Marquis Jones remembers Peter Holland clearly. He's the lawyer whose work, with his law clinic students, led to the dismissal of a claim against her — a credit card debt she said she knew nothing about.
"If it hadn't been for Peter and his team, I have no idea what would have happened," the Severn woman recalled, saying a debt-buying company had the wrong person and claimed it served the legal papers on her spouse. She's not married.
But unlike Jones, most of those who've benefited from Holland's consumer advocacy never met him. Few of them know that in December he will receive an award for his legal work from the Maryland Legal Services Corp.
Holland is among six award recipients of the agency, which raises money and makes grants to nonprofit organizations for providing legal help to low-income state residents.
"I'm really honored. And I'm really humbled," Holland said, noting that his work has been done with other lawyers in and outside Maryland.
An Annapolis attorney specializing in consumer law, Holland has been a lawyer in recent years for thousands of Marylanders in class-action lawsuits alleging improper handling of collection efforts by debt-buying companies.
He said more than 10,000 claims against individuals by debt-buying companies were dismissed or declared satisfied because of Holland's advocacy. His work also led Maryland courts to tighten requirements for companies seeking judgments against individuals in small-claims collection cases.
"He has really been in the forefront of transforming the debt collection practice. It has an impact on tens of thousands of people, many of whom are poor people," said Susan Ehrlichmann, executive director of MSLC, calling Holland "visionary."
The sour economy has led to courts being flooded with debt cases.
"The key to what Peter Holland did with those class-action suits, he was able to get behind the documents to show what the schemes were. As a result of that, we were able to develop new rules which require more documentation of the debt," said Ben C. Clyburn, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, where tens of thousands of such cases filed annual are filed annually.
"I think I have dismissed about 15,000 cases in the past 18 months," Clyburn said.
Holland was the lead attorney or otherwise involved in the lion's share of those, he said.
Debt-buying companies purchase past-due debt from credit-holders for a fraction of the sum on the books and pursue the alleged debtors. But the documentation and service of court summonses have been sketchy in many cases and people have been harassed, Holland said.
Nationally, there has been a push for reforms. Debt-buyers have said that problems are the exception, not the rule.
Michael Millemann, Holland's former law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, where both attorneys now teach full time, called Holland "one of the best consumer lawyers in Maryland," saying his work in consumer debt collection law is nationally known.
Holland, 49, got his start in consumer cases a few years after graduating from law school in 1992 and working for a lawyer in general practice.
"I got a new refrigerator for a guy," he said.
That drew him into a career in which he's helped Marylanders who fell victim to predatory mortgages, were wrongly pursued over alleged loans, had their Social Security benefits invaded by debt collectors, and suffered similar problems. Often those people can't afford a lawyer or can't find one who will take a case about a $1,000 debt, he said.
"Lawyers don't think you can make money doing this," Holland said.
But a variety of laws allow attorneys successful in such cases to win fees from the other side, sometimes in separate lawsuits.
"His whole work is really directed toward protecting consumers. He has really directed his practice and teaching to protecting the vulnerable, and yet lets the private practitioner earn a living," said Pamela Cardullo Ortiz, executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, who nominated Holland for the Arthur W. Machen Jr. Award.
Holland has taught more than 200 practicing lawyers how to take on those cases, instructs law students and runs the debt collection clinic for law students at the university.
"I want to train the next — the first — generation of full-time consumer lawyers," he said.
"There aren't enough guys like Peter," said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.