Carlene McNulty likes a good fight.
Inside dozens of accordion files that crowd the bookcases, desk and floor of her Raleigh office are the stories of near-desperate North Carolinians facing foreclosures, evictions and spiraling debts. McNulty goes to battle for them against businesses that she believes have flouted the law to turn a profit.
McNulty, 51, has spent 25 years picking, defending and often winning fights with corporations and businesses on behalf of low-income consumers.
As a senior consumer protection litigator with the N.C. Justice Center, an anti-poverty group where she has worked since 1996, McNulty has been in the middle of the some of the state's most contentious battles over financial regulations and consumer issues.
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She has helped push predatory lenders out of the state, and she fought to make it possible for low-income children to visit dentists near their homes. She has picked apart hundreds of fine-print foreclosure filings with lenders who sought unfair advantage over poor clients.
Choosing which problems to pursue is the hard part.
"We try to find the practices that are most abusive," McNulty said. "It's really hard to do. There are so many abuses."
Recently McNulty has focused her attention on foreclosure issues, debt collection and arbitration agreements, which put consumers in an alternative resolution system viewed by critics as tilting unfairly in favor of their business adversaries.
McNulty is steadfast in her belief that her clients are the ones in the right, victims of unscrupulous businesses.
"The facts are always on my clients' side," McNulty said. "The law a lot of the time is. And if it's not, it should be."
She mentors younger public interest lawyers and recruits private attorneys to take on cases for free. Her reputation as a tireless defender of working-class and the poor stretches to national circles.
"She's rock solid and just an incredible advocate on behalf of low-income people," said Jane Perkins of the National Health Law Program, based in Chapel Hill. "She's one of those people out there that just amazes me."
Perkins worked with McNulty in a lawsuit against the state seeking assurances that the children on Medicaid could have dental care, an issue in poor or rural communities where dentists said the state wasn't paying them enough to accept them as patients. Some families had no choice but to drive to Chapel Hill from distant corners of the state, sleeping overnight in parking lots to wait for service at a state dental facility.
McNulty quickly earned the trust of affected families, sometimes traveling from one end of North Carolina to the other in a day's time to meet with them during the years-long fight. The case bounced around the federal trial and appellate courts until a favorable settlement was reached in 2003.
At first glance, McNulty doesn't come across as the relentless legal force described by her admirers. Her demeanor leans toward quiet, and she's hesitant to talk about herself.
But she's a fierce contender, said Mal Maynard, director of Wilmington's nonprofit Financial Protection Law Center. He calls McNulty a moral compass who solves her clients' problems without losing sight of how their cases will affect public policy.
"She's a very quiet warrior," Maynard said. "People will make a terrible mistake if they underestimate her."
Ulet Alexander knows that first-hand. The 67-year-old Raleigh woman and her husband, Claude, were in danger of losing their split-level Brentwood-area home several years ago.
It was their first house. The thought of being pushed out sent Ulet Alexander into a deep depression, unable to eat.
Then McNulty took their case.
"When she started working on it, she said, 'I'm not going to let them get away with it,' " Alexander said.
She recalled walking into courtroom with McNulty, on crutches at the time, and seeing the dismissive looks of the two lawyers they were up against, their suits fancy and imposing.
But then McNulty spoke. As Alexander tells it, everyone in the courtroom started listening.
"She sat there and held her own," Alexander said.
The Alexanders were able to stay in their home. McNulty is still helping them negotiate a reduction in the monthly payments they make from the wages Claude earns polishing hospital floors.
"If Carlene and the Justice Center hadn't gotten us out of this, we'd probably be in a one-bedroom somewhere renting," Alexander said. "I will never be able to say thank you enough."
Alexander has thought about how she might, though.
When her daydreams drift to thoughts of winning the lottery, she begins planning how she would buy McNulty a trip around the world, complete with stays in luxury spas and daily massages.
It would be a chance for McNulty to be taken care of, Alexander said, as thanks for McNulty taking care of her.