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Losing a car is bad enough. But losing a car, a house, and a job was what faced Michaelyn S. Rackley and her husband, Raheem R. Weldon, in 2001, after Norfolk Financial filed a lawsuit against Rackley - and sent notice of the suit to the wrong address. She lives in Athol. Norfolk sued her at an address in Waltham.
Unlike Chad Goldstone, Daniel Goldstone often goes after debtors' homes, as well as their cars. Real estate records examined by the Globe show that, over the last four years, Norfolk has put liens on more than 1,000 homes throughout the state. Once a lien is placed on a home, it cannot be sold or even refinanced unless the lien holder is paid.
Norfolk filed its lawsuit against Rackley on May 1, 2001, for a $543 credit card debt. Court records show that the notice sent to Waltham was returned undelivered - which should have prompted the Waltham District Court to demand a correct address from the collector, or dismiss the lawsuit. Nonetheless, on Aug. 13, 2001, Norfolk won an automatic judgment against Rackley - because Rackley did not appear for a hearing she knew nothing about.
Then last summer, Norfolk first came after Rackley's car, and then her home.
The Worcester County deputy sheriffs and a tow truck hauled 8away her 1998 Subaru Forester in June. As a consequence, Rackley had to quit her job delivering newspapers for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
In July, Daniel Goldstone placed a lien on the couple's Athol home. In October, Rackley had no choice but to pay off the debt - $1,038, with accumulated interest - when the couple went to refinance their home.
But Rackley never got her Subaru back. After it was seized, the storage charges mounted daily - all the way to $5,600 by October. In December, Direnzo Towing & Recovery of Millbury sold the vehicle to recoup its costs, according to the Worcester County sheriff's office.
Rackley has since filed a federal lawsuit against Norfolk. And Norfolk has moved to have the suit dismissed, asserting that all of Rackley's claims ''are meritless as a matter of law.''
Rackley said she's found the experience frustrating. Norfolk, she said, is ''very underhanded. It's almost like they get a list of names and pick one out of a hat and say, 'Okay, we're going after that one.'.''
And then there was the case of Marie Dimanche, the Mattapan mother who awoke to a 6 a.m. visit from constables working for Commonwealth Receivables.
Dimanche thought the debt Commonwealth was trying to collect had been paid by Travelers Aid Family Services, an agency for the homeless that had once helped Dimanche find a place to live. An official with the agency said it often provides financial assistance to clients, paying off old debts and restoring credit.
When Commonwealth rejected her explanation, Dimanche's effort to keep her car off the auction block became a race against time. Scrambling to understand the legal actions that had been taken against her, she filed a motion in November 2002 in Boston Municipal Court, asking to have the court's judgment against her lifted.
Dimanche, in her motion, said she never received notice of Commonwealth's lawsuit because of the outdated address the firm provided to the court. She emphasized the urgency of her case: her car was to be auctioned on Nov. 22.
The court responded by scheduling a hearing for Dec. 5 - more than a week after the scheduled auction. And on Nov. 22, her car was sold for $2,197 - about a third of the vehicle's market value, according to the National Auto Dealer's Association Used Car Guide.
Days later, on Dec. 5, a judge lifted the judgment against Dimanche. But by then it was too late. Dimanche resigned herself to bumming rides and using the MBTA to get to work and take her daughters to school. It was two years before she could afford to buy another car.
But a reliable means of transportation wasn't the only thing Dimanche and her children lost: Without her car, Dimanche was unable to make use of a City of Boston scholarship for computer training courses in Quincy - training that Dimanche said would have qualified her for a better-paying job at Sears, her employer.
''They don't understand that they're altering people's lives,'' Dimanche said of Commonwealth. ''It's not like you can just catch a ride and go on like normal.''
Part 2: A court system compromised