Turner rented Winfield’s old home in 2013, moving in with her teenage daughter and adult son, who is mentally disabled and requires special care. By that point, the house had been snatched up for $14,000 by a California-based private equity firm that invests in distressed real estate.
Turner, 43, had been forced to move quickly after a plumbing problem at her previous rental in Ferguson. Raw sewage flooded the basement, ruining her possessions and snuffing out the pilot light on the boiler, which left the family without hot water.
“That was the worst time in my life. I used to cry myself to sleep,” she said.
After her landlord failed to fix the problem, Turner decided to break her lease. But before she could, she was sued by MSD. She owed over $2,000 in unpaid sewer bills for the Ferguson home, the utility claimed.
Turner’s lease clearly stated that the sewer bills were the landlord’s responsibility. The bills had been sent to him, not her. But when she faxed a copy of her lease to MSD’s attorney and called to explain, she was told that MSD could sue her anyway, since she was listed on the account, she said.
Turner didn’t see how she could afford an attorney, nor did she see a point in appearing in court. MSD received a default judgment against her.
In St. Louis, defendants had counsel in less than 8 percent of debt collection cases filed between 2008 and 2012, ProPublica’s analysis shows. And in lower-income black neighborhoods, just 4 percent had a lawyer.
MSD’s lawsuit named both Turner and her landlord as defendants. But so far, only Turner’s wages have been garnished. Last year, Turner was taking home about $740 every two weeks from her job with the state when the garnishment hit. MSD took a quarter of that pay for three months until Turner’s seasonal job was terminated. MSD has seized $1,400, but over $1,100 still remains on the debt.
MSD’s LeComb said the utility had operated according to policy when suing Turner, since “the tenant is the party benefiting from the service,” but that MSD would review how the policy was applied in her case and whether it ought to be changed.
Soon after Turner moved to the Jennings house, she was sued again — this time by auto lender Midwest Acceptance, who claimed she owed more than $10,000.
Turner had taken out a loan 10 years earlier that, like Winfield’s, had been financed by Midwest. In 2005, after Turner was laid off and fell behind on payments, the car was repossessed and sold at auction.
According to Turner’s court file, she was personally served with a summons for the lawsuit in November 2013. She doesn’t recall being served, and when her court date came around, she wasn’t there.
Even if Turner had appeared, it’s unclear that it would have done her any good. With an attorney, however, she might have gotten the case dismissed. That’s because the statute of limitations on Turner’s loan under Missouri law was four years, a period that had long expired by 2013.
But the onus is on the defendant to raise such a defense. As a result, Midwest obtained a judgment.
Midwest declined to discuss Turner’s case, but said that the statute of limitations could be extended if, for instance, a debtor made a voluntary payment on a debt. Turner said she hadn’t done that.
Robert Swearingen, an attorney with the nonprofit Legal Services of Eastern Missouri who specializes in consumer issues, reviewed the lawsuit for ProPublica. Based on the suit and Turner’s recollections, he said, “It seems clear as day to me that they filed the lawsuit outside the statute of limitations.” It was something creditors often did, he said, since defendants rarely know their rights.
Turner has been looking for work since her last job, a seasonal position at UPS, ended earlier this year. Since then, she’s been relying on unemployment to support her family. With a long career as a bus and truck driver, she’s hopeful for work, but if she does find it, she knows she won’t have the full benefit of that paycheck for long. Midwest tries to garnish her paycheck wherever she goes, from Walmart to her job with the state to UPS. And if Midwest doesn’t take a chunk of her pay, MSD just might.
“It’s hard not to go crazy and stress out, you know,” she said. “I just keep praying and asking the Lord for help. That’s all I can do.”