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Margaret A. Donnelly, an 85-year-old widow from Duxbury, is one who fought back.
Living on Social Security and suffering from congestive heart disease, Donnelly was barely making ends meet in the summer of 2004. Struggling to cover the cost of her medications and her electric bills, she said she was stunned when a Plymouth County deputy sheriff appeared at her door with a warrant for her arrest. He said she had been sued for $1,471 and had missed her court date.
It was an old fight with Chase Manhattan Bank over a Visa card coming back to haunt her, one she thought had long since been resolved. Determined to set the matter straight, she went to Plymouth District Court on June 1, 2004, and, on her own, filed a motion to remove the judgment against her, despite pressure from court officials to get it over with and pay.
''It's absolutely appalling,'' Donnelly said. ''The people who tell you to 'Just pay it.'. ''
At a July hearing, the collection law firm Lustig, Glaser & Wilson asked the court for more time to gather evidence to support its claim -- a common request as debt collectors often start with limited information about the debt owed. In the meantime, the court allowed the firm to put a lien on Donnelly's condominium.
Nearly a year and two trips to court later, Donnelly was still demanding proof, and Lustig, Glaser could produce none. Finally, in June 2005 the law firm threw in the towel and the case was dismissed.
The managing partner of the law firm, Kenneth C. Wilson, said he could not comment on the Donnelly matter because federal and state laws bar discussion of debt cases with outside parties.
Clerks routinely give plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt. And basic questions of fact are rarely asked or answered: Might the plaintiff's claim be false or overstated? Might they be after the wrong person?
Yes, they might. George Rodrigues of New Bedford twice had to go to court over a $1,665 NStar bill that was not his. Both times, the DHL driver had to take time off work, costing him $200 a day, to convince the court it had the wrong guy.
The NStar debt belonged to a different George Rodriguez - ending with a z. The fellow NStar was after was 21; Rodrigues is twice his age. But in court, it was Rodrigues who faced the burden of proving he was innocent. ''How many times can I show them my information?'' Rodrigues asked.
The clerk would not accept Rodrigues's proof of his identity; he insisted on a hearing, at which NStar's lawyer finally dropped the case.