In a recent case that provides a good example of the seriousness of the SCRA, a special forces soldier recently won a large settlement against a storage company that foreclosed on his property while he was deployed.
The soldier, who asked that his name and rank be withheld, was deployed when storage company Southern Mini opted to foreclose on his property, according to Military Times. This included $8,044 worth of Army-issued equipment for which the soldier was held liable by his unit. The Army made the soldier and his wife, Angela Williams, pay for the equipment after an investigation found him guilty of "simple negligence."
"There's no doubt [the storage owner] violated the SCRA," the soldier told Military Times. "But what he did caused me to be found negligent by the Army. … I don't really care about the money. I would rather the Army said they made a mistake and I wasn't negligent."
The Army eventually refunded $3,500 of this money to the couple after it determined that it had docked too much of his pay, according to the news source. There are regulations in place to protect soldiers from unreasonable financial liability for negligence with regards to Army equipment by limiting this liability to one month's pay.
"I couldn't believe the legal review from the JAG at Fort Bragg. It was simply wrong," retired Air Force Col. John Odom, an expert on the SCRA and one of the attorneys who represented the couple against Southern Mini, told Military Times. "It's a DoD recognition that there has to be a reasonable limitation on financial liability for service members for loss or damage to government property resulting from their negligence."
Odom explained that the reason for this limited liability is to protect soldiers who use DoD equipment that costs more than they could reasonably pay back. Many ships, tanks and airplanes cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and expecting soldiers to cover these costs would be unreasonable. He says that the Army should refund the entire $8,044 and eliminate the negligence finding.
The SCRA and storage liens
There is a strict process that companies and individuals must follow in order to pursue storage liens against those protected under the SCRA. First, they must verify active duty military status and bring the resulting affidavit to court. The court will then decide to take one of three actions.
- Stay proceedings – If it deems necessary, the court will stay the proceedings for a period of time "as justice and equity require."
- Adjust obligations – The court may also decide to adjust the obligations that parties have to one another in order to preserve the interests of all parties.
- Allow pursuit – Finally, the court may choose to allow the lien holder to foreclose upon the servicemember's property or otherwise enforce his or her lien as normal if it deems that the servicemember's duty is not affecting his or her ability to comply with his or her obligations.
Lien holders who do not verify active duty military status before pursuing a lien are in violation of this law, and could receive a misdemeanor charge.
While Military Times did not have access to the court's exact decision in this case, it was made aware that the settlement was more than the worth of the items in the storage unit. These items were valued at almost $40,000, including "irreplaceable things" like Christmas ornaments made by the couple's children, Angela Williams told the news source.
Failing to verify active duty military status before pursuing a lien against a servicemember's property of any type can result in serious financial or judicial penalties. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act Centralized Verification Service can help individuals who deal with servicemembers to stay in compliance with this important law.