $355,000 he had borrowed but an additional $505,000 in interest. This amounted to an outrageous interest rate of 67 percent. While I am certainly not an expert in banking laws, this appeared to be financial usury.  

On Mr. Santiago’s behalf, I repaid RD Legal the $355,000 principal it had given Mr. Santiago, but I refused to pay any interest without the approval of the NYS attorney general and the Department of Justice, which administers both the CFPB and the VCF. When I told RD Legal that I was blowing the whistle on them, it sued both Mr. Santiago and my firm. Never has being sued felt so good!

Thankfully, both the New York AG and CFPB were willing to investigate. Apparently, Mr. Santiago was just one of many 9/11 responders who was victimized by this lending company. Just last week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office and the CFPB were commencing suit against RD Legal, alleging predatory lending to 9/11 victims and to sick, retired NFL players awaiting concussion litigation settlements.

I am honored to have represented NYPD Detective Zadroga, as well as some 10,000 other sick 9/11 first responders, local residents and office workers. I have worked closely with all three VCF special masters: Kenneth Feinberg, Sheila Birnbaum and its current leader, Rupa Bhattacharyya. Both the first VCF, created in 2001, and the Zadroga VCF created in 2011 have been staffed by incredibly professional and dedicated public servants. They work tirelessly to ensure that those whose lives were altered by the attacks are treated with respect and dignity.

The recent actions we take in union with the New York attorney general and the CFPB are no less critical. These first responders answered the call when our nation and New York City needed them. Though no fault of their own, they became ill. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has linked 68 cancers to the WTC toxins. Thanks to the Zadroa Act, both houses of Congress and the president showed their support. I am delighted that other governmental entities continue to look out for our first responders who were victimized on 9/11. They shouldn’t be victims again.      

Let’s hope that Attorney General Schneiderman and CFPB Director Richard Cordray win justice for them.

 

Michael Barasch is an attorney and managing partner at Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson.  His law firm has over 36 years of experience representing injured NYC firefighters. The firm has represented more 9/11 victims before the Victim Compensation Fund than any other firm in the country.  In 1997, he was appointed to the Urban Justice Center’s Board of Directors, an organization that represents battered women, runaway youths, disabled veterans, the mentally ill and the homeless.  


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