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Debtors often feel intimidated in this arena, and with reason. The system is tilted against them. And 150 years after the state's last debtors' prison was shuttered, some, even now, find themselves locked up for failing to pay. A Brockton man, for example, was imprisoned for four weeks over last Christmas.
More commonly, the threat of jail is a scare tactic, another way to force quick results in this rubber-stamp system, where the supreme priority in many courts is to move the flood of collection cases along - with little regard for the merits, or the dignity of individual defendants.
Peter Damon is one whose dignity took a considerable beating. (Read court documents related to this case here.)
As he reached the head of the security line that April day, Damon's new prosthetic arms, clearly visible in his Johnny Damon baseball shirt, set off the metal detector. By the time the 33-year-old veteran got to the hearing room, he was two minutes late. Tentatively, he approached the desk of the assistant clerk-magistrate.
''Yes?'' said the clerk, William J. Martin 3d. Damon stammered out his name, at which Martin snapped, ''This is not the time for that,'' and then scolded, ''Have a seat. I don't know what possessed you to do that.''
Damon ultimately won that day, when Norfolk's lawyer suddenly offered to dismiss the case. Martin obliged: ''Dismissed,'' he said, never glancing up from his desk.
In his victory, Damon was one of the lucky ones. A Globe review of proceedings and records in 20 of the state's 70 small-claims courts found that court officials and collection lawyers routinely break court rules, almost always to the detriment of the defendant. Collectors are almost never asked to prove the debts they claim; defendants are rarely informed of their rights. And debtors, usually too strapped to afford a lawyer, must contend with this legal mismatch alone.
Russell Engler, a professor at the New England School of Law who studies the way people are treated in civil court, said unrepresented parties often get steamrolled. While it can be tricky for clerk-magistrates and judges when only one side has a lawyer, he said, those are precisely the cases in which court officials should act to redress the imbalance.
''You have a system that is supposed to be accessible to ordinary people,'' Engler said. ''Instead, it's operating as a swift tool for corporations with power and with lawyers.''
The chief justice of the district court system, Lynda M. Connolly, expressed surprise, during a February interview with the Globe, at the extent to which corporate debt collectors have come to dominate small-claims sessions. Some of the abuses described to her by the Globe were, she said later, ''horrific.''
Diane Albertson's experience in court was nothing short of humiliating.
A 50-year-old mother and nursing student, Albertson stood before Judge Thomas Barrett in Brockton District Court on Feb. 7, called to account for a $438 oil bill that she believed, mistakenly, she had paid. She admits she had been sloppy about the matter, missing court dates twice, in the crush of family and school obligations. And after an initial court judgment against her, she sent a check to satisfy the debt, but stopped payment on it.
That made the plaintiff, Stanley Litchfield of Scudder Fuel, angry - and understandably so. The firm had waited more than a year to be paid. But even he was shocked at what the judge did that day.
''Take your rings off,'' Barrett said, according to the court's audio transcript of the hearing.
''All of my jewelry?'' Albertson replied in dismay. ''I can't give you my wedding ring.''
''Let me see it,'' Barrett said, ordering her to approach the bench and splay her hands before him. He then told her sternly to remove the other rings, including her diamond and amethyst engagement ring, and her earrings.
''Are you serious?'' Albertson asked, near tears.
''We'll hold them until the debt's paid,'' Barrett said. ''Either that or I'll incarcerate you. Do you want me to incarcerate you?''
Albertson handed over her jewelry, keeping only the thin gold band on her left ring finger. A bailiff sealed them in a plastic bag, where they would stay for a month.
Engler, the law professor, called Barrett's behavior ''outrageous.''
''Litigants are supposed to be able to be heard and be treated with respect,'' Engler said. ''The judge sets the tone for everything.''
Barrett declined to be interviewed.