Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Employment Opportunity

The Marianas Office is sad to say that our front-office secretary, Polly Anne Sablan, has resigned (effective the end of the month). Like many others in our community, she is moving to the mainland U.S. to try for a better opportunity for herself and her children.

We are accepting applications to fill her position as LEGAL SECRETARY.

Qualifications include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following:
1. Must have high school or better education.
2. Need to have good speaking and writing skills.
3. You must have your own transportation and a valid CNMI driver's license.
4. We prefer fluency in Chamorro or Carolinian, or both.

Job duties include, but are not limited to, the following:
1. reception (answering the telephone, greeting applicants, clients and other members of the general public who come to the office).
2. secretarial work (filing, typing, copying, etc.)
3. client communication (interviewing, taking and relaying messages and advice, writing letters, etc.)
4. field work (service of legal process, tracking down documents, witnesses, etc., delivering and picking up documents and other things, some banking, etc.)

MLSC is an equal employment opportunity employer. MLSC offers medical, dental and optical benefits. Salary depends on experience.

Applications are available at our office in Civic Center, Susupe.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Supreme Court Decides Against Debtors

Last week, the CNMI Supreme Court issued its decision in Triple J Saipan v. Mateo V. Norita et al. The court ruled that federal law limiting how much can be garnished from your wages does not apply in the CNMI. We unsuccessfully argued that the federal law not only applies here, but that it also 1) offers more protections to debtors and 2) more fairly spreads out the risks of credit extension between creditors and debtors.

What the Supreme Court decision means is that the status quo is maintained. Our courts turn to local law when figuring out a debtor’s schedule to pay back a debt. In practice, as I discussed in my previous post of 11/1/07, there is an uneven playing field. Low-income debtors who can’t afford an attorney end up paying something back on a regular basis, even though their income is considerably below poverty level. This will continue to happen despite the fact that debtors have the right to keep everything they need for their basic needs.

Our clients’ household income was SSI and the minimum wage (then $3.05/hour). SSI (or Supplemental Security Income), is a federal benefit entitled to those who are poor and disabled. They have already been deemed poor enough to receive SSI. Those benefits were not an issue in the case, because they cannot be taken to pay back a debt. That’s a federal law that unquestionably applies in the CNMI. On the other hand, the court endorsed a payment order against the minimum wage earner.

Today, the minimum wage in the CNMI is $3.55/hour. This comes to a gross annual income of $7,384. Under the 2007 federal poverty guidelines, the threshold amount for a household of one is $10,210 per year. Those of us living in poverty here are less protected from creditors than elsewhere in the States. This is the court's implicit opinion.

In reaching its decision, the court made a difference between a garnishment and an “order in aid of judgment,” which is the typical CNMI court order that requires a debtor to regularly surrender money to the creditor as each paycheck is received. As the court argues, a garnishment is when you take money from a third party who owes the debtor, such as the debtor’s employer. Technically then, taking money directly from the debtor is not a garnishment. Since the federal law governs garnishments, it has no bearing on our orders in aid of judgment.

What the court completely fails to take into account is that a garnishment and an order in aid of judgment have the same effect: you risk being deprived of future paychecks needed to support yourself and your family. What good is a paycheck when you have to surrender it the second you receive it?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Federal Law on Debtor Relief in the CNMI

In our previous post on 9/13/07, we provided an introduction to debt collection and your rights as a debtor. One of our pending Commonwealth Supreme Court cases is dealing with what it means to be “judgment proof.” The case turns on the question of whether federal law on garnishment restrictions applies here. We say it does.

First of all, the CNMI, like every US state, has laws that shield your income from creditors so that you can provide for your basic needs. Even if you lost in court and a judgment was issued against you for a consumer debt, you can still keep what you need for the essentials. For low-income people, this exemption can end up protecting all of the income. This is called being “judgment proof.”

In the CNMI, not many know of this right. In court, they end up agreeing to pay something back on a regular basis, even if they can’t afford it. If the debtor agrees, the court swiftly issues an order to pay. Oftentimes, the debtor feels compelled to agree to something. Anything, actually.

The federal government also established a minimum amount of what can be garnished from your paycheck. This was done in 1968 with the passing of of the Consumer Credit Protection Act, another one of LBJ's Great Society initiatives. States can’t dip below the minimum protection, but are free to add more to it.

