Big banks and debt collectors buy favor with legislatures and judges

This article might make you a little queasy about the state of justice in our country.
In Debt Collecting, Location Matters
Here is an excerpt:


Companies such as Encore Capital Group Inc. and Portfolio Recovery Associates Inc. buy pools of bad loans at steep discounts, then try to collect on them. They begin by determining which states give them the greatest latitude to seize assets from borrowers who haven’t paid up.

Brokers for distressed debt say investors like states such as Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey, where laws permit them to seize assets such as cars, pension payments and a portion of debtors’ wages. Consequently, they try to buy loan pools from those states.

Brokers say investors shy away from buying bad debt from some other states [that are more debtor friendly, like Texas and California].

Debt collectors regard Indiana as friendly territory. If a debt collector wins in court, nearly all of a creditor’s assets can be pursued for payment, including real estate, pension payments and cars, which are off-limits in many other states

Jeff Bennett, who oversees the Warren Township court’s budget and staff, says township courts depend on filing fees of $81 per case to fund a chunk of their operations. He says that creates a “perverse incentive” for judges and their staffs to be “accommodating” to collectors.

Pike Township’s Judge Stephens says debt collectors often choose the court where they expect to recoup the most money. His court is the second-busiest in Marion County, with 8,200 cases filed last year and 2,731 filed through April of this year, according to court officials. “I’m pretty much the insurance-company judge,” he says, noting that suits filed by insurance companies account for about 20% of his caseload.

Judge Stephens allows lawyers for companies trying to collect debts to use cubicles next to his courtrooms to hash out payment plans with debtors in lieu of bringing their cases before the court. The judge doesn’t supervise the meetings—the law doesn’t require him to do so—and nearly all of the borrowers come to court without lawyers of their own.


Such settlement meetings occur in several other township courts as well. Debtors sometimes agree to make debt payments using income that is protected from seizure by state law, such as unemployment or disability payments, according to Garland Graves, the judge in Warren Township, who says he doesn’t allow unsupervised settlement meetings. Many defendants make concessions without knowing their rights, he says.

Judge Stephens responds: “I am under no obligation to tell someone how to defend themselves. ”

The court in Decatur Township also arranges unsupervised meetings. When defendants arrive, they often are told to sit in the courtroom until their names are called. They are called one at a time to meet with debt-collection lawyers, according to court employees. No judge is present.

Jeff Cook, an unemployed plumber, had a closed-door meeting earlier this year with a lawyer for Med Shield Inc., which collects debts for some of Indiana’s largest nonprofit hospitals and outpatient clinics. He says he agreed to allow Med Shield to tap his unemployment benefits to cover a $651 emergency-room bill. He found out later that debt collectors have no legal right in Indiana to seize unemployment checks to satisfy a verdict in a lawsuit.

Decatur Township Judge William L. Fisher Jr. didn’t return calls seeking comment. Med Shield declined to comment.

Decatur Township has become the preferred courthouse for lawyers who collect soured debt on behalf of medical providers, according to Pam Ricker, who has managed the court’s operations for more than 25 years. The township has no hospitals.

Ms. Ricker says a lack of public transportation in Decatur Township discourages many defendants from showing up in court, resulting in automatic wins for debt collectors.

“We certainly have our loyal attorneys,” said Ms. Ricker. The court provides lawyers with coffee in a break room and a fax machine for their clerical needs.

Of the 106 Med Shield cases scheduled to be handled by the court one day in February, just three involved defendants who lived in the township, according to an analysis of court records by The Wall Street Journal.

Some township judges are uncomfortable with appearing too accommodating to debt collectors. Last year, Judge Steven Poore of Washington Township barred lawyers from meeting privately with defendants. He says he was worried that the court looked like “an arm of the debt collectors.” He now reviews all debt-collection settlements. The number of debt-collection suits filed in Washington Township is down sharply, he says.

Judge Poore says the courts aren’t intended to function as “business generators for debt collectors,” noting that his changes in procedure help ensure that everyone gets a fair hearing.

Maxine King, the small-claims-court judge in Washington Township until she lost her re-election bid in January, says she also banned closed-door meetings between defendants and lawyers. She says she did so after learning that debt-collection firms were discouraging debtors from bringing their cases before her. “It was a clear obstruction of the justice that should be given to each defendant,” she says. “Ideally, debt-collection firms wouldn’t have such latitude and would have to file where the debtor lives, not where they like the judge most.”

In Center Township, court constables hand out questionnaires outside the small courtroom’s entrance. The forms ask defendants for their telephone numbers, Social Security numbers and employer’s addresses. The defendants hand over the forms to collection lawyers when they are called to settlement meetings, which aren’t supervised by the judge. The questionnaires are prepared by an Indiana law firm that sues borrowers on behalf of credit-card issuers, according to township Judge Michelle Smith Scott.

Crystal Dupree, a 32-year-old office manager facing a lawsuit over an alleged debt on a store-issued credit card, says she wrote down her bank-account information and cellphone number because she thought the form was an official court document. “It’s really deceptive, and I never would have given them that information,” she says. She disputes that she owes money on the credit card.

Lawyers at the law firm that prepared the questionnaire declined to comment.

Shortly after Judge Graves took over the Warren Township court in January, he says, calls poured in from debt-collection lawyers trying to figure out where he stood. Mr. Bennett, who oversees the court’s budget and staff, says debt-collection lawyers threatened to take their cases and filing fees elsewhere if Judge Graves didn’t back down. Judge Graves says some company lawyers asked court officials to fax them hundreds of pages of documents on previous judgments, which the judge took to be a test of his willingness to accommodate debt collectors. He refused. “I don’t want to be a pushover,” he says. “If that means losing business, well, I guess that’s what we’re going to do.”