Last year we reported on a little-known hardship facing Nebraskans struggling to pay their medical debts: They were being sued over doctor bills of just a few hundred dollars. Unheard of in most states, such lawsuits are filed in Nebraska by the tens of thousands, typically against low-income workers, in part because filing fees are so inexpensive.
Last week, a Nebraska lawmaker introduced a bill that would curb what collectors can take from debtors after filing suit and obtaining a court judgment. The bill would automatically protect the first $2,000 in a debtor’s bank account from garnishment, among other reforms. Currently, collectors are allowed to clean out debtors’ bank accounts.
“Right now, working class folks in particular are not on a level playing field and are at the mercy of predatory debt collectors,” said state Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat who cited ProPublica’s investigation as a key inspiration for the proposed reforms.
The news was welcomed by Nebraskans who have been sued over their medical debts.
“This would have saved me thousands of dollars and would’ve saved me a huge amount of unneeded stress and worry,” said Tanya Glasgow, a single mother in Lincoln with long-running health problems who, as we reported last year, saw her bank account zeroed out and her wages garnished in the same month by a debt collector. The new bill would prevent such “double dipping,” Morfeld said.
The Nebraska Collectors Association, which has fought efforts to make it more expensive to file lawsuits (even by $1), did not respond to a request for comment on the bill.
Our story focused on one Nebraska-based collection agency in particular, Credit Management Services, which churned out almost 30,000 lawsuits in the state in 2013, sometimes for amounts under $100. The company also did not respond to a request for comment about the new bill.
ProPublica’s story on Nebraska was part of a series on the widespread use of lawsuits by lenders and collectors to collect consumer debts. Despite millions of such suits each year, no public data is kept on their prevalence, and federal garnishment limits have remained unchanged since the 1960’s. Under federal law, collectors are barred from taking more than a quarter of debtors’ pay. But since there is no limit on what they can take from debtors’ bank accounts, they can seize an entire paycheck once it’s deposited.
The Nebraska bill would also help prevent debtors with children from having to go to court to keep more of their paychecks. That addresses a part of a broader problem with garnishments we noted back in 2014: Debtors frequently don’t benefit from existing legal protections because the process is confusing and virtually no one has the guidance of an attorney.
Cheap court fees and looser rules make suing over medical debts as small as $60 easy. Every year Nebraska collection agencies file lawsuits by the tens of thousands. Read the story.
The way lenders and collectors pursue consumer debt has undergone an aggressive transformation in America. Collectors today don’t give up easy, often pursuing debts for years. See our coverage.
Currently in Nebraska, state law provides an exemption for debtors with dependents, but the onus is generally on debtors to assert the exemption, which lowers the garnished amount from 25 percent to 15 percent of their take-home pay. Morfeld’s bill would change the default garnishment level to 15 percent and shift the burden to collectors to file sworn affidavits that debtors have no dependents in order to take the full 25 percent.
Unpaid medical debt can also land someone in jail in Nebraska. Collectors have the power through the court to summon a debtor for a “debtor’s exam,” which allows them to ask questions about any income or assets. If the debtor doesn’t show up, an arrest warrant can be issued for contempt of court, and judges routinely issue such warrants, said Milo Mumgaard, executive director for Legal Aid of Nebraska.
In a recent case handled by legal aid attorneys, a woman was arrested in front of her children for failure to appear at an exam over a $177 medical debt. Since she didn’t have the $100 bail, she spent two hours in a jail cell before her father could arrive with the money. The woman, who works as a waitress, had actually not received notice of the hearing, according to a lawsuit filed on her behalf by Legal Aid of Nebraska against the collector and the state of Nebraska. The suit, which is ongoing, alleges a violation of the state’s century-old prohibition against debtors’ prisons.
The new bill seeks to prevent similar situations by raising the standard under which debtors can be considered in contempt of court. “This would be a real, significant change of the abusive process that’s presently in place in Nebraska,” said Mumgaard.