Keep in mind that the federal garnishment restrictions were not only meant to safeguard the poor. Congress considered it a way to prevent imprudent extensions of credit. The act was designed to encourage good industry practice.

One crucial difference between CNMI law and federal law is that the federal law provides a formula to determine the garnishment ceiling. The formula is based on the federal minimum wage, which is currently set at $5.85/hr. (with 70 cent increases annually until 2009, when the $7.25/hr. mark is reached). The limit of what can be garnished is the lesser of ) 25% of disposable weekly earnings or 2) any amount over 30 times the federal minimum hourly wage. Yes, I can’t visualize that too, so here’s another way to look at what can be taken when your biweekly or monthly paycheck is in the following ranges:

(taken from US DoL fact sheet)

The CNMI does not have a formula. Here, a court is required to decide on a case-by-case basis what income is needed for the reasonable living requirements of the debtor and the dependents. As I mentioned, with the Superior Court dealing with so many cases and the need for judicial efficiency, what happens (when the debtor doesn't have an attorney) is that some haggling is done, and a debtor agrees to something. What is lost in the shuffle is that the debtor is never given a chance to exercise the right to not pay.

Our appeal currently before the CNMI Supreme Court on this issue is Triple J v. Mateo Norita, et al., CV-06-0031-GA. There are several legal arguments Triple J lays out on why the federal law should not apply in the CNMI. For example, the Consumer Credit Protection Act requires state and federal courts to abide by the wage garnishment limit. However, “state” isn’t defined at all for these purposes. And, as the argument goes, the CNMI isn't a state. This may end the question, but every persuasive source out there is inclined to include the CNMI, such as the US Dept. of Labor and the Northern Marianas Commission on Federal Laws. Despite the difference between the minimum wage here and in the US, The Commission believed the formula should apply here for the following reason: “...the obvious intent [of the federal limit] is to allow the employee to retain enough earnings to purchase the necessities of life: food, shelter, and so forth. While earnings in the Northern Mariana Islands are generally less than in other parts of the United States, there is no evidence that the costs of necessities are also less.”

Instead of bogging down this post on all the other legal issues, I thought I’d at least bring the topic out of the courthouse and let others get a feel on where they stand. (Judges have been known to make up their mind first based on social, moral and practical grounds, then figure out the legal basis next.)

Our position is with the findings of the NMI Commission. The CNMI should be no different when it comes to protecting its people. The risks of extending credit should be fairly spread out. Creditors shouldn't have more advantages in the CNMI than anywhere else in the US.

Monday, October 15, 2007

5. Open for Family Cases

The Marianas Office is accepting applications for family law cases this week (October 15 to 19, 2007). These include divorce, paternity and child support, adoption, guardianship, custody and visitation, and name change.

The CNMI is different than the 50 states and Guam because we still don't have child-support guidelines or a federally-funded child support office. So custodial parents need private legal help to collect child support here.

And we still have an archaic divorce law that requires "grounds" for divorce.

So generally, we see such a demand for family law cases that we can't be open to accepting them all of the time. We would do nothing else and still not meet the needs in this regard. We open periodically (about every other month, or at least every quarter), conduct intake interviews and accept what cases we can.

And this week (until Friday morning about 9 AM), we're taking intake.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Legal Aid for All Micronesians

The numbers of those leaving the CNMI due to the economic downfall is growing. Their absence is palpable. Many are leaving their family, making the hard decision to sacrifice pride of home and culture. This reluctant portion of the exodus is headed primarily to the US, in search of better days.

I can imagine the same for those leaving Palau, Chuuk, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Phonpei or Yap. I do not know how they are faring overseas, but at least I know that they will not be denied legal aid for merely being Micronesian. If they are in financial straits and are facing legal problems, they may be able to obtain the services of an attorney for free, whether it be for debt relief, child support, consumer protection, fair housing, prevention of domestic violence or a host of other civil matters.

But this only happened last week.

On September 14, 2007, a decade-long restriction on free civil legal services to indigent Micronesians residing in the US was lifted. Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a quasi-federal agency serving as the main source of funding for nonprofit legal aid organizations, amended its regulations on alien representation for citizens from the Freely Associated States (FAS) of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia. Before the change, FAS citizens could only be eligible for legal aid in the West Pacific (through Micronesian Legal Services). In the US, however, FAS citizens were deemed ineligible aliens unless they fell under one of the general exempt categories of documented aliens. This barrier to legal aid cannot be simply written off as the fallout of the relationship between the US and the former Trust Territories. A brief political history is in order.

