Their Voice in the System
How Vildan Teske defends the rights of U.S. military service members
Published in 2020 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine
on July 20, 2020
Updated on July 22, 2020
In 2013, the National Association of Consumer Advocates reached out to Vildan Teske, asking if she would testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about the impact of forced arbitration on consumers’ and service members’ rights. The request came shortly after she had represented a member of the military whose home was being foreclosed on as he deployed. The lender was in clear violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which provides foreclosure protection to those on active duty.
It wasn’t just this lender, though. Teske found that the practice was more common than she’d expected. “These laws have been on the books for 100-plus years, so financial institutions should be very familiar with them and know exactly what they need to do,” says Teske, whose practice focuses on consumer class actions. “When we had a surge in deployments and more and more of our reservists being called up to active duty, a lot of national and regional lenders and other creditors were not doing what they needed to do.”
She filed the case as a class action on behalf of her client and other service members who’d had their homes foreclosed on. “But it couldn’t go forward because of a provision in some of the closing paperwork that required the case be arbitrated, which also said it could not be brought as a class action,” says Teske.
In the end, Teske negotiated a settlement on the service member’s behalf. “However, if he had the opportunity to have his case tried in front of a jury, I have no doubt that he would have been able to do better,” she says.
Results like this—in which consumers are denied their day in court—are precisely what brought her before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It was a very powerful experience to go through, sitting there at that table, talking directly to senators about what my clients are facing out there, and the fact that they can’t get into court on these issues and bring them to light,” she says. “Whenever there’s a contract with a forced arbitration provision, and a violation of consumer laws takes place, it makes it harder—or even impossible—for consumers to band together in a class action.”
Teske, a partner at Teske, Katz, Kitzer & Rochel in Minneapolis, took on her first case on behalf of a service member in 2007. It solidified a passion for helping U.S. military members wrestling with the system while fighting for their country.
Since then, she says, “we’ve had a number of other clients referred to us, and then we’ve also had direct contact from service members,” says Teske, who developed the firm’s class action practice alongside her partner, Marisa Katz. “The more I looked into these issues, the more I learned about the struggles that the families of service members were going through, the more I wanted to do as much as I and our firm could do to help them.
“Our motivation is to stand up for the little guy and to stand up for the working families who are already struggling,” she adds. “Giving them a voice in our justice system is essential.”
In 2012’s Olson v. Citibank, Teske brokered a $2.35 million settlement for service members after alleging Citibank had failed to follow the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act in regards to student loans. Victories like that make it easier to keep pushing forward.
“One of the best things,” Teske says, “is when you get a letter or an email from a service member saying, ‘I just received this substantial check in the mail, and I knew there was something that wasn’t quite right being done, but I wasn’t sure. I’m so glad to see that you took this particular company to task over it.’”
It’s no surprise Teske wants to look out for the underdog. When her family moved to the U.S. from the Middle East when she was 10 years old, they had “less than $1,000 in their pockets,” she says. “We were part of a persecuted ethnic and religious minority in southeastern Turkey, Assyrian Christian. My parents worked incredibly hard to put food on the table and shelter over our head, and our family did everything that they could to become successful. I identify with working families who are trying to make ends meet. I identify with the little guy.”
So What Happened in the Senate?
The Arbitration Fairness Act sought to end forced arbitration in consumer, employment and service member matters, making arbitration available if both parties agreed to it voluntarily at the time of the dispute. But it did not make it out of the Senate. “Large corporations, financial institutions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbied against it,” Teske says.
Similar bills followed, and suffered similar fates. “After years of studying the issue, in 2017 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a rule banning forced arbitration in consumer financial contracts. But unfortunately it was overturned by one vote in the Senate, so it never went into effect. The rule would have restored consumers’ right to access justice within our public court system rather than being forced into a private arbitration system where consumers are at a distinct disadvantage against large corporations who are repeat players,” says Teske.
“The fight to end forced arbitration for consumers, service members and employees continues on today, and I’m hopeful that we will see some changes as more and more of the public hears about how unfair a system it is.”