Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Legal Aid Client Perseveres in Debt Collection Case and Finds Justice

Jen Ngai Lavelle, Staff Attorney

After enduring a multi-stage battle in a consumer case to which she should have never been a party, Legal Aid client Tangela Garnett finally prevailed in her fight against a company collecting on debt she simply did not owe.

In the fall of 2010, Ms. Garnett was shocked to learn from her employer that over $300 was being taken out of her paycheck every two weeks to pay a court judgment of approximately $3,000. Unaware of any such judgment against her, Ms. Garnett immediately went to the court clerk’s office to investigate. It was there she learned for the first time that in 2003, a debt collector had sued her on an alleged unpaid credit card debt — and that when she did not appear in court, a default judgment had been entered against her. Now, eight years later, the debt collector was garnishing her wages to collect on the amount of the judgment.

Ms. Garnett had never heard of the lawsuit. She had never been served, and the person described in the plaintiff’s affidavit of service did not match her description or that of anyone who would have been able to accept service on her behalf. Nor had she ever received any notice of the initial court date or entry of the judgment. Perhaps most unsettling was that she did not recognize the underlying credit card debt — the debt was not hers.

Ms. Garnett filed a motion to vacate the judgment and stop the garnishment, but the motion was denied. Legal Aid entered its appearance and moved for reconsideration, but the judge again denied the motion. While this was ongoing, Ms. Garnett continued to watch money being taken out of her paycheck — money that she normally relied on to pay for her housing, food, and other necessary expenses.

But Ms. Garnett and her Legal Aid attorney did not give up. They requested yet an additional level of review and ultimately prevailed, this time with the judge issuing an order vacating the 2003 judgment and remanding the case for a new trial. According to the judge’s order, the plaintiff debt collector had failed to provide sufficient proof of the underlying debt when it offered no documentation other than a self-serving affidavit of one of its own employees stating that Ms. Garnett owed the collection company the amount of money stated in the complaint. Therefore, ruled the judge, the judgment that the court had previously entered against Ms. Garnett — and that formed the basis of the wage garnishment — was invalid.

Ms. Garnett’s case was resolved prior to trial, when the plaintiff provided her a refund of the full amount garnished from her pay and dismissed all claims against her with prejudice. She now receives her entire paycheck every two weeks, and the debt collector cannot bring a new action against her based on the same debt.

 Legal Aid congratulates Ms. Garnett for her tenacity and her individual victory in this case, but it also recognizes there are countless other District residents who have been victims of what are at best, sloppy — and at worst, abusive — collections practices. Legal Aid will continue to fight on their behalf through litigation and advocacy to ensure that their rights are protected and interests are represented.

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