Law’s Bryan Adamson wins groundbreaking case in Washington Appellate Court

In a recent verdict from the Washington Court of Appeals, Professor Bryan Adamson (LAW ‘90) won a groundbreaking victory for re-entry rights of formerly incarcerated citizens that will help curb unjust debt collection practices in the state of Washington.

Before rejoining Case Western Reserve School of Law faculty last year as the David L. Brennan Chaired Professor of Law and associate dean of diversity, Adamson spent 18 years at Seattle University School of Law, where he taught law and regulation of media and the arts, as well as consumer protection. But, it was Adamson’s pro bono work in the Re-Entry Clinic at Seattle University that led him to Terry Gaines, the final client he served after nearly two decades at the school. 

In 2012, Gaines was sentenced to nine years in prison and fined for trafficking in stolen goods. After serving nearly six years in prison, he regained his freedom but faced a parabolically escalating fine that, by law, accrued interest each year. 

Shortly after being released, though he was less than a month late in making payment arrangements, Gaines’ legal financial obligation (LFO) was referred to a debt collection agency under the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 19.16.500, which added more than $700,000 to his total obligation. What was once a $1.8 million LFO had ballooned to almost $4 million.

With Seattle University Re-Entry Clinic law students Ryan McGowan, Alyssa Garcia, Hyun Mi Kim laying the groundwork for the brief, Gaines’ legal team was bold in advancing novel, but critical, issues under Washington Code 19.16.500, noting that the statute worked to disfavor indigent citizens and advantage debt collection agencies. While their argument was rebuffed in the initial trial when the court ruled that it did not have the authority to remove debt from collection and nullify the fee, the appeal went their way.

“The statute which allowed for an extraordinary fine even if a debtor is a mere 31 days late making a payment to the clerk placed Mr. Gaines’ due process and Eighth Amendment rights in serious doubt,” said Adamson. “As if the injustice the statute imposes couldn’t be made worse, the debt collection fees and costs extend the time in which a formerly incarcerated person remains under state supervision, where they can be denied full community re-entry until the debt collections fees are paid off like the original obligation.”

Oral arguments were held virtually in December with Adamson, the opposing counsel for the prosecutors’ office and the debt collection agency. On Jan. 26, the Court of Appeals agreed with Adamson and his team and in a groundbreaking decision, concluded that trial courts have the statutory authority to review and modify legal financial obligations—an authority that no Washington appellate-level court had ever before recognized.

The concurring opinion in the case went further, citing Adamson’s scholarship, “Debt Bondage: How Private Collection Agencies Keep the Formerly Incarcerated Tethered to the Criminal Justice System,” while acknowledging that the trial court should have examined and decided whether to take the client’s debt out of collections. 

The concurring judges criticized the lack of legislative attention given to debts that have been transferred out of the courts and referred to collection agencies, which are given wide berth to extract exorbitant fees and costs upon debtors while imposing an unequal burden on people of color and the poor.

In the closing opinion, the Washington Court of Appeals concluded: “Gaines asks this court to hold that these practices violate his due process rights and violate the Eighth Amendment. We do not reach that question today. But, all the thought, concern and consideration given to formulating rules to protect indigent defendants from crushing legal financial obligation debt should extend beyond the sentencing date. Any protections are illusory so long as courts allow private debt.” 

While seeking to have his excess debt nullified when the trial court hears his case again, Gaines has made it clear that he intends to continue to press for law reform of the public-private debt collection partnership which continues to work its injustices against the indigent.