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Debtor’s jail?

South Hadley man describes day he was jailed in dispute of $508

KEVIN GUTTING
Daniel Okoroafor of South Hadley.

KEVIN GUTTING Daniel Okoroafor of South Hadley.

SOUTH HADLEY — Iheanyi Daniel Okoroafor, a 73-year-old African immigrant and retired mental health case manager, thought he’d get a chance to explain to a judge why he didn’t pay for a furnace repair he says was not properly done.

Never did he think the June 11 hearing in the Belchertown small claims court over his unpaid $508 debt would land him behind bars.

But at the end of the session before Judge Robert S. Murphy in Eastern Hampshire District Court, Okoroafor was found in contempt of court and hauled off to jail in handcuffs.

“I was shocked,” he said in an interview at his home on Ingram Street in South Hadley Falls.

In a brief telephone interview, Murphy said he is not permitted to comment on any case that might be pending before the court or potentially returning in the future.

The incident gained attention in legal circles after Amherst bankruptcy attorney Greta LaMountain Biagi — who was in court that day on an unrelated case — reported what she had witnessed in an email to fellow members of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. She said several lawyers across the country volunteered to file an appearance for Okoroafor if he was not released from jail.

“It was very distressing to me to see that he was being held in contempt when he was testifying honestly in my opinion, and when he was testifying that he did not have the funds to make the payment,” LaMountain Biagi said.

Murphy sentenced Okoroafor to 30 days in jail — or until the debt was paid. Okoroafor wound up spending about 12 hours at the Hampshire County regional lockup in Northampton before his 38-year-old daughter, Amara Okoroafor, arrived to pay his debt and secure his release. She lives in Green Belt, Md., but was visiting relatives in Boston at the time of her father’s arrest. She got to Northampton with the money around 2:30 a.m.

Okoroafor recalls being led to the cell while chained to another prisoner. The prison staff member who took his mugshot told him he had never seen someone of his age being brought to jail for a debt so small. He was warned of the dangers of being in prison, including being sexually assaulted. He was then given yellow prison garb to change into, he recalled.

“This was something that I thought would never happen in my life,” he said. “It wasn’t something that any human being would wish even on his enemy.”

Okoroafor was the defendant in a small claims case brought in March 2013 by Ambient Heating and Air Conditioning in Granby. According to court files, the contractor asserted that Okoroafor did not pay $459.65 for service work done on a boiler in February 2013.

After Okoroafor failed to appear for a hearing in April 2013, the court ordered him to pay the bill. Court costs had brought the debt up to $508.27.

According to an audio recording of that hearing, Murphy told Okoroafor that a previous judge had ordered him to either pay that amount or appear with an attorney. Okoroafor told Murphy that he lacked the money to pay the debt or hire an attorney.

He also told the judge that the contractor did not complete the job for which he had been billed.

Raymond Boisjolie, president of Ambient Heating and Air Conditioning, disputes this. In an interview with the Gazette, he said his company did the work it was supposed to and Okoroafor provided him with a check for $350 of the $800 bill, promising to pay the rest the following month — but never did.

“That is the truth,” Boisjolie said.

In court and in a later interview, Okoroafor said he did not pay the balance because the bill was higher than he anticipated and because the repairs did not resolve the problem.

Okoroafor told Murphy that his main source of income is a $2,000 monthly pension from the state, and that he pays 10 percent of this to his church each month, a practice known as tithing. The church he supports, he said, is Resurrection Life Ministries in Northampton, a Pentecostal church where he has been a member for more than 10 years. After paying monthly bills — including medical bills for his wife, Evelyn, who suffers from dementia — he told the judge that he is “left almost without anything.”

According to the recording, Murphy responded, “Other than the $200 you pay to your church every month?” The judge concluded that Okoroafor was able to pay the debt, found him in contempt of court for failing to do so and ordered him to jail.

LaMountain Biagi said she believes the court made two improper demands of Okoroafor: To pay a debt in full and to bring a lawyer.

“My position is you cannot force someone to obtain counsel,” she said. Besides, she said, an attorney’s fee likely would have totaled more than Okoroafor’s debt.

LaMountain Biagi, who has been a bankruptcy attorney for 10 years, said she tells her clients there is no such thing anymore as debtors prison, and that as long as they appear in court and testify honestly about their financial situation, they will not go to jail.

“Basically that day showed me that I’m wrong, or that I easily could be wrong,” she said.

Also upsetting, she said, was the judge’s focus on the fact that Okoroafor tithes. While she is not an actively religious person, she said, the country was founded on the principle of free speech, including freedom of religion.

“The court focusing on that as, what appeared to me, primary reason he could pay his debt seems really inconsistent with everything that I believe,” she said.

Experts weigh in

Legal scholars who listened to the recording of the June 11 hearing say they believe Murphy did not ask enough questions of Okoroafor to determine whether he had the ability to pay the debt. According to Massachusetts state law, they say, pension money cannot be counted toward determining ability to pay off a debt.

“State law is very clear: No one can order you to give away the right to your pension,” said Dalié Jiménez, associate professor of law at the University of Connecticut.

Eric Gouvin, dean and professor of law at Western New England University, emphasized that Okoroafor was not put in jail because he could not pay his debt, but because it was Murphy’s opinion that he could pay the debt and refused to.

“It seems like you’re throwing the guy in jail for $508, and that seems outrageous — that’s not really what’s going on here,” Gouvin said. “We did away with debtors prison.”

What Murphy could be criticized for, said Gouvin, lies in the question of whether he did a thorough enough investigation into whether Okoroafor had enough non-exempt income or assets to pay off the debt.

“Just because someone’s getting a state pension doesn’t mean they don’t have to pay their bills, right?” he said. “But the judge has to assess somebody’s ability to pay.”

Gouvin notes that according to the recording, Murphy did not ask about Okoroafor’s bank account, the equity of his home, or the value of his car.

Jiménez agreed that it was unclear whether Okoroafor could have used non-pension funds to pay his debt. But even if Okoroafor were determined to have enough non-exempt funds to pay the contractor, she said, the next step did not have to be jail. The court could have given him the option to either pay upfront, to pay by selling his assets or have the debt deducted from a non-exempt source of income.

“If they truly have the income, they will just pay it,” she said of defendants in similar situations. “It’s just a reality check ... They don’t want the sheriff to come to their house and take their car.”

On the matter of tithing, Gouvin and Jiménez said that under federal law, it is protected from being counted toward one’s ability to pay off the debt. However, they said, Massachusetts law is less clear.

They did not echo the criticism offered by LaMountain Biagi, saying instead that it is reasonable to tell someone they must pay off a debt before paying their church.

“I do think it is a little odd that someone will voluntarily make a gift to a charity when they legally owe money to another party. I don’t understand the ethics of that,” said Gouvin. “It seems like you should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s.”

Nonetheless, Jiménez added, the court cannot order how exempt income must be spent. “The legislature has said these are things that should not be judged.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.

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