By Steve Weinstein
By Rachel Kramer Bussel
By Tim Elfrink
By Sydney Brownstone
By Graham Rayman
By Graham Rayman
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Of the nearly $1 billion in claims that collectors filed in 2007 against New Yorkers, about $800 million was won by debt collectors in judgments. That's not surprising when about 80 percent of the people who are accused in such claims don't bother to show up to court. But complaints against collectors are rising so fast that, last year, they outpaced gripes against housing contractors to become New Yorkers' number-one complaint.
Of the fraction of people who do show up in court, nearly all of them represent themselves, which, Dear says, is another part of the problem.
"When you're a referee and someone else doesn't know the rules of the court, it's very hard," he says. In order to illustrate what he sees on the bench, Dear gave the Voice unusual access: He allowed a reporter not only to observe his sessions and talk with him about them, but to sit behind the bench with him to see the court operate from his vantage point.
Dear starts most days with a speech: He welcomes people, introduces himself, and then launches into a series of warnings. He tells the people being sued to be careful about asking for legal advice from the attorneys who are suing them.
"Just remember: They are your adversaries," he announces. He explains that when they sign a contract in the hallway, they are admitting to owing their debt. "Come see me," he offers as an alternative.
A typical day has about 80 to 100 cases, all handled before lunchtime. One morning, with the noon meal approaching, Dear deals with another collection agency lawyer who has come to court without the proper documents to prove that the man he is suing actually owes a debt.
"You're telling me that you had one year to do discovery on this case, and you still haven't been able to get documents?" he asks. "Do you think it's fair for you to ask this court to do your job for you?"
The lawyer sheepishly reminds the judge that it is within his power to dismiss the case.
"I will," Dear says, leaning over the bench to see the man more closely. "Dismissed."
Dear tells the Voice that he did not know much about the growing problem of debt lawsuits when he first began working on the court. But he learned quickly—taking cues from deputy chief administrative court judge Fern Fisher—and soon wanted to "make a mark."
"I like to shake things up," he says.
Throughout the day, Dear is presented with one tale of financial misery after another.
A middle-aged African-American woman approaches the bench and tells Dear she has come to pay her debt. "Don't you want to know the amount?" he asks. "I just want to pay it," the woman answers. "What was it for?" the judge asks. "Anesthesiology," she replies. "What happened?" he asks. The woman says she lost her job and, with it, her health insurance. (Dear agreed to let her pay the debt.)
Another middle-aged African-American woman approaches the bench. She is so visibly upset that it is hard to make out her words, but it is clear she is angry because money was taken from her empty bank account. The judge asks her to calm down. "I can't calm down," she replies. "I'm a black female—little people. I'm not a lawyer. I'm a regular citizen. They can do what they want," she says, and pauses. "I wish I could do whatever I wanted." The judge then tries to get her to work out a payment plan with the collection lawyer. The woman says it doesn't matter what plan they come up with—she's broke. (Dear often tries to bargain with the lawyers to get them to lower their demands, sometimes sounding like a haggler in an open-air market.)
One recent college graduate comes to the bench and tells the judge that she was served papers at a wrong address—a frequent complaint. She says that although she has lived in New York for years, the collection agency served her papers at an old address in Wisconsin. She also says that the collection lawyer had threatened her the night before on the phone: He told her that if she didn't settle, "the gloves would come off." When the lawyer doesn't deny that he threatened the woman, Dear becomes enraged. "Telling a defendant, pro se, that now the gloves are off?" he says. "To me, that's a threat."
"It's a euphemism," says the anxious lawyer, and makes another attempt to excuse himself. "It was born out of frustration," he balks. Once again, Dear dismisses the case.
Dear knows that the collection lawyers aren't thrilled with how he runs debt court. "I'm just calling it like it is," he says.
Over the past 10 years, the subprime credit card industry—like the subprime mortgage industry, aimed at lower-income people and larded with hidden fees and variable rates—has exploded and, with it, the number of people in debt. In a place like New York, the problem of credit card debt is particularly acute. New York is a city of people who are highly mobile—their addresses change, and it is harder to track them down, as required by law. It's also a city of renters, and, unlike in other parts of the country, people here often don't have home equity to fall back on when they get into economic trouble. An economic downturn has forced more people than ever into debt court and has turned the Brooklyn Civil Courthouse into one of the busiest in the nation.