AYER -- Ayer District Court will soon be sending out notices to more that 800 people who have been the defendant in a small claims case. According to a press release by Northeast Legal Aid, anyone who has had a judgment against them in the past three years may get a chance at a review.

Coming on the heels of a lawsuit settled in August 2017, 11 court districts in northeastern Massachusetts will review settlement agreements that require the defendant to pay monetary damages. Defendants whose only income is Social Security, unemployment or other protected revenue cannot be forced to pay, even in judgments against them.

Some clerks of court may have approved these agreements without consideration to the defendants' income source. Exempt income can not be levied as repayment of debts. In June the NLA petitioned the court, on behalf of three defendants, to send out letters to all defendants whose case was heard either in the court or by a magistrate.

The notice, to be mailed over the next weeks, will tell people of their rights.

The NLA alleges the "persistent, systemic practice" by clerks, citing "hundreds, and the evidence strongly suggests thousands" of instances of people who should not have had to pay settlements.

Pursuant to that petition, the courts agreed to send letters to all those affected by small claims judgments, perhaps leading to case reviews. Rarely, if ever, are small claims litigants represented by an attorney.


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So the clerks educate the parties of court rules.

The August 2017 case, out of Lowell District Court, ended favorably for two defendants who sued the court for relief of payment of debts. NLA represented those defendants and upon delving into records, uncovered what they allege is a pattern. Lowell District Court will mail the 3,081 letters later this month. Other courts in the Essex County and North Shore areas also have agreed to cooperate.

NLA staff attorney Michael Weinhold said in a statement he hopes clerks are retrained and provided with a 10-point checklist of questions to ask debtors.

Protected incomes are:

* Unemployment benefits

* Workers compensation benefits

* Social Security benefits

* Federal old-age, survivors and disability Insurance benefits

* SSI for aged, blind and disabled

* Other disability up to $400 weekly

* Emergency aid for elderly and disabled

* Certain veterans benefits

* Maternal child care

* Transitional aid (AFDC) benefits

* Maternal childcare health services block grants

* Other public assistance

* Payouts from certain Massachusetts employee pension plans

* If income from wage employment is less than $550 per week