Monday, July 21, 2014
SOUTH HADLEY — Iheanyi Daniel Okoroafor, a 73-year-old African immigrant and retired mental health case manager, thought he’d get a chance to explain to a judge why he didn’t pay for a furnace repair he says was not properly done.
Never did he think the June 11 hearing in the Belchertown small claims court over his unpaid $508 debt would land him behind bars.
But at the end of the session before Judge Robert S. Murphy in Eastern Hampshire District Court, Okoroafor was found in contempt of court and hauled off to jail in handcuffs.
“I was shocked,” he said in an interview at his home on Ingram Street in South Hadley Falls.
In a brief telephone interview, Murphy said he is not permitted to comment on any case that might be pending before the court or potentially returning in the future.
The incident gained attention in legal circles after Amherst bankruptcy attorney Greta LaMountain Biagi — who was in court that day on an unrelated case — reported what she had witnessed in an e-mail to fellow members of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. She said several lawyers across the country volunteered to file an appearance for Okoroafor if he was not released from jail.
“It was very distressing to me to see that he was being held in contempt when he was testifying honestly in my opinion, and when he was testifying that he did not have the funds to make the payment,” LaMountain Biagi said.
Murphy sentenced Okoroafor to 30 days in jail — or until the debt was paid. Okoroafor wound up spending about 12 hours at the Hampshire County regional lockup in Northampton before his 38-year-old daughter, Amara Okoroafor, arrived to pay his debt and secure his release. She lives in Green Belt, Maryland, but was visiting relatives in Boston at the time of her father’s arrest. She got to Northampton with the money around 2:30 a.m.
Okoroafor recalls being led to the cell while chained to another prisoner. The prison staff member who took his mugshot told him he had never seen someone of his age being brought to jail for a debt so small. He was warned of the dangers of being in prison, including being sexually assaulted. He was then given yellow prison garb to change into, he recalled.
“This was something that I thought would never happen in my life,” he said. “It wasn’t something that any human being would wish even on his enemy.”
Okoroafor was the defendant in a small claims case brought in March 2013 by Ambient Heating and Air Conditioning in Granby. According to court files, the contractor asserted that Okoroafor did not pay $459.65 for service work done on a boiler in February 2013.
After Okoroafor failed to appear for a hearing in April 2013, the court ordered him to pay the bill. Court costs had brought the debt up to $508.27.
According to an audio recording of that hearing, Murphy told Okoroafor that a previous judge had ordered him to either pay that amount or appear with an attorney. Okoroafor told Murphy that he lacked the money to pay the debt or hire an attorney.
He also told the judge that the contractor did not complete the job for which he had been billed.
Raymond Boisjolie, president of Ambient Heating and Air Conditioning, disputes this. In an interview with the Gazette, he said his company did the work it was supposed to and Okoroafor provided him with a check for $350 of the $800 bill, promising to pay the rest the following month — but never did.
“That is the truth,” Boisjolie said.
In court and in a later interview, Okoroafor said he did not pay the balance because the bill was higher than he anticipated and because the repairs did not resolve the problem.
Okoroafor told Murphy that his main source of income is a $2,000 monthly pension from the state, and that he pays 10 percent of this to his church each month, a practice known as tithing. The church he supports, he said, is Resurrection Life Ministries in Northampton, a Pentecostal church where he has been a member for more than 10 years. After paying monthly bills — including medical bills for his wife, Evelyn, who suffers from dementia — he told the judge that he is “left almost without anything.”
According to the recording, Murphy responded, “Other than the $200 you pay to your church every month?” The judge concluded that Okoroafor was able to pay the debt, found him in contempt of court for failing to do so and ordered him to jail.
LaMountain Biagi said she believes the court made two improper demands of Okoroafor: To pay a debt in full and to bring a lawyer.
“My position is you cannot force someone to obtain counsel,” she said. Besides, she said, an attorney’s fee likely would have totaled more than Okoroafor’s debt.
LaMountain Biagi, who has been a bankruptcy attorney for 10 years, said she tells her clients there is no such thing anymore as debtors prison, and that as long as they appear in court and testify honestly about their financial situation, they will not go to jail.
