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Dignity faces a steamroller
Small-claims proceedings ignore rights, tilt to collectors
This story was reported by Spotlight team members Beth Healy, Michael Rezendes, Francie Latour, Heather Allen, and editor Walter V. Robinson. It was written by Healy.
Second of four parts | July 31, 2006
The line for the metal detector crept slowly at Brockton District Court on the morning of April 12, 2005. Peter Damon waited anxiously. He didn't want to be late.
Finally, he hoped to face down for good the debt collector who had been hounding him and his mother for more than two years over a $980 credit card bill. He'd had to miss his first scheduled hearing in small-claims court a year earlier, and a note in his file explained why: ''Phone call from defendant - he is in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., upon return from Iraq and losing both arms.''
A lot of things could have gone Damon's way in the wake of that phone call. None did.
The clerk who took the call could have advised Damon that, under federal law, he could delay the case while he recovered.
The court could have challenged the debt collector, Norfolk Financial Corp., about the claim in its lawsuit that Damon was not a soldier - a claim made under penalties of perjury.
And a clerk should have simply dismissed the case when Damon, having recovered sufficiently to take a $400 flight home from the hospital, arrived for a hearing in September of 2004, only to find the collection lawyer unprepared.
But such simple justice was denied Damon, as it is thousands of other debtors when they come up against the lowest level of the state court system.
The ''people's court'' has become the collectors' court, a Globe Spotlight Team investigation has found. It is a de facto arm of a fast-growing and aggressive industry that has swamped court dockets with lawsuits - cases that often lead to threats of jail for debtors.
Created to provide a low-cost, level playing field for citizens with disputes of $2,000 or less, the small-claims courts have mutated into a system that often ignores individual rights and shows favoritism toward collectors and their lawyers. On some days, indeed, collection lawyers appear to be in charge - with no oversight by judicial officials.