The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Bankruptcy Appellate panel's decision that stuck Maria Rivera with unpaid bills for her son's stay in Orange County Juvenile Hall. Judge Stephen Reinhardt's opinion last week called the county's actions "disturbing" in pursuing debt payments from Rivera.
Rivera's son had spent a stint at OC Juvenile Hall late last decade, and the County Probation Department sent Rivera a bill for $16,372 for detention costs and legal expenses upon his release in 2010. She made a good faith effort to pay down the debt, even selling her home to free up enough money to shell out $9,508 that year. When the county pestered her for the rest, Rivera failed to appear before juvenile court, leading to a judgement that Rivera still owed the county $9,905—fuzzy math given her previous payment!
Left with no other options, Rivera filed for bankruptcy the following year while encountering more hardship when she quit her job to take care of her ill son. Fitting the profile of an "honest but unfortunate debtor," per federal bankruptcy law, Rivera got a "fresh start" in January 2012 free from debt obligations. But the county continued its collecting efforts, claiming the rest of the money owed amounted to "domestic support obligation," something from which bankruptcy can't provide cover.
"I felt that they weren't taking into account the payments I already made and they kept charging me more," Rivera told the Weekly in Spanish. "It was a very stressful time because of things going on in my life and also with these bills waiting for me." Rivera tried to get the county sanctioned for its actions, but the judge in the reopened bankruptcy case ultimately sided with them because they had provided food, clothing and medicine to Rivera's son.
Desperate, Rivera eventually got in contact with the Public Law Center, a SanTana-based nonprofit providing free legal services for low-income residents. "This case came through one of our legal clinics," said staff attorney Elizabeth Gonzalez. "Rivera was trying to figure out what to do all these bills coming to her." The Public Law Center teamed with two law firms, Snell & Wilmer and Rutan & Tucker, and fought for Rivera. "Our thought was this can't be domestic support obligation because there's nothing domestic about it."
The Ninth's three-judge panel considered whether Rivera's "fresh start" had been a false start. People can't use bankruptcy to skirt child support and alimony payments no matter what, but did the country really take care of Rivera's son? The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 expanded to protect government institutions providing services like foster and ward care, but stints in juvenile hall, the Ninth Circuit argued, are different.
"Rivera's debt is not inherently intertwined with the establishment of child support obligations," Judge Reinhardt wrote. "To the contrary: it comes not in the course of a child custody hearing but in the wake of a criminal proceeding that results in involuntary detention."
Judges further sifted through the county's faulty logic, writing that OC had no more entitlement to a "domestic support obligation" claim than a credit card company, retailer or hotelier would for clothes, food and medicine charges in similar circumstances. They added that, under the county's thinking, the entire cost of incarceration could be billed as room and board.
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Saving its strongest words for last, the Ninth Circuit called the county's actions "troubling" and "disturbing." In the court's mind, hounding Rivera for debt collection even after she declared bankruptcy hindered her ability to provide support for her son and was at odds with the probation department's own goals of successfully integrating youth back into society. The Ninth Circuit cited it as another example of public institutions imposing financial hardships on those who can least afford it.
After the ruling, Rivera doesn't have to worry about that anymore. "I feel very relaxed, like I can start over in life," she said. "I hope that this decision will make the county behave more ethically in the future."
The legal fight appears to be over. "The Probation Department will be abiding by the decision reached by the Ninth Circuit Court and will be reviewing our policies to ensure that they are consistent with this decision," department spokeswoman Jennifer Palmquist told the Weekly in a written statement.
Rivera is also very thankful for the attorneys who helped her in a time of need. "We are ecstatic with the outcome," Gonzalez says. "It's a great ruling because this was an issue that had not been previously decided."