“Basically that day showed me that I’m wrong, or that I easily could be wrong,” she said.
Also upsetting, she said, was the judge’s focus on the fact that Okoroafor tithes. While she is not an actively religious person, she said, the country was founded on the principle of free speech, including freedom of religion.
“The court focusing on that as what appeared to me, primary reason he could pay his debt, seems really inconsistent with everything that I believe,” she said.
Experts weigh in
Legal scholars who listened to the recording of the June 11 hearing say they believe Murphy did not ask enough questions of Okoroafor to determine whether he had the ability to pay the debt. According to Massachusetts state law, they say, pension money cannot be counted toward determining ability to pay off a debt.
“State law is very clear: No one can order you to give away the right to your pension,” said Dalié Jiménez, associate professor of law at the University of Connecticut.
Eric Gouvin, dean and professor of law at Western New England University, emphasized that Okoroafor was not put in jail because he could not pay his debt, but because it was Murphy’s opinion that he could pay the debt and refused to.
“It seems like you’re throwing the guy in jail for $508, and that seems outrageous — that’s not really what’s going on here,” Gouvin said. “We did away with debtors prison.”
What Murphy could be criticized for, said Gouvin, lies in the question of whether he did a thorough enough investigation into whether Okoroafor had enough non-exempt income or assets to pay off the debt.
“Just because someone’s getting a state pension doesn’t mean they don’t have to pay their bills, right?” he said. “But the judge has to assess somebody’s ability to pay.”
Gouvin notes that according to the recording, Murphy did not ask about Okoroafor’s bank account, the equity of his home, or the value of his car.
Jiménez agreed that it was unclear whether Okoroafor could have used non-pension funds to pay his debt. But even if Okoroafor were determined to have enough non-exempt funds to pay the contractor, she said, the next step did not have to be jail. The court could have given him the option to either pay upfront, to pay by selling his assets or have the debt deducted from a non-exempt source of income.
“If they truly have the income, they will just pay it,” she said of defendants in similar situations. “It’s just a reality check...They don’t want the sheriff to come to their house and take their car.”
On the matter of tithing, Gouvin and Jiménez said that under federal law, it is protected from being counted toward one’s ability to pay off the debt. However, they said, Massachusetts law it is less clear.
They did not echo the criticism offered by LaMountain Biagi, saying instead that it is reasonable to tell someone they must pay off a debt before paying their church.
“I do think it is a little odd that someone will voluntarily make a gift to a charity when they legally owe money to another party. I don’t understand the ethics of that,” said Gouvin. “It seems like you should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s.”
Nonetheless, Jiménez added, the court cannot order how exempt income must be spent. “The legislature has said these are things that should not be judged.”
Building an American life
Okoroafor came to the United States from his home city of Umuahia in southeastern Nigeria in January 1978. His wife, Evelyn Okoroafor, joined him in June 1979. Before moving to Massachusetts 31 years ago, they lived in Alabama and Maryland.
He came to the United States for an education, he said. He received his doctorate in educational administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1987, and worked for the state mental health department in Worcester for 17 years, first as a case manager, then a program coordinator. He retired in 2006.
For more than 20 years, he and his wife lived in Amherst, where their two daughters attended public schools. Their other daughter, Blessing Okoroafor Enekwe, 32, now lives in Columbia, Maryland.
They moved in 2007, when they sold their home and bought the building where they now live in South Hadley Falls, renting out two of its three units. For now, he is living in his two-story unit by himself. His wife has had dementia for around five years, he said, and her condition has grown increasingly severe in the last two and a half.
The day her husband was taken to jail, Evelyn, 71, was in Wing Memorial Hospital in Palmer. After he was released, he brought her to Maryland to be closer to their children. Okoroafor said that he, too, plans to move there soon.
In his home, the living room leads to an office where he retrieves folders containing receipts and court notices from over the past year and a half. He hums as he looks through them.
According to court records, though, Okoroafor’s experience in this case has been far from happy — and the trouble began long before the June 11 hearing.
