LSA and SPLC Protect wages of Low-Income workers by having statute declared unconstitutional

Legal Services Alabama is excited to announce a major victory for consumers across Alabama in the case of Renter’s Realty v. Smith. On January 10, 2020, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals confirmed the right of low-income Alabamians to protect their wages. This right was brought into question by a law passed in 2015 by the Alabama Legislature. The decision, confirming the right to protect up to $1,000 in wages, marks the conclusion of a five-year battle for Legal Services Alabama and Southern Poverty Law Center (who also represented Ms. Smith in the appeal).

The primary issue on appeal involved a section of the Alabama Constitution which allows individuals to protect up to $1,000 of “personal property.” The question concerned whether or the 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). The Court of Appeals, relying on over a hundred years of law, struck down the statute and stated that the purpose of exemption laws is to prevent people from becoming destitute or public charges. The Court also noted that such changes to the Constitution can only be achieved by a constitutional amendment.

LSA Attorney Pam Jackson commented, “This is a huge win for Legal Services Alabama and for the working poor of Alabama.” LSA has litigated hundreds of cases across Alabama on this issue for nearly five years.  

LSA Attorney Farah Majid elaborated, “In declaring the statute unconstitutional, the Court today is helping to protect the wages of Alabama’s poorest citizens. 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.”

LSA and SPLC collaborated on the case for Ms. Eisha Smith, whose downward spiral was kicked off by a wage garnishment for money owed to an old landlord. Upon hearing the news of this decision, Ms. Smith said, “I just want to thank Legal Services Alabama for all that you have done to help me with this, and I am so glad that I did not 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 do not have to go through what I did, that is so great.”

LSA’s team includes former Consumer Lead Attorney (and current Rural Coordinating Attorney) Farah Majid and Huntsville Lead Attorney Pam Jackson. SPLC’s team is led by Senior Supervising Attorney Sara Zampierin. Many others at both organizations have assisted with this battle over the years, including LSA’s current Director of Advocacy Michael Forton, former Director of Advocacy Larry Gardella, former Consumer Law Director Tom Keith, as well as many other attorneys and support staff at both SPLC and LSA.

An amicus brief written by Mobile consumer attorney Judson Crump was submitted on behalf of Ms. Smith’s position, that was supported by Alabama Appleseed, Alabama Arise, and the National Association of Consumer Advocate. The collaboration of national agencies across several states, helped the position of Alabama’s working poor achieve success.

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