Supporting those who serve

Published 10:23 pm Wednesday, June 10, 2009

America’s service men and women stand up for democracy at home and abroad. We ask them to leave their homes, families, friends and communities to work on our nation’s business.

Sometimes when our service personnel are away from home, they find themselves taken advantage of by retailers who are overzealous with collections. That happened to one young U.S. Navy sailor formerly stationed in Norfolk and now posted overseas. This particular sailor bought a refurbished computer that included a one-year parts and labor warranty from a company in the greater Hampton Roads area.

Unfortunately, the computer never worked. The sailor took it in twice for repair, but repairs were never made. He went to his judge advocate general, who suggested that he cancel his contract and ask for return of the installments he paid.

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The sailor went to the retailer with a witness to give back the computer. The store would not accept the return, at first. Then said they would accept it but would charge a restocking fee. From the store, the sailor called his JAG officer, who told him that there was no provision in the contract for a restocking fee. The client left the computer at the store.

The sailor later learned that the retailer filed an action against him for the cost of the computer, plus interest, failed to properly notify him of the action, won a default judgment against him and then instituted a garnishment against his military pay.

Situations like this one highlight the need for the American Bar Association Military Pro Bono Project. This project brings together service personnel with members of the private bar who represent the military personnel in local courts for free. JAG staff often are only licensed to practice law in states away from where they are stationed, making it impossible for them to represent military clients in state and local courts.

The JAG staff vets the cases before posting them on The Web site brings the cases and the private bar together, allowing lawyers to review and sign up for cases in their locales and areas of expertise.

In less than a year, I’m proud to say, this program has helped nearly 100 service men and women receive a fair deal during their day in court.

Through the ABA Military Pro Bono Project, the sailor from the Norfolk area began working with Jessica Martyn of Troutman Sanders in Norfolk, who has jumped into the case with both feet.

As she explains it, “During the time in question, the sailor was sent to a temporary base in Florida and then overseas — a circumstance those in the military know well. The retailer never sent him mail about his account.”

Because he did not receive notice of the action from either the retailer or the court-appointed guardian appointed to notify him of the action, the sailor missed three hearing dates, and the court entered a judgment against him after the third. Martyn points out that the retailer and the guardian had ample information to contact the sailor. Instead, the retailer pushed to collect on a product that never worked.

Martyn, who is also the wife of a Navy pilot, has succeeded in stopping the garnishment of the sailor’s military pay and in getting the case re-opened. The retailer failed to show for the hearing on the sailor’s motion to set aside the default judgment, and a trial is set for the end of June, although Martyn anticipates the case could be resolved without the need for a trial.

“This was so obviously a case of a client who needed help against a retailer who sold faulty equipment. It was not a case that this particular sailor could handle from his current duty station,” she said. “I felt good to be able to help someone deserving.”

The ABA feels good that by partnering with JAG offices and local lawyer volunteers, we can provide legal support to the men and women in our armed forces, serving away from home.

As we observe Flag Day and the Fourth of July – our summer patriotic holidays, we ask members of the legal community who want to help service personnel to visit and sign up to take a case. Your expertise can make a difference in the life of a man or woman in uniform.