In the 1960s, legal aid programs began flourishing in the US through funding by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the agency administering the social agenda of Pres. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Micronesian Legal Services began in 1971 through the efforts of individuals such as former CNMI Senator Herman R. Guerrero and Marshall Islands Senator Tony de Brum with the assistance of the OEO.

As with many Great Society programs, legal aid has always had its share of detractors. In 1983, the US Congress barred representation of aliens as a condition for LSC funding. This was done in the midst of the Reagan administration’s push to curtail if not abolish legal aid. Certain types of documented aliens were not subject to the restriction, such as permanent residents, refugees and political asylees. Also exempt from the restriction were citizens of the US Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands (what is now the FAS and the CNMI). The exemption carried on after the termination of Trust Territory status in 1986, insofar as the Compact of Free Association Act governing the relationship between the US and the FAS extended LSC-funded services to all FAS citizens.

Legal aid to FAS citizens in the US ended in 1996. Along with a massive budget cut, wide-ranging restrictions were imposed on LSC under the Republican-controlled Congress during Pres. Clinton’s administration. One of the changes involved a reinterpretation of the Compact of Free Association. Legal aid could only be available to FAS citizens within the confines of their home countries. Micronesians abroad were demoted.

The impact was deeply felt. At the time the Compact was signed, there were most likely less than 10,000 Micronesians in the US, mostly in Hawaii and Guam. Today, there are over 40,000 FAS citizens residing in the US, with over 15,000 living in Hawaii and up to 10,000 Marshallese living in Northeast Arkansas alone. Legal aid organizations in those states, along with organizations representing Micronesians and others within the legal community, pushed for a removal of the legal aid embargo. US Senate legislation was passed in September 2006 clarifying that the bar on alien representation was not intended to apply to FAS citizens. David Cohen, head of the Office of Insular Affairs, US Dept. of the Interior, verified that the Compact and federal law and policy allow FAS citizens in the US to receive LSC-funded legal aid.

Without a sense of history, what was done last week might be seen as a mere correction. For those who supported the change, they see it as the strengthening of the rule of law by ensuring equal access to justice.

These are heady times in the CNMI. A sea change is in the works, given the imminent federal overhaul of local immigration law, the casino industry initiative in Saipan, and the local labor reform bill. Many cannot remain steadfast as the tourist and garment industries collapse; they are leaving for the States. For those choosing to remain here, perhaps what happened last week will help them bear in mind that the looming sea change in the CNMI should not compromise the ability of anyone, wherever they live, from being able to exercise their rights.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

3. Debt Collection

We see a lot of people who owe money that they can't afford to pay back. Most times, they don't dispute the debt. They owe the money. The sad fact is, however, they have no money with which to repay the debt. (And by "debt," I mean money owed for goods and services, NOT child support or spousal support.)

We've seen some pretty bad abuses of the debt collection system in the CNMI, too. There is a very strong sentiment that people who owe money MUST pay it back. I have seen the moral and legal obligation to repay money considered more important than supporting children, than buying food, than providing for utilities for one's self, than having transportation, than health needs, than any of the basics of life. And I've seen that attitude from not only collection attorneys and their clients, but from judges.

People who are too poor to pay have been "ordered" to pay anyway, and those orders are under threat of contempt, which can result in jail time. I know of dozens of cases where poor people here in the CNMI were put in jail for not paying their debts, and put in jail without being given an attorney first to help protect their liberty.

MLSC has been relentlessly trying to help poor clients be educated about their rights. We have tried to push the court to follow the law through our representation of indigents in consumer cases. We've had limited success.

So here are a few reminders. This is not an exhaustive list, but it may help people understand the debt collection process, and how it is supposed to work, a little better.

1. When you owe a debt, you can be taken to court for a judgment to be entered against you, and for the court to consider your ability to pay it.

2. When a collection agency like "Reliable Collection" contacts you, you have a right to certain notices. If they call, tell them to stop calling, and keep track of every call, what they say, and what you say. If they write, keep the letters you get. If they threaten you with court action, say "that's a good idea." Because RCA adds on more charges than you typically pay in court. If you are a debtor, collection agencies are not your friends. Don't trust them.

3. DO NOT BE AFRAID OF COURT. You have a chance to have your rights protected in court. If you get papers to go to court, be sure to show up, or you can be arrested.

