Provide tools to collect small-claims judgments

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 5, 2012 

It's frustrating when someone owes you money and they won't pay up.

Even more frustrating is winning in court and still not getting paid.

That too often seems to be the case with small-claims court judgments. And it shouldn't be. If someone has legitimate claim -- and a court judgment in their favor says they do -- they ought to be able to get their money.

Beaufort County Sheriff's Office deputies are charged with collecting the debt, but they work with limited resources and authority. They receive a file containing information on vehicles or property owned, but they don't have access to information about bank accounts.

If deputies can't determine whether the judgment can be paid, they file a "nulla bona" with the court. Nulla bona has been filed in more than 150 cases already this year in Beaufort County, according to court records.

A judgment might result in a lien against property or a bad credit report, but it doesn't put money in your pocket. To continue after a nulla bona has been filed takes heading back to court and hiring an attorney, a process that could cost more than the original amount owed.

That defeats the whole purpose of small-claims court, which is supposed to make it easier and cheaper to file a claim for $7,500 or less.

Chief Deputy Mike Hatfield of the Sheriff's Office says deputies are diligent about their duties. That suggests the law is coming up short and ought to be changed.

Hilton Head Island attorney Dean Bell says South Carolina is one of the few states that doesn't allow garnishing wages and income to collect such a debt. North Carolina and Texas are the only other states with such a law.

That might be the place to start.

The situation reminds us of trying to recoup money from bad checks.

The process is complicated and time-consuming for an individual or business. When they receive a bad check, they have to find the person who wrote it and send them a certified letter. Then they have to wait 15 days to find out whether they'll be paid.

If the check writer doesn't respond, those owed money have to take a copy of the check and the letter to a county magistrate, who could sign a court summons. Then the victims have to wait for a court date and prosecute the offenders themselves -- or pay an attorney to -- at a trial.

That changed in 2008 with a law that allowed solicitors to get involved. Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone had his office take on the job of collecting money from bad check writers under the state's "worthless check" program.

All it takes is filling out a form and the Solicitor's Office takes it from there. The cost to collect is borne by the bad-check writer. All reports are that it works well.

Unfortunately, the Solicitor's Office doesn't have the legal authority to do that with civil judgments, Stone says.

And it isn't just private citizens that have trouble collecting what's owed them. State Rep. Bill Herbkersman introduced a bill last session aimed at helping municipal courts collect past due fines. For fines more than a year past due, the court would ask the state Department of Revenue to get the money owed from a person's state income tax refund. If that wasn't possible in the first year it's tried, then the debt would be turned over to a solicitor for collection. The solicitor could hire a debt collection agency, and administrative fees would help cover the cost.

The bill died in committee, but Herbkersman should try again next session.

And lawmakers also should look for ways to help people collect small-claims judgments they are rightfully owed.

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