On the verge of 75, Caroline Pennington found herself starting all over again.
After a lifetime of hard work and solo parenting, the former marketing executive was looking forward to a comfortable retirement until she fell victim to an investment scam that wiped out her half-million-dollar nest egg.
“It was no different than Bernie Madoff, although it wasn’t Madoff,” she said.
Pennington struggled to stay afloat for as long as she could, relying on Social Security and credit cards to pay for basic necessities after she lost a part-time job and her unemployment compensation ran out.
“I tried paying off the credit cards as much as I could, right to the very end, Pennington said. “I am very honest, and I will give my last cent to do what I have to do that’s right, up until I can’t do it anymore.”
Fearing she would end up on the street, Pennington turned to Dade Legal Aid for help in filing bankruptcy. There she met with staff attorney Annika Miranda, a bankruptcy lawyer with Dade Legal Aid’s “Put Something Back” program. Miranda’s position was initially supported through a $25,500 Pilot Pro Bono grant from The Florida Bar Foundation in 2010-11, with ongoing support from the Bankruptcy Bar Association. The Florida Bar Foundation also provided Dade Legal Aid with a $387,412 general support grant in 2011-12, which helps fund the organization’s operations. More than 1,000 lawyers contributed a total of 19,257 hours through the “Put Something Back” program in 2011.
Miranda matched Pennington with pro bono attorney Dorothy Negrin, whose solo practice includes bankruptcy law, real estate and commercial litigation.
“I helped her with actually filing the bankruptcy and getting the discharge she needed to get a fresh start,” Negrin said. The case was resolved in just a few months, thanks not only to Negrin’s prompt attention — “She went like fire, boom, boom, boom, Pennington said — but also to Pennington’s diligent follow-through.
“She was very good. She had all the documents together,” Negrin said. “It was a really good feeling being able to help her out because I knew she needed the help and was happy with the assistance that she got.”
In all, Negrin invested 19 hours in the case, hours for which Pennington is exceedingly grateful.
“My whole life has changed since the bankruptcy,” Pennington said. “I am no longer harassed.”
Pennington said the constant calls from creditors had left her feeling as though she had no way to move forward.
“You can’t think when you have that kind of pressure on you. You never know what’s coming at you from which way,” she said. “You have to be creative to rebuild, to overcome the psychological effect of going broke completely, nearly going into the street after having a decent life.”
For now, Pennington lives with her 41-year-old daughter, a high school reading teacher. But she wants to get her own place so that they can each have their own lives. She is picking up jobs such as tutoring and assisting with marketing projects to supplement her Social Security. Her goal is to live to be 110 and never quit applying herself to overcoming what happened to her.
“I have a whole life to live, and now that I have another chance that’s what I’ll do,” she said. “Look where I’d be now. I’d probably be very depressed. I’d probably be in a hospital. It can knock you out. It can kill you, that kind of pressure.”
Negrin, who worked for more than 20 years as a computer engineer before going to law school in the evenings at the University of Miami, has done pro bono work since she graduated in 2003.
She has taken on cases as varied as serving as an Attorney ad Litem for an infant and helping a mentally disabled man with his immigration status. She looks carefully at each case before deciding she is well-qualified to take it on, but she also finds that the court, legal aid organizations and other lawyers are always willing to help when they know she is handling a case pro bono.
“I consider myself pretty lucky in life so I like to give back, even if it’s only a small amount,” Negrin said. “It’s one case. There are thousands of attorneys in Florida. If everyone took on one case, I’m sure there wouldn’t be that much of a need.”
Pennington would love to see more attorneys follow Negrin’s example.
“I think there need to be many more lawyers like Dorothy Negrin, an exemplary bankruptcy lawyer,” Pennington said. “And she got joy from doing it. And I think there are many more lawyers who would enjoy lending that knowledge and helping people.”