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Driven to the brink
At 48, Joanne M. Johnson has been disabled with severe depression for five years. She gets by, barely, on a $739 disability payment. The one thing the Leominster resident owns of any monetary value is her midsize sedan, a 1996 Plymouth Breeze. It is her only means of transportation to medical appointments and to the thrift shops and food banks she visits when she can't make ends meet.
In 2001, when Johnson became ill, she lost her job as a supervisor in the packing department of a local manufacturing firm, then defaulted on a credit card with a $500 limit. Norfolk stepped in, bought the debt, and in 2004 filed a lawsuit against her for $1,035 - the debt plus three years' interest.
That's when the process went awry. When Norfolk sued, it supplied the Leominster District Court with an address where Johnson had never lived. The court put a hold on the suit when the notices came back undelivered. But for reasons court officials would not explain, the suit was then allowed to go forward after another notice was sent to Johnson - at the same wrong address. And when Johnson didn't show up for her court date, Norfolk automatically won.
Then, with a judgment in hand, Norfolk phoned Johnson and told her to appear in court in early February 2005 to work out a payment schedule, according to Johnson. When she arrived, an attorney was there to answer questions. Johnson said she assumed he was a legal aid lawyer. In fact, he was a lawyer for Norfolk Financial who, Johnson said, never identified himself.
The lawyer asked her to fill out a financial statement and then, before she could figure out what was happening, she found herself before a judge.
''I told the judge that once my car was paid off, I could pay $10 a month,'' she said. ''All he said was, 'OK.' He stamped the paper and said, 'You're finished.' Nobody looked at me and said, 'We're going to take your car.'''
But that's what happened. On April 1, 2005, less than two months after her court hearing, Worcester County sheriff's deputies, who had no trouble finding Johnson's correct address, appeared at her home at about 8 a.m. and took her car. To get it back, Johnson would have had to pay a sheriff's fee, towing, and storage charges and interest, in addition to the $1,000 court judgment. The tally: $1,380.
With the help of a legal aid lawyer, Johnson filed for bankruptcy. But it was not until three months later, after a bankruptcy court judge threatened to jail the tow lot owner, that her car was returned - damaged, says Johnson.
The trauma of losing her car sent Johnson into a downward emotional spiral. Within a week, she became suicidal, and checked in at the emergency room at the HealthAlliance hospital in Leominster. Then she was transferred by ambulance to a psychiatric ward, where she spent two nights under a suicide watch.
While the record is clear that court papers were not sent to Johnson's correct address, Daniel Goldstone said that his company had met the legal requirements for serving notice. As for the seizure, he said: ''Norfolk provided the court's execution to the office of the county sheriff, who caused Ms. Johnson's car to be seized.''