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Law and empathy at issue in jailing of a debtor

Specialists say judge erred on two fronts in sentencing pensioner over an unpaid $508

Iheanyi D. Okoroafor was photographed at his home in South Hadley.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Iheanyi D. Okoroafor was photographed at his home in South Hadley.

In a court system overburdened by the woes of thousands of debtors, what happened to Iheanyi D. Okoroafor is unheard of — a 73-year-old retiree being taken away in handcuffs because he had not paid a debt of $508.27.

As he exited the courtroom, he beseeched the judge: “My wife is in the hospital. I need to go and see her.’’

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It happened on June 11 in Belchertown District Court, where Judge Robert S. Murphy Jr. found Okoroafor in contempt and sentenced him to 30 days in jail for defying a small-claims order to pay a debt to a local heating contractor.

Murphy’s decision that Okoroafor had the money to settle the debt, according to an audiotape of the hearing, was based on the fact that Okoroafor receives a $2,000 monthly state pension. Under state law, however, state pensions cannot be considered by the court as income when calculating whether a defendant has the resources to pay off such a debt.

Compounding that apparent error, the judge made his decision without asking whether Okoroafor had a bank account and, if so, whether it held any funds.

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Greta LaMountain Biagi, an Amherst attorney who was in the courtroom for an unrelated case, said she was moved to tears when Okoroafor was taken away in handcuffs.

“The judge’s decision was absolutely horrifying, and an abuse of discretion. He showed no empathy and no humanity,’’ said Biagi, who represents consumers in personal bankruptcy cases.

Okoroafor was freed at about 2 a.m. the next day, after his daughter, Amara Okoroafor, drove from Boston to the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton and paid the debt.

Dalié Jiménez, a law professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law who has done extensive research on debt collection laws, said the Massachusetts law that exempts state pension income from debtor judgments is clear. Therefore, she said, “the judge could not have ordered Mr. Okoroafor to pay the judgment from this income.’’

The State Retirement Board and other experts in debt collection agree with Jiménez’s interpretation of state law.

Jiménez, who reviewed the case file and audiotapes at The Boston Globe’s request, said that even if the income was not exempt, it was “particularly egregious’’ that the judge sent Okoroafor to jail, given his age, family circumstances, and size of the debt.

Last week, a court spokeswoman sidestepped questions about whether Murphy might have stumbled legally, or whether court officials believed his decision to jail Okoroafor was justified, saying that judges cannot comment on pending cases.

AUDIO: Listen to the court hearing

The spokeswoman, Erika Gully-Santiago, declined to discuss the case, but issued a statement: “The applicability of a statute is a legal question decided by judges in the context of a particular case. Judges apply the law to the facts they deem credible in rendering decisions.”

Contempt citations and jail sentences are rare in debt collection cases, and rarer still if the debtor is elderly or infirm. Court officials said they have no way to track how often it happens.

To some, Okoroafor is not a sympathetic figure: In the last 18 months, he has written angry letters denouncing the contractor, South Hadley’s Board of Health, and its Police Department, asserting there was a conspiracy against him. He even sent a complaint to a prior judge in the case, threatening to report him to the Judicial Conduct Commission.

Raymond E. Boisjolie, the Granby contractor who sued Okoroafor, said in an interview last week that he has lost much more than the $508.27 through having to attend a half-dozen court sessions.

Okoroafor, Boisjolie said, “is an idiot.’’ Okoroafor, in turn, has insisted all along that he should not have to pay Boisjolie because the contractor did not do the work but billed him anyway.

Okoroafor, who emigrated from Nigeria in 1978, has a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. Before he retired in 2007 he was a supervisor in the state Department of Mental Health.

The case leaves Murphy, who was appointed to the District Court two years ago, in an awkward position. The judge, whose only role in the case was presiding over the June 11 hearing, is not permitted to comment.

District Court judges typically juggle large criminal caseloads, and cases such as health commitments and evictions. In the District Courts, where staff has been cut by 16 percent since 2006, judges must do their own legal research.

