Noach Dear has worn many hats during his nearly 30 years of public service. The hat he currently dons is that of a jurist, as he presides over a courtroom in Downtown Brooklyn, which handles all of the consumer debt cases in the borough. Each and every day, in Judge Dear’s modest courtroom, a real-life drama unfolds as hardworking people, struggling to make ends meet, step up to the bench in a desperate effort to deal with mounting piles of debt they have scant hope of repaying. While these litigants may not be seeking millions of dollars or trying to avoid a stiff prison term, they are facing a frightening situation in which their families’ financial futures are hanging in the balance.
Recognizing that his courtroom can seem dark and daunting, Judge Dear enters his courtroom each morning, faces the assembled crowd, and tries to alleviate their fears by putting things in perspective. “The first thing I want from all of you is to wipe those frowns off your faces and put a smile on,” he tells the anxious litigants. “This may not be very pleasant but I can think of a lot worse places to be right now. Health is more important than anything else.”
This theme continues throughout the day as Judge Dear strives to maintain a relaxed, and even friendly, atmosphere in his courtroom. He seems to enjoy reminding litigants about his “no-frowning rule” should they dare approach the bench with a glum look on their faces, and makes a concerted effort to keep the tone of the courtroom calm, controlled, and above all respectful.
“My grandmother always told me that if you want to get respect you have to give respect,” Judge Dear remembers. “I respect the attorneys, the litigants, the courtroom personnel, and that creates an atmosphere of mutual respect from everybody in the room.” This mood is evident across the board, from the polite way the clerks address those with questions to the mutual civility maintained between the plaintiffs and defendants standing at the judge’s bench.
Until recently the stewardship of the consumer debt court rotated amongst many different judges. Under the auspices of a new adjudicator every two weeks or so, the court was effectively run by the lawyers working for the debt collection companies. It was difficult for judges who were only at the helm temporarily to keep control over the lawyers who would be there day in and day out. The City decided to create a permanent courtroom and to appoint Judge Dear as the full-time general supervising the front lines of the debt collection battles.
Debt is an extremely serious issue facing Americans today. Prior to the current economic meltdown, often dubbed “The Great Recession,” most people didn’t really understand how pernicious excessive debt could be. But reality has hit like a sledgehammer and many now find themselves mired in debt from which they have no realistic hope of emerging on their own. Credit card debt is one of the most common problems.
It is particularly troublesome because it can grow so quickly when not paid promptly, and can extend over extremely lengthy repayment periods. To exacerbate the problem, credit card companies inject contingencies and fees that can add over 30 percent to outstanding balances.
Cognizant of the dangers posed by credit cards and their inflated fees, Congress enacted the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (CARD) last year. This new law went into effect several weeks ago and its impact is starting to be felt by consumers. President Obama called it a landmark consumer protection measure that will put an end to credit card companies’ “deceptive, unfair tactics that hit responsible consumers with unreasonable costs.”
Whether or not the new CARD law will truly solve our nation’s credit card woes remains to be seen. Right now, however, there are many thousands of people with unpaid debt – and for those who happen to live in Brooklyn, there’s a good chance they will find themselves in Judge Dear’s courtroom.
Ironically, defendants who are sued over unpaid credit card debt will often face attorneys who do not actually represent the credit card companies. Instead, they usually represent collection agencies that have purchased the unpaid debt for pennies on the dollar and then do their best to collect it from the debtors. These collection agencies may resort to questionable methods, such as a series of harassing phone calls, in an effort to retrieve the money.
Debtors are often made to feel that the law is against them and that they must capitulate to whatever payment demands are being made. Judge Dear is out to level the playing field and make sure that people realize that even if they do owe money they still have rights.
For example, if defendants in the courtroom seems to be committing to payment plans that they will not have the ability to cover, or if they don’t really understand the charges being leveled against them, Judge Dear recommends that they meet with one of the volunteer attorneys working at the courthouse. These attorneys charge their clients nothing while helping them understand the relevant laws. As a result, the debtor is better prepared to either accept an appropriate settlement or to defend against the claim being made against him.
“The best compliment a judge can receive is that he’s fair,” said Judge Dear. “That’s my goal every day: for everyone who enters my courtroom to feel that they were treated fairly and with respect.”
And judging by the way the debtors respond to the user-friendly environment created by Judge Dear, that goal is met daily in his bustling courtroom in Downtown Brooklyn.