LSA, SPLC win ‘major victory’ for ‘low-income workers’

Published 4:56 pm Wednesday, January 15, 2020

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The Selma-based Legal Service Alabama (LSA) and the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) are celebrating a “major victory for consumers across Alabama” following an appeals court ruling that found a statute passed by the Alabama Legislature in 2015 unconstitutional.

In its Friday ruling, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals “confirmed the right of low-income Alabamians to protect their wages.”

At the center of the case, Renter’s Realty v. Smith, was Eisha Smith, whose wages were being garnished for money owed to a former landlord.

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People facing such issues were previously allowed via the Alabama Constitution to protect up to $1,000 of “personal property,” but the 2015 statute approved by the legislature undermined that provision.

“The question concerned whether or not the legislature had overstepped its authority in attempting to remove wages as property that could be protected (to the detriment of over a million low-income Alabamians),” a press release from the groups stated.

In the end, the court struck down the statute, ruling it unconstitutional, and stated that the purpose of the $1,000 exemption was to prevent people from becoming destitute or public charges.

The court further noted that such changes would require a constitutional amendment.

The ruling marked the end of a five-year legal battle for both groups.

“This is a huge win for Legal Services Alabama and for the working poor of Alabama,” said LSA Attorney Pam Jackson, adding that her group has litigated hundreds of cases on the issues across the state over the last five years.

For LSA Lead Attorney Frah Majid, the ruling is not only a victory for the two legal groups, but also a victory for all low-income Alabamians that may face a similar predicament.

“In declaring the statute unconstitutional, the court…is helping to protect the wages of Alabama’s poorest citizens,” Majid said. “Without this protection, they would be subject to losing a quarter of every paycheck. This win will ensure they can feed their families, pay for rent, transportation, childcare and other necessary expenses.

For her part, Smith offered praise for LSA for representing her in the case and ensuring that she did not have to “give up before it was over.”

“It is such a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and knowing that we are helping other people too, so maybe they don’t have to go through what I did,” Smith said. “That is so great.”

LSA’s team consisted of Majid and Jackson, while SPLC’s team was led by Supervising Attorney Sara Zampierin.

Others both organizations have assisted in the years-long battles, including LSA’s current Director of Advocacy Michael Fornton, former Director of Advocacy Larry Gardella and former Consumer Law Director Tom Keith, as well as several other attorneys and support staff at both organizations.

An amicus brief written by Mobile consumer attorney Judson Crump was submitted on Smith’s behalf, along with letters of support from Alabama Arise, Alabama Appleseed and the National Association of Consumer Advocates.