LSA Win at the Alabama Supreme Court Protects Wages of Low-Income Workers

Legal Services Alabama is excited to announce a major victory for consumers across Alabama in the case of Renter’s Realty v. Smith. On September 18, 2020, the Alabama Supreme Court allowed a Court of Appeals opinion to stand, confirming 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.

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 Civil 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.

Today, the Alabama Supreme Court quashed the Writ of Certiorari they had issued, allowing the Court of Appeals opinion to stand.

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 represented 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 Farah Majid, Pam Jackson and Laurie McFalls. At the Supreme Court level, two amicus briefs were submitted on behalf of low-income Alabamians: one on behalf of Alabama Appleseed, Alabama Arise, and the National Association of Consumer Advocates, written by Mobile attorney Judson Crump; and one on behalf of the Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama, written by Huntsville attorney John Watts. LSA co-counseled with Sara Zampierin, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, to represent Ms. Smith at the Court of Appeals level.

Today’s win represents the final culmination of LSA’s five-year long battle against a facially unconstitutional statute. This decision helps protects working class Alabamians and their wages from being taken from them, particularly during this most difficult economic climate.