Against that backdrop, Murphy and his colleagues are supposed to know the intricacies of debt collection law, including which income is exempt from judgment.

And small-claims cases like Okoroafor’s seldom require the intervention of judges; court clerks usually adjudicate the disputes.

In April 2013, Boisjolie won a default judgment because Okoroafor did not show up for a hearing. Okoroafor’s subsequent hand-crafted motions to set aside the judgment and hold a hearing were denied.

When the case returned to court on June 11, it appears Murphy misunderstood another judge’s notes in the case file, thinking the previous judge had ordered — not simply advised — Okoroafor to hire a lawyer if he refused to pay up. In court, Murphy asked Okoroafor if he had found a lawyer; the defendant said he had tried, but could not afford one.

Biagi, who was waiting for her own case to be heard, said she was alarmed. No judge, she said, can order a defendant — especially a small-claims defendant — to hire an attorney. And she noted that the cost of doing so would easily exceed the amount of the debt.

On the narrow merits of the case, Okoroafor and the two judges whose patience he tested at the successive hearings often seemed to be talking past one another: They kept asking why he had flouted several court orders over a year’s time to pay the debt. He, in turn, kept insisting – politely — that he did not owe the debt because the contractor never did the work in question and had proof of that if they would only grant him a hearing on the merits.

“All right, sir, you have ignored an order of the court. I am going to give you a final opportunity to tell me why you can’t pay this man the money the court ordered (you) to pay some time ago,’’ Murphy told Okorafor on June 11.

“Your honor, the reason I’ve stated is that he did not do that job.’’

Murphy, his voice rising, replied: “This is not your trial. That ship has sailed, sir. This court has made an order for you to pay the money.’’

“And I didn’t have the ability to pay that money,’’ Okoroafor replied.

To issue a contempt citation, Murphy had to establish not only that the debt had not been paid, but that Okoroafor had the money to pay it. When Murphy asked about his finances, Okoroafor said he received the $2,000 monthly state pension.

And then he told the judge that he tithed, donating $200 from his pension to his church each month, a disclosure that, according to the audiotape, the judge seemed to see as evidence that Okoroafor could pay the debt.

“I find by clear and convincing evidence that he has an ability to pay . . . I find that he willfully refuses to pay,’’ Murphy ruled. “He will be held in custody until he removes the contempt by paying the money owed.’’

Jiménez, the consumer debt specialist, said the judge did not legally meet that standard, given the exempt income and the cursory inquiry into Okorafor’s assets. Murphy, she said, could have ordered the payment if he believed Okoroafor was hiding assets or had lied when he said he couldn’t afford to pay. But the transcript contains no hint that Murphy disbelieved him.

The Okoroafor case, she said, raises larger issues for the court. Jiménez expressed concern that judges may not be knowledgeable enough to know when certain income, like state pensions, is exempt from judgments; and that other debtors may have been ordered to pay debts from income that is legally walled off from court judgments.

The court system, she pointed out, “is set up to be adversarial,’’ where lawyers ordinarily oppose one another. “But when one party is unrepresented,’’ she said, “it’s especially important that the court know and apply the law correctly.’’

For Okoroafor, the court experience has been a traumatic exclamation point to a bad year or two. His wife Evelyn, who is 71, has dementia and he can no longer care for her at home. A bank foreclosed and took a single-family rental property he and his wife owned in Springfield. He’s two months behind, he said, on his utility bills. And three months before Murphy declared him able to pay the debt, he said, he began weekly visits to an Amherst food bank because he did not have sufficient income to buy enough food.

Okoroafor, sounding subdued, expressed more sadness than bitterness last week. The judges, he said, “were trying to teach me a lesson because I demanded my rights. I have gone through a lot, too much really.’’

Amara, his daughter, said the family experience has been “harrowing.’’ She and her sister, who both live in Maryland, are preparing to move their parents there, she said, “for the family, financial, and emotional support they cannot get in Massachusetts.”

Related coverage:

Audio: Man sentenced over debt

Discuss: What do you think of the judge’s decision?

Walter Robinson can be reached at walter.robinson@globe.com.
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