The problem with his boiler began in December 2012, when he learned that the gas supply to his home was turned off due to a leak. Ambient Heating and Air Conditioning worked at his home for the first time on Dec. 12, after which the gas was turned back on, he recalled. He said he was charged $105. A week later, the gas was turned off again, he said.
He called Ambient back to his home in February after returning from Nigeria, where he had traveled for the funeral of his older brother, Israel Okoroafor. The contractor visited twice that month: The first time, Okoroafor said he was again charged $105, but the problem was not resolved. The second time was Feb. 14. On that date, he recalled, Ambient replaced the boiler, resulting in the $800 charge.
“I didn’t know it was going to cost so much,” he said.
Still, he said, the gas supply remained turned off, forcing him to switch two units in his building to electric heat.
After being sued, Okoroafor says he was never notified of the April 26, 2013 hearing, at which he said he would have been able to explain his reasons for not paying the debt.
However, the court file contains a “Notice of Next Event” document dated March 4, 2013, signed by Clerk-Magistrate William P. Nagle and addressed to both Boisjolie and Okoroafor alerting them to the hearing.
Okoroafor did not attend and Assistant Clerk Magistrate Randall Smith entered a default judgment against him, ordering him to pay the contractor $508.27.
Okorafor did not pay the debt. Instead, he quickly filed a handwritten counterclaim against Ambient Heating and Air Conditioning, stating the work on his boiler had not been properly performed and demanding a refund. However, court files show that the counterclaim was not completed or signed, so no action was taken.
He followed this with three written requests to the court to remove the default judgment, all of which were denied.
In his first motion to set aside the judgment, filed in June 2013, he stated that due to stress resulting from alleged mistreatment by South Hadley police, plumbing and gas inspector, and Board of Health as well as Ambient Heating and Air Conditioning, “I was not thinking right and as such I could not honestly say that I knew anything about the date.”
He attached letters of complaint he had sent in February 2013 to Police Chief David LaBrie, then-plumbing and gas inspector Larry Eldridge, Board of Health director Sharon Hart and Ambient Heating and Air Conditioning. He alleged that South Hadley police officers cited him for an unspecified violation “without any provocation” after a “vicious confrontation” regarding snow on the street outside his residence, and claimed Hart and Eldridge were part of a conspiracy aimed at depriving him of his rights as a landlord. He accused Ambient Heating and Air Conditioning of “malpractice.”
None of those officials responded to a request for comment.
Okoroafor’s home is modest in appearance. One of the only decorative items is a small plaque sitting atop a heater that reads, “Problems are/opportunities to prove/God’s faithfulness/stand firm/victory is yours!” Parked outside the home is a taxi labeled “Christian Coach,” which he said he drives part-time “just to keep my mind working.” With the price of gasoline, he does not even break even, he added.
He agrees with LaMountain Biagi that Murphy seemed focused on the fact that he tithes — but this, he said, did not surprise him.
“Many people don’t believe in that” or “don’t believe in God at all,” he said. “Most people are offended by hearing such things.” Okoroafor said he has not met or spoken to LaMountain Biagi, but said she has “guts” for what she did for him. “She’s a human being with heart.”
Okoroafor went into the June hearing hoping that Judge Murphy — who had not presided over the case before — would consider his arguments.
But the judge did not give him an adequate opportunity to explain himself, he said, instead treating him with disregard.
“It appeared he wasn’t even listening to whatever I said,” said Okoroafor, who thinks things might have gone differently if he had a lawyer at his side.
Okoroafor said he was reminded of the words of an English teacher back in his home country of Nigeria, who would say somebody with white hair “has seen more winters than you have” — and therefore deserves respect.
In Nigeria, he notes, there is no winter and no snow, so this quote didn’t quite make sense at the time.
“Everything dawned on me when I came to this country — and everything it takes for somebody to go through a winter,” he said with a laugh.
“In my country, judges respect age,” he added. “No matter what you achieve, you respect somebody who has seen more winters than you have.”
Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at email@example.com.