Friday, October 9, 2009

Orders to Seek Employment

Our office is challenging a commonly-used debt collection practice in the CNMI. Here, a creditor with a court judgment routinely has the court issue an order requiring an unemployed debtor to find work and periodically produce 10 job applications as proof. Our Supreme Court seems to say that it’s okay. See Bank of Guam v. Ruben, 2008 MP 22, reh’g den., 2009 MP 7.

However, there has been plenty of case law, academic discussion and federal legislative history that uniformly frown upon forcing debtors to work. Although the issue has only come up in the context of bankruptcy, the disfavor is one in the same. Coercing a debtor to toil for the benefit of creditors is a form of involuntary servitude which is prohibited by the 13th Amendment.

In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find job search orders outside the CNMI. We recently conducted a survey of other legal services providers nationwide and throughout Micronesia to see if their jurisdictions entertain such orders. To date, we’ve received 51 responses from 37 jurisdictions. None of the LSC providers have had to deal with orders to find work to pay back consumer debts. Illinois and Guam have seen them on rare occasion, and only in circumstances when a debtor had been in contempt of court. Interestingly, though, Guam's Supreme Court in 2007 held that job search orders are not authorized there (outside of child support cases), and it cited an Illinois case for the same proposition. See Zurich Insurance, Inc. v. Santos, 2007 Guam 23. (My next post will publish the current results of the survey.)

Why do these coercive orders still exist in the CNMI? I'm not sure. They are not expressly authorized by our statutes. Once a judgment is entered, a supplemental hearing may be initiated to determine if there are any assets or income beyond what is needed to cover the reasonable living requirements for debtors and their dependents. If so, they can be forfeited to the creditor. If not, then the inquiry ends. Judgment recovery practices elsewhere are in essence no different. Creditors for the most part are allowed to garnish earnings or attach assets. Debtors are allowed to claim exemptions for basic necessities calculated according to various formulas.

Creditors in the CNMI are given an extraordinary additional tool. They can force debtors to find jobs.

Has this type of coercion existed before? Yes. Compulsory employment to satisfy a debt is a vestige of a bygone era when debtor prisons existed. However, President Jackson outlawed them in 1883 and states eventually followed suit.

The 14th Amendment’s protection of our liberty interests should also be kept in mind. Our evolving modern sensibilities recognize a free and open market for labor and preserve the value of choice in deciding our own livelihood.

Of course, there are no absolute freedoms. There are a multitude of considerations – like family responsibilities or an economic downturn - that force us into one line of work over another. But those pressures are different from legal coercion.

There is one exception: when a parent needs to pay child support. Domestic obligations are given special consideration over consumer debt. The government should be able to step in more aggressively to protect a child’s rights. There is case law on this, and the Bankruptcy Code also reflects this value.

There is no reason why creditors in the CNMI should be given preferences. I’m not aware of any cultural, social or economic relativity argument that would justify ignoring the constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude. Even from a utilitarian perspective, federal legislative history on bankruptcy points to the futility and impracticality of compelling work to pay back creditors.

An equilibrium between creditor and debtor, lender and borrower, business and consumer, needs to be re-established in order to safeguard 13th and 14th Amendment protections that the low-income stratum of society deserve as much here as anywhere else in the U.S.

(For a more general discussion on debtor rights in the CNMI, see our blog post here.)

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