Oregon State Bar Bulletin ó DECEMBER 2003

Protection for the Protectors
Bar program provides legal assistance to active
duty reservists and their families

By Melody Finnemore

When Sgt. 1st Class John Minick was called into active duty last January as a member of the Oregon National Guard, he and his wife, Armenda, knew that life would be difficult. What they didnít realize was that the emotional impacts of his absence would be just the tip of the iceberg.

'Financially, itís been an incredible struggle,' she said, noting their yearly income fell from $125,000 last year to about $30,000 this year.

In an effort to make ends meet, Armenda called American General Financial Services, the company that handles their home mortgage, and asked for a break on their monthly payment during Johnís service. The company complied, eliminating their interest rate entirely and reducing their monthly payment to just $50.

A call to Chrysler Motors Corp., which handles the car payments on a Dodge truck John bought for his business as a general contractor, wasnít nearly as positive. Not only did the company refuse to lower his monthly payments or interest rate, Minick says, it also threatened to repossess the truck.

John Minick, who recently was home on leave, said he was surprised to encounter such resistance from the company when he is a loyal Dodge customer who is dedicated to buying American products.

'There are a lot of companies that have been really honorable about this and have gone way above and beyond to help out,' he said. 'Chryslerís about the only holdout and to say theyíve been extremely uncooperative would be an understatement. I kind of get the sense that this is a protest by the Daimler side of the company because Germany doesnít support Americaís involvement in the war.'

In addition, the Minicks are struggling to pay for health coverage and dental bills for their 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. Community contributions through an adopt-a-family program helped them pay $1,000 in property taxes, but they still owe $800 in back taxes and have yet to find the money for this yearís bill.

'Weíve actually considered bankruptcy because we just canít handle all the bills,' John Minick said.

With more than 2,500 Oregon National Guard reservists deployed in locations outside the state ó the highest number deployed since World War II ó John Minick is one of many soldiers battling financial and legal troubles at home. Itís a conflict that no enlisted military personnel should have to face, according to Oregon State Bar president Charlie Williamson.

'While reserve officers are serving their country, they shouldnít have to worry about their families back home,' Williamson said. 'The goal of the Oregon State Bar is to provide Oregonians justice through referral services, assisted legal services for low-income families and the Campaign for Equal Justice. Now, with 2,500 Oregonians called up to active duty in the reserves, we understand thereís a new need.'

Legal protections offered under the Soldiersí and Sailorsí Civil Relief Act (SSCRA) include: a reduced interest rate on mortgage payments, credit cards and other pre-mobilization debt; protection from eviction if the rent is $1,200 or less and a delay of all civil court actions, such as bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce proceedings or personal injury actions. In addition, military personnel are protected against storage lien foreclosure, and have the ability to terminate pre-mobilization leases and reopen default judgments under the SSCRA.

Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, enlisted men and women are entitled to return to their original civilian jobs or another job with the same employer that is equal in seniority, status and pay.

However, many soldiers do not have the legal expertise or financial resources to take advantage of these protections. With that in mind, the Oregon State Bar has partnered with the Office of the Judge Advocate General and the Department of Justice Consumer Protection Section to provide an array of assistance for active duty members and their families. The new program will offer a series of one- to two-hour training sessions for attorneys interested in providing specialized services to active duty military personnel and their families. It also will offer education on the specific legal issues addressed by SSCRA and any applicable provisions in the stateís consumer protection laws.

The state bar, which will administer the program, will maintain a list of pro bono attorneys and lawyers offering reduced fees who are available to assist Oregonís mobilized service members. The list will be available to both the National Guardís JAG Corps and individual military personnel.

In addition, the Oregon Department of Justice will, through its website and written materials, provide military personnel with fact sheets outlining the provisions of the SSCRA, state consumer protection laws and general information on the rights of families with a relative in active duty.

Williamson, Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers and Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson introduced the program during a recent press conference, noting its importance in supporting the nationís heroes.

'The bravery of our servicemen and women and their families is tested every day in many ways. Finding and paying for legal services should not be one of them,' Myers said. 'This program is one way we can honor and respect the response made by these reservists and their families.'

In its portion of the training for attorneys, the Department of Justice will highlight areas where military families may be particularly vulnerable to fraud, such as predatory lending, landlord/tenant issues and car purchases, he added.

These are some of the more common problems Major Mark Ronning sees as a Judge Advocate General for the Oregon National Guard.

'I personally havenít had to deal with these problems because Iím a lawyer and my bark is probably louder, but my job is to handle these types of issues for other people,' he said. 'We have soldiers from around the state who are dealing with these issues on an ongoing basis.'

The rights of active duty reservists often are violated by credit card companies that refuse to lower their interest rates to 6 percent as required under the SSCRA and collection agencies that repossess the belongings of military personnel without a court order. In addition, many enlisted men and women are notified of divorce proceedings while they are overseas.

'Itís real difficult to handle the home issues while your so far away and you donít have access to the tools you need,' Ronning said. 'Youíre lucky if you have e-mail.'

Sgt. Angela Angel, a legal assistant at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt and a National Guard reservist, said she has been fortunate to work for an employer that understands the commitment she made to what she feels is her duty as an American. Angel nominated Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt for a Patriotic Employer Award, which the firm received in May from the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve for going above and beyond in granting leave for military duty.

As a paralegal specialist in the Oregon National Guardís JAG office, Angel sees that legal and financial issues are especially challenging for active duty reservists who are not married.

'If youíre a single person, you have to hope the person you left in charge isnít freaking out and is able to do what youíve asked them to do,' she said.

The Oregon State Barís new military assistance program offers invaluable support for active duty reservists like John Minick and his family, who hope Johnís commitment to protect the country wonít further destroy their livelihood.

'This isnít just for me,' he said. 'I want to see other soldiers get the help they need so they donít have to go through this.'

Attorneys ANSWER THE CALL

The Oregon State Barís establishment of a program to provide pro bono legal assistance to active duty reservists and their families was a call to action for Dan Skerritt, an attorney at Portlandís Tonkon Torp LLC.

Shortly after graduating from law school, Skerritt served four years as a judge advocate general (JAG) for the U.S. Army at the height of the buildup in Vietnam.

'During that time, I realized how difficult it is for the servicemen and their families when they are overseas,' he said.

Skerritt saw firsthand the financial and legal troubles enlisted personnel face, from drastic cuts in income and overwhelming bills to divorce and custody battles.

'I think the issues are very much the same,' he said. 'It puts a lot of strain on families, and I donít think people realize the financial sacrifices these people make when they are called into service overseas.'

The OSB, which will administer the program, will maintain a list of pro bono attorneys and lawyers offering reduced fees who are available to assist Oregonís mobilized service members. The list will be available to both the National Guardís JAG Corps and individual military personnel.

'Iím trying to do what I can to help out,' Skerritt said. 'I know from my experience what itís like, and I hope I can use that experience to help others.'

Retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice George Van Hoomissen, who served as a legal affairs officer while serving as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War, also volunteered his legal expertise immediately after learning about the new program.

'I thought this was a nice gesture to support the troops,' he said. 'Itís a worthy cause and Iím happy to be of service.'

OSB President Charlie Williamson, who has worked with VISTA and Legal Aid Services of Oregon, said the barís military assistance program is yet another opportunity to help others who cannot afford legal counsel.

'When families are placed in serious financial straits because a relative is called to serve, I think we owe them some support and, as the bar association, we owe it to them to help provide legal services,' Williamson said.

For more information on volunteer opportunities with the barís military assistance program, call Kay Pulju at (503) 620-0222, ext. 402.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland freelance writer.

© 2003 Melody Finnemore


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