Seattle ok's Suing Facebook "Friends"
of Parking Ticket Deadbeats
Facebook users beware! Seattle's contract ticket collection agency, AllianceOne Receivables Management is using Facebook as a way to identify individuals who might employ people that owe unpaid fines. The problem is that Facebook and other internet postings are not what courts traditionally considered to be reliable evidence of employment for wage garnishment lawsuits. However, the need for revenue may trump justice as collections on deadbeat debtors extend to their Facebook friends.
Anyone with a Facebook page containing posts from debtors can potentially be accused of being their employer--even if the postings say nothing about the debtor being an employee. The position of the Seattle Municipal Court, backing their collection agency contractor, is a serious hazard to anyone who volunteers or is a member of a social organization that uses Facebook. Anybody you communicate with on your Facebook or social media pages could potentially owe money to a government agency--debt that may become attached to you through what is known as "parasitic debt recovery" practices.
If a collection agency falsely certifies with the court that you are a legitimate employer, you can be sent a court order to garnish a debtor's wages even if you do not employ anyone. The Seattle Municipal Court claims that the ticket collection agents only need a mere "reason to believe" that you are an employer of a debtor--so truth and justice may be irrelevant. If you don't get an attorney to file a legal answer within 20 days, you can be sued for the entire debt. However, signing the legal garnishee answer form they send you could get you in trouble too since the form requires that you provide a date of termination if you don't presently employ the debtor. The form has no option for a person to say that they had never employed the debtor--and, it is a gross misdemeanor to sign false employment records!
The collector claims they don't necessarily have to serve you proper legal notices either. As long as papers are sent "someplace" associated with you, that might be enough to implicate you into a very lengthy and complex legal process designed for big corporate employers. The City and AllianceOne bet that you will just pay the debt instead of spending the $10,000 to $20,000 it will cost you to defend an employer garnishment lawsuit. Collection agents know that most people would sign as past "employers" or just pay the bill because it is usually less costly than paying an employment lawyer to go to court. Parking ticket garnishments lawsuits usually only amount to a few hundred dollars, but they can occasionally range into thousands of dollars if its for debts of a habitual repeat offender.
In January of 2013, AllianceOne demanded that Facebook user David Petrich personally garnish the wages of a scofflaw parking offender he never employed. The parking ticket debtor owed the City of Seattle nearly $8,000 for ten years worth of parking tickets. AllianceOne claimed that the debtor's Facebook postings on a community farmers market page linked the debtor as a "Facebook friend" of Petrich. In this case, the debtor was an independent merchant selling vegetables to the public at a community farmer's market where Petrich volunteered. The market ended several months before Petrich was ordered to garnish the debtor's wages. The collection agency claimed Petrich was employing the debtor for his leisure Facebook time even though the debtors personal postings had nothing to do with Petrich or the farmer's market--they completely made up a story to start a lawsuit!
AllianceOne claimed that internet postings proved Petrich personally employed the debtor despite the lack of any evidence that he employed anyone. Before social media sites like Facebook, Seattle's contract collection agency had to rely on traditional due diligence such as State labor department employer records, W2's, pay stubs, and credit reports to identify employers.
In June of 2013, AllianceOne sued Petrich for not forking over wage garnishments and was awarded a judgement lien for the scofflaw debtors entire $8,000 worth of parking fines. Petrich complained to the Seattle Municipal Court that AllianceOne had no evidence that the debtor was ever an employee nor did they serve proper notices of legal proceedings. The Municipal Court's accounting department determined that aggressive legal actions were within the law according to AllianceOne who is also contracted to advise the City on proper collection procedures.
The legal actions left Petrich with a large personal debt that damaged his credit, caused him to lose his income, stopped his home refinancing and halted a fundraising program for the community nonprofit farmer's market that was forced to close over the matter. The collection agency demanded immediate payment of the entire debt and informed Petrich that they would do everything within the law to collect it including seizing of bank accounts and garnishment of his wife's wages from her employer.
