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Humbling experiences

Humiliations large and small are an everyday reality in many Massachusetts small-claims courts. Often, debtors are treated with less courtesy than the accused felons in the criminal court across the hall, and their rights are less respected.

Examples abound:

  • In Quincy District Court, a clerk-magistrate barks at defendants packed into a cramped room if they don't reply loudly enough to the call of their names. In New Bedford, collection lawyer Martin Odstrchel calls the name of an older woman who has been waiting in line for two hours; as she hobbled toward him, leaning on her cane, he admonishes, ''Hurry up.''
  • In Worcester, more than 60 people summoned for civil debt collection cases sit in a large courtroom that says ''Criminal'' over the door. The noise from the adjacent lockup is so loud it drowns out the magistrate as she calls out the list of lawsuits. Angrily, she shouts for quiet, not realizing the noise is coming from the prisoners; the cowed debtors on the benches before her are silent.
  • And in Lowell District Court, on the Tuesday before Christmas, an assistant clerk-magistrate calls debtors up to her desk, one by one, to review their promises to pay. She then warns every one: ''If you don't pay, you could be found in contempt, and you could go to jail.''

Connolly, the district court chief, said it's reasonable for court officials to inform debtors of the worst-case scenario. But pressed as to whether the courts ought to issue jail threats, Connolly said, ''Let's be very clear: It is not appropriate for anybody to threaten anybody, in small claims or any place else.''

Yet such threats are a common tool, both in small-claims court and in the district court civil sessions, which handle debt cases between $2,000 and $25,000.

Last year, Jack Fraioli, the owner of a small, struggling cleaning enterprise, was called before a judge in Dedham District Court after falling behind on payments he'd promised to make to a vendor. His $9,000 debt had ballooned to nearly $12,000, with interest and fees. Fraioli's wife was ill and the family's cars had been towed three times by debt collectors. After being badgered in the court corridor by a collection lawyer, Hindell S. Grossman, he agreed to pay $250 a month, even though he knew that would be a stretch.

In the courtroom, Judge Sarah B. Singer reviewed the agreement and warned Fraioli of the serious import of his promise to pay.

Alex Colon of New Bedford (far right) and others waited more than three hours to square away their debts in New Bedford District Court. Debtors often face dismissive treatment. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)

''It's not a promise to get this lady off your back,'' she said, referring to Grossman. ''Pay the money or go to jail.'' She added, ''That's a result no one in this room wants to see.''

Judges regularly hear debt cases in civil court, but in 1993, the responsibility for small-claims cases was turned over to clerk-magistrates. Today, judges get involved in small claims mainly when people ignore judgments against them. That can make cases sent to judges more highly charged, observed Jason David Fregeau, a consumer lawyer in Longmeadow. Some judges, he said, ''tend to treat people who owe debts like criminals.''

The sheer volume of cases seems to encourage rough or dismissive treatment of defendants, the Globe found. There were nearly 122,000 small claims filed in 2005 in Massachusetts, marking an 11 percent rise over the past decade. Meanwhile, court budgets have been slashed and court staff reduced by 14 percent since 2000. Officials say there's barely time to get through the docket, much less attend to the considerations behind each claim.

''It is not unusual, given the extraordinary number of cases before our district courts, that the urgent overwhelms the important,'' Connolly said. ''We can do better.''

Connolly, after the February interview with the Globe, appointed a panel to review the small-claims courts, convened a training session for clerks and judges, and is studying ways to make defendants more aware of their rights and to curb the influence of collection lawyers. One early change: Court officials have been told to be sure debtors do not agree to make payments out of their government assistance checks.

'If we see areas that we can improve, then we will make those improvements,'' said Connolly, who became chief justice two years ago. ''I am committed to doing that.''

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  Pages: [1]  [2]  [3]  [4]  [5]  [6]  [7]  [8]  | [Part One]  [Part Three]  [Part four] | Series homepage