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Victoria attorney honored for poverty law work

By Jessica Priest
June 27, 2014 at 1:27 a.m.
Updated June 28, 2014 at 1:28 a.m.

Christina Trejo said she has the best job in the world, assisting others who can't afford expensive legal help. Trejo, an attorney with the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, won the impact award from the poverty law section of the state bar that will have an effect on the Fair Debt Collection and Practices Act.

Christina Trejo

• Began practicing in 1997

• Earned her law degree at the University of Texas

• Began working at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in 2001, began working at the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid's Victoria office in June 2012

• Has two children, ages 3 and 10

More information

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has grant writers and receives funding from donors. Private attorneys are also required to keep their retainers in an account. Interest generated on those accounts is given to the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, which doles it out to legal aids.

Typically, a family of four must not make more than $28,850 to receive help. Sometimes, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid has special grants, or a client's circumstances may permit it to provide services without regard to income.

Application number: 1-888-988-9996

Address: 6502 Nursery Drive, Suite 302, Victoria

Hours: 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday

8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Friday

The State Bar of Texas recently honored a Victoria attorney for her work protecting impoverished people from debt collectors.

Christina Trejo of the nonprofit Texas RioGrande Legal Aid was one of only a handful of people who received the Impact Award at the association's annual meeting June 19.

Trejo and Michael E. Urena, a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney based in Eagle Pass, noticed a debt collector was filing multiple lawsuits in a Harris County justice court on people who lived as much as 600 miles away.

Filing a suit not in the county where the debtor lives or not in a county where the contract was executed violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

The debtors also ran into another problem when they were served with the lawsuit more than a year after it was filed.

That was after the statute of limitations expired for them to sue the debt collector for violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Although Trejo and Urena lost their case in federal court in Houston, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans sided with them.

Now, the one year statute of limitations begins to run after the debtor is served with the case, not after it is filed.

"We vindicated and promoted this guy's rights," she said of their San Antonio client, "and by doing so, created case law that helps everybody else and protects them from the same abuse."

Trejo talked with the Victoria Advocate on Friday about why working for the underdog is so rewarding.

Why work for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid? Did you ever open your own practice?

I love this work. I did do private practice briefly, and I hated it because you can't represent people unless they are paying you, and I could never bear to leave someone unrepresented if they didn't have any money. I still have clients who send me Christmas cards after 10 years. They find me on Facebook. There was one woman who - God bless her, I don't know how she moved her hands - knitted a beautiful blanket for my son. There's no salary that could equal that kind of connection.

How did you become a lawyer?

I was a jailer before I went to law school in El Paso, where I am from. When I was a jailer, I took the LSAT and did pretty well. I've always been told since I was a little kid that I argued too much. I thought maybe that was my calling.

You are the only Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney currently in Victoria. What is your workload like?

It is hard to gauge cases. If I give a number, it doesn't necessarily reflect how much work is going on. Litigated cases are pretty time-consuming. Right now, I think I have probably 35 cases, and it's hard to divvy up my time. On top of that, Esther Salazar and I do the pro se clinic. She's a huge help. I wouldn't be able to do it without her, but those are great because every time we do that, we divorce over 20 people. It's a good deal.

What are some legal matters you see people get confused about the most?

People in general are confused the most about divorces. The thing that all attorneys see - not just legal aid - are people who have misinformation. They get told this or that by a friend or by family members who have maybe been through a divorce, so they come in here with pretty wild ideas. One idea is that you can just get a court order saying the other parent has no visitation. That just doesn't happen. Sometimes, when younger people want to do wills, they say that they want to leave their kids to so and so. You have to explain to them that kids are not property to be left. Anyone who had a part in putting their DNA together is going to get first dibs on the kids.

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