Gov. Jim Justice asked the State Supreme Court to look into who has legal authority to provide debt relief to West Virginians.
The governor asked the court after several organizations asked that he and the court stop banks and creditors from taking federal CARES Act consumer payments.
Meanwhile, in Preston County, Circuit Judge Steve Shaffer has already issued an emergency order to stop WVU Hospitals Inc., from freezing Seth and Cheri Long’s bank account until a hearing can be held and ordered the couple’s account unfrozen.
In his ruling last week, Shaffer said that “Seizure of the CARES Act payments in contravention of the federal purpose violates Plaintiffs; right to life, liberty and property, pursuant to Article III, Section 10,
of the West Virginia Constitution.”
Further, Shaffer added, taking CARES Act funds intended for Ms. Long and her children, to pay a third party’s debt, without due process, also violates the state constitution. Both those on the joint account are entitled to a chance to be heard, he said.
On April 13, Community Bankers of West Virginia, the West Virginia Bankers’ Association, West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, West Virginia Senior Legal Aid Inc., Mountain State Justice, ACLU-West Virginia, the National Consumer Law Center and Disability Rights West Virginia wrote the two governor and high court last week.
In a reply, the governor’s Deputy General Counsel A. Garner Marks, said it is outside the governor’s emergency powers to suspend debt collection. Other states have done so. Texas acted through its state supreme court to do so, Marks wrote.
“We have reached out to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia to discuss their legal authority to provide certain relief to the citizens of the state and it is my understanding that they are currently reviewing this matter,” Marks wrote.
The state supreme court spokeswoman was contacted Monday and did not respond in time for this report.
According to Mountain State Justice, the Longs’ bank accounts were frozen and all their money, including the stimulus checks, was to go to pay a medical debt.
The hospital obtained a judgment against Mr. Long for a medical bill his insurance did not pay at a time when he was a coal miner. The Longs discovered their accounts were frozen on March 23, when Cheri Long’s debit card was declined at the grocery store, the attorneys said.
According to Mountain State, the freeze caused them to fall behind on utility and mortgage payments, and Cheri Long had to bring home food from work and borrow gas money from
A WVU Medicine spokesperson said Tuesday that “we’ve stood-down our collection activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand the economic impact this is having on people — that’s not lost on us at all.”
WVU Medicine has offered to forgo further actions related to this specific case but have not heard back from the Longs’ attorney, the spokesperson said. This claim entered the collection and garnishment process “well before COVID-19 entered the United States,” according to the spokesperson.
In their letter to the governor and chief justice, the organizations say, “The purpose of the checks is to help people pay for food, utilities, rent, medicine and other basic necessities at a time when they have been told to stay home and, as a result, have lost income.” They ask for an order, “that these pandemic survival payments will not be subject to garnishment by judgment creditors.”
More than 40% of West Virginians had a debt in collection before COVID-19 cost many their jobs, the groups wrote in their joint letter. Allowing creditors to take the CARES Act payments defeats the purpose of the payments, they argued.
The group doesn’t oppose attachments or garnishments “related to payments for the support of a minor child.”