After ten months of attempted collection actions, AllianceOne finally dropped the case against Petrich after the matter was brought to the attention of the Seattle City Council and Mayor's office. Petrich then filed a claim for damages with the City. But after waiting 90 days for an answer, the City said it is not liable for the actions of its corporate contractors because the City is indemnified. The City traffic court officials continue to blame Petrich for not signing the garnishment order that would have falsely implicated him as a previous employer of the debtor.
Petrich alleges that the City was negligent to allow their collection agency to come after him. Petrich warns that the City is creating a public danger by allowing its ticket collection contractor to abuse the garnishment process as a means to arbitrary intimidate third parties into paying the debts of those they either can't find or can't get to pay. The City, by law, may not owe an obligation to individuals for the bad acts of its collection contractors. However, the City owes protection to the public at large, by mandate of policies and contracts that preclude malicious behavior of City ticket collectors.
Petrich is also arguing that State law should require more evidence than just Facebook postings to sue people for being suspected "employers" of debtors. As it stands now, nearly anyone who participates in Facebook social groups can be arbitrarily targeted for debts they had nothing to do with. Be especially concerned if a person with unpaid tickets is posting comments or messages on a page you control, the collection agency can claim you hired them to write for you, regardless of the content.
Accusing people of owing debts to debtors is serious business. The scary thing about garnishment law, is that accused "garnishees" who are claimed to owe debtors can be imprisoned until they pay the debt--it is the only way that a person can be put in jail for being in debt in Washington State. For those Facebook users who get snared in a parasitic debt collection scheme, here is the truth about the law:
1.)A debt collector actually does need to have factual evidence that you are the employer of a debtor before filing a wage garnishment lawsuit against you. They also need to separately have "reason to believe" that you owe the debtor wages for regular work.
2.)It is not legal for a debt collector to attempt to force you to pay money you don't owe or make you sign anything that is not true.
3.)Like any other lawsuit, State law requires the debt collector to serve notices to you directly. If they can't prove to the court that they delivered the lawsuit papers to you, you are not getting your constitutional right to due process.
AllianceOne sends thousands of garnishment orders out each year on behalf of the Seattle Municipal Court (about 6,000 in 2007 according to City records). The vast majority of them get sent to legitimate corporate employers, but the City has ruled that they have no liability for what the contract debt collector does to enhance it's profits even though a contract between the City of Seattle and AllianceOne specifically states that the City has authority over the debt collection procedures.
Under Seattle's aggressive "war on cars", the City's Municipal Court has enjoyed a two-fold increase in parking ticket revenues over the last several years. As citation fees rise, so do the number of delinquent offenders. In down economic times, corporate collectors like AllianceOne salivate for municipal court contracts that produce enormous profits. Seattle enhances ticket revenues by using the services of a large debt collection firm that can also help insulate the City from unscrupulous debt collection activities.
AllianceOne claims to be the largest collection agency in the world. They are a multibillion dollar international corporation that employs thousands of debt collectors and attorneys--they collect overdue traffic and parking ticket debts for over 80 Washington courts alone. Many agree that it is not ethical for the City of Seattle to put innocent citizens at risk of being brought into debt collection lawsuits, without warning, and left to battle against an aggressive mega-collection corporation with such unlimited legal powers. A multinational conglomerate is not going to have interest in the administration of justice over profit as should a local municipality that is directly accountable to its constituents.
Innocent citizens should not be exposed to the risk of severe damages from parking enforcement procedures that don't strictly follow State garnishment and collection laws. Parasitic recovery of municipal fines is legally and ethically wrong. Garnishment laws were created to help business community deliver goods and services at fair prices, not to enable unwarranted government intrusions. Municipal courts have numerous other methods they can use to collect from ticket debtors without burdening private individuals and small businesses. How many innocent people will have their lives needlessly intruded, finances wrecked and livelihoods destroyed to support mega-collection agency profits through the collection of government fines?
If you are a Facebook user or belong to any social organizations, you should be concerned about unwarranted government intrusion through your casual social contacts. Take action and call the Seattle Mayor's office or your State legislator and tell them that you don't want to be punished for someone else's debts--tell them to abolish parking ticket garnishments entirely, if they can't curb the abuse!