Tarrant County District clerk sued over fee-collection letters

Posted Friday, Feb. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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District Clerk Tom Wilder faces lawsuits from seven Tarrant County residents who accuse him of sending threatening letters to collect court fees from divorce cases even though they were declared indigent under state law.

Wilder is accused of engaging in conduct to "intimidate" low-income litigants into paying court costs even though they properly filed indigence affidavits.

The two lawsuits were filed this week in Tarrant County district court.

Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and the Texas Advocacy Project are representing the residents.

They include disabled people, domestic violence victims and parents whose children were sexually assaulted by relatives, according to court documents.

Odell Campbell, Shawnta Renea Coleman and Thomas Ray Robertson contend that Wilder sent letters demanding payment long after their divorce cases were settled.

The Texas Advocacy Project is representing Campbell, Coleman and Robertson in their lawsuit.

Legal Aid of Northwest Texas is representing four plaintiffs, including Diana J. Najera, who is disabled.

They are seeking a temporary restraining order, as well as temporary and permanent injunctions to stop Wilder from collecting the fees.

The Texas Advocacy Project provides free legal services to people involved in family law and sexual assault and stalking cases, according to its website.

"I do believe this is an egregious violation of access to the courts by poor people," said Andrea Sloan, an attorney and executive director of the advocacy project.

She said that her clients did not receive letters until almost a year after their cases were settled and that they were sent after the deadline had passed for them to appeal to the 2nd Court of Appeals.

Wilder said that he was simply following the orders of state district judges when he sought to collect the money and that he is not blocking anyone's access to the courts.

"We will vigorously defend what we have done. Everything we did on that collection program was done with advice from the district attorney's office," Wilder said.

"Our policy is to follow orders from the courts, and the evidence will show that's what we did."

Access problems

Access to the civil courts has been a concern in Texas for years.

Recently, the Texas Supreme Court began taking steps to make it easier for the growing number of people who want a divorce but can't afford an attorney.

The court approved do-it-yourself divorce forms, which can be used only when the divorce is uncontested and the couple doesn't have child custody issues or property to divide.

The justices who wrote an opinion in favor of the forms said that they are not universally applicable but that they will help the growing number of Texans who need access to the legal system but can't afford it.

People can represent themselves in divorce proceedings and submit an indigence application at the beginning of the case, allowing court costs to be waived unless someone has a "windfall" or assets are discovered.

Court officials can oppose the designation at the time of the filing.

If the application is granted, the county absorbs the costs.

In Tarrant County, the filing fee for a divorce with no children is $271.

Sloan said Campbell, Coleman and Robertson submitted affidavits documenting their indigence.

Wilder initially contested one of the affidavits but later dropped his complaint.

Throughout their proceedings, the three plaintiffs -- who filed for divorce in March 2011 -- believed that they would not be responsible for court fees. Their cases were completed by July 2011.

So they were surprised, and scared, when they received letters from Wilder's office in May 2012 seeking payment, according to court documents.

Campbell was told to pay $271, Coleman $308 and Robertson $329.

The letters said that if payment wasn't received immediately, the Sheriff's Department could seize their property.

In Najera's case, she filed for divorce in 2008 after her son died and her husband became increasingly violent, according to the lawsuit.

She also filed an indigence affidavit, accompanied by a certificate indicating that Legal Aid determined that her income was well below the poverty line.

The affidavit indicated that Najera got Supplemental Security Income and food stamps and had a part-time job.

On June 22, 2012, Najera received a bill from Wilder for $314.

'Terrifying' letters

Sloan described the collection letters as "terrifying" to her clients. Sloan added that language found in divorce decrees is "standard" and that judges don't set dollar amounts.

She said the district clerk keeps track of court fees.

Sloan wondered how many others are in the same predicament.

"We don't know how many letters have gone out. We don't know how many were referred to collection agencies," she said.

Wilder said he doesn't know how many family law cases have outstanding court fees, but he said that in 2011, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court approved funding for an in-house collections department for family law cases in the district clerk's office.

Wilder said that his staff is reviewing cases year by year and that the collections can go back as far as 10 years. Last year, Wilder said his office collected over half a million dollars in delinquent court fees.

The district clerk has also opposed the Supreme Court's new divorce forms, saying that more people will claim they are indigent when they actually have money to pay their costs.

The lawsuits state that the divorce decrees contain "boilerplate" language, "IT IS ORDERED AND DECREED that costs of court are to be borne by the party who incurred them."

State District Judge Michael Sinha said his family law court does not prepare divorce decrees.

The forms that are often used are "one size fits all," he said.

"This puts Mr. Wilder in an awkward position. The decree may say one thing, but the judge may have declared the person to be indigent."

Assistant District Attorney Chris Ponder, who is representing Wilder in the lawsuit filed by the advocacy agency, said the divorce decrees stated that the parties were supposed to pay court costs.

He said some divorce decrees state when someone is indigent.

Ponder said Wilder was acting "consistently with what was written in the divorce decrees."

"In a lot of these instances, there are parties that agree on the language. The language is completely in control of the parties to say what they want it to say," he said.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696

Twitter: @fwstliz

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