An Unlikely Rescuer from the Jaws of Debt

By 9:30 a.m., the 11th-floor hallway of a courthouse in downtown Brooklyn is filled with tight huddles made up of people in debt and the lawyers who are after them to pay.

The goal of the conferences is almost always the same: to cut a deal in the hallway before going into the packed courtroom to appear before the judge.

The people who owe money are anxious. They ask legal advice from just about anyone wearing a suit. The attorneys, for their part, talk to them sweetly about how to settle their cases.

Tried and true: From the bench, Noach Dear makes an unlikely comeback.
Jared Gruenwald
Tried and true: From the bench, Noach Dear makes an unlikely comeback.
Beverly Smith, one of many saddled with a debt she doesn’t owe
Jared Gruenwald
Beverly Smith, one of many saddled with a debt she doesn’t owe

Some of the people are angry, and some are confused—they had no idea they were in debt until letters came in the mail announcing they were being sued.

But if there's a dispute, the lawyers are quick to blame the collection agencies—their employers—for not giving them the correct paperwork or enough information. They reassure the debtors that everything will be taken care of quickly. And the people seem to believe them—better to settle things with these nice people in the hall who give them the impression that it's the proper procedure.

Beverly Smith, an African-American woman in her late forties, has already come to court three separate times. She works in the bridal section at Bloomingdale's and found out the hard way that someone believed she owed money—she received a letter stating her wages would be garnished.

Believing she was a victim of identity theft, she went to the police to file a report. But they handed her some forms to fill out and told her there was nothing they could do.

The first time that Smith came to the courthouse, an attorney from a firm called Pressler and Pressler, working for an agency called Palisades Collections, told her that in order to prove she didn't owe the money, she needed to fax them proof of her residency and a copy of her Social Security card. The second time, a different attorney from the same firm told her in another hallway conference that he had never received her fax and didn't have enough information to verify her identity. The third time, in April, the lawyer still didn't have the paperwork he required, so Smith agreed to a fourth court date.

She's tired of taking days off to come back to court. "I told the lawyer: Enough is enough," she says. She's determined to make her fourth court date, in June, her last. It has never occurred to her to ask to see a judge.

Time and again, people in the hallway insist that they've provided the correct documentation, that the debts aren't theirs, and that there's been a mistake. The attorneys, however, explain in reassuring tones that it's best just to settle matters with a payment to make it all go away, or to schedule yet another court date later on. It's better not to get the judge involved.

After the hallway conferences, the people file into the packed and noisy courtroom.

And then, something unusual happens.

A man and an older woman are called up to appear before the bench. They ask for a Russian interpreter. Through the interpreter, the man explains that the woman is being falsely accused of a debt, and that the lawyer suing her can't prove that it was hers. After some questioning, the collection agency's attorney concedes that, in fact, he doesn't have the documents he needs to prove that she owes the money. He asks for more time.

The judge, a small man with a tight beard and a yarmulke, refuses. With a wave of his hand, he dismisses the case.

"Dasvedanya," he says to the couple in Russian, and tells them they can be on their way.

But the couple doesn't budge. Stunned, they can't believe that the ordeal is so suddenly over.

"God bless you, sir," the man says to the judge.

"Have a nice day," he answers.

On the way out of the courtroom, the judge sees the Russian man stopping to say something to the lawyer who sued him and lost.

"Don't talk to him," the judge orders.

The couple shuffles out the door.

It's a scene that will be repeated over and over again in the courtroom of Judge Noach Dear, as he repeatedly dismisses lawsuits, denies attorneys seeking payment, and sends people on their way, amazed that they are free from further harassment by collection agencies.

Twice on a recent morning, his rulings are met with standing ovations.

The straightforward, clear-eyed justice being meted out in Dear's debt court sessions is not what many were expecting from a man who, they assumed, would be a disastrous addition to the local judicial system.

In fact, Noach Dear's reputation was so lousy from his years as one of the City Council's most reprehensible members, some predicted calamity once Dear—who had never practiced law—donned judge's robes.

The New York City Bar Association found Dear "unqualified," and the Brooklyn Bar Association refused to endorse his candidacy, but his political connections and name recognition in the district made his election in 2007 all but foreordained.

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