4. It's a good idea to get legal advice before you go to court. If you are poor, come to Micronesian Legal Services with your court papers (and your collection letters or notes about collection agency contacts).

5. No matter how much you owe, there are some kinds of income that can never be taken from you in payment of the judgment: food stamps, SSI, Social Security benefits, VA benefits, NMI Retirement benefits and income from other similar programs.

6. You also get to protect a certain amount of your income that is necessary for your daily needs.(The federal rule sets this equal to 30 times the federal minimum wage per week). The CNMI law, along with certain federal laws, are designed to keep poor people from going over the edge-mentally, financially. The laws want to help you avoid bankruptcy. The laws want you to be honest, repay your debts within your ability, and support yourself and your family at least to a basic level.

7. But if you are in serious debt and you have some income or asset to protect from the reach of creditors, then you might want to consider bankruptcy relief. This may discharge all of your debts completely, or set up a payment plan for 3 to 5 years and discharge whatever is beyond the plan. Bankruptcy is helpful, but you can only file once every 7 years, and it has a negative effect on your credit rating.

8. If you're thinking about bankruptcy, get a lawyer. There are new rules. You must have credit counseling before you file. And you must meet other requirements that are somewhat tricky.

9. If you have bench warrants out for your arrest, get a lawyer. You don't need to keep hiding. You can do something to get things straightened out and stop worrying.

10. But the best way to avoid running into debt collection problems is to avoid unrealistic debt. Stay away from Friendly Finance, Wells Fargo and Isla Financial Services. These businesses say credit is easy-but it's not. It comes at a very high price and is extremely hard to repay, for anyone. Don't use credit for birthdays, weddings, funerals, baptisms, holy communion or confirmation parties, or anything else like that. Credit is best used for big purchases that you really need and most people aren't going to have enough money for, like houses and cars. Use cash for everything else, and if you don't have cash--don't spend, as hard as it is.

I really admire a lot of my clients who live in poverty. They are strong. They survive without power, telephones, and transportation. Their lives are difficult. But they do what they can and keep trying.

If you're facing tough economic times, please, don't make your life more difficult with bad credit choices.

Good luck.

Monday, August 27, 2007

2. About Micronesian Legal Services

Micronesian Legal Services is a private, non-profit law office. We operate throughout Micronesia, with offices in the CNMI, Palau, FSM and the Marshall Islands. Like most non-profits, we have a variety of funding sources, including local and federal governments, grants and donations.

We handle only civil cases--no criminal or traffic matters. We represent only poor people who qualify under our regulations and policies, set by the Legal Services Corporation, our Board of Directors, and our office. You can get a better idea of our organization from our Law Help pages at Micronesian Legal Services Corp. Law Help.

Some of the requirements for assistance from the Marianas Office of MLSC are:

1. residence in the CNMI. (It doesn't matter if you were born here, once lived here, have land here. If you aren't living in the CNMI now, we won't entertain your application.)

2. poverty. (We look at both income and resources. We assess eligibility based on the household, so even if you are poor, if you're living with a relative who has income, we consider the whole family in the household and all of the income.)

3. type of case within our priorities. (We handle most types of civil cases, but there are some we don't handle. We also don't accept cases that we think lack merit. We don't accept cases where we have a conflict of interest.)

People who want legal help from us must apply in person, if possible. We do make home visits for the handicapped, disabled, elderly and sick.

We frequently close "intake" of new cases because of the volume and the limits of our abilities. Typically, we accept applications for help with domestic cases (divorce, child support, adoption, guardianship, name change) only one week every two or three months.

Our goal is to help people gain access to the court system and justice. We've been providing legal aid since 1971. We have a dedicated staff, and we welcome your comments and suggestions.

Friday, August 24, 2007

1. Welcome to DAY IN COURT

Welcome to "Day in Court"-- the blog of the Marianas Office of Micronesian Legal Services Corp.

We hope to use this blog to share news and notices of general interest to the public about the law, legal issues, our work, our office procedures, and other topics that we dream up as we blog. We will NOT give individual legal advice on this blog, so please don't ask. Please don't post specific details about your own situation.

We may entertain general questions and address concerns that you express in the comments.

Blog posts will be written by me (Jane Mack, Directing Attorney), Omar Calimbas (Staff Attorney), or Ed Peterson (Staff Attorney). We may, from time to time, invite others to write a blog post, also.

So, welcome.