Judge considers changes for small claims court fees

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An Eyewitness News Investigation gets action, and it could keep more money in your pocket if you're ordered into any small claims court in Marion County.

13 Investigates first showed you how patients with small debts were being hit with high attorney fees. Debtors who fought against the system and lost now see new proposed rules posted at the Indiana Supreme Court.

Each pill counts towards healing for Lisa Jones. She's had chemo, radiation, surgeries and is now winning her battle against breast cancer. But during the midst of her fight, she was forced to take on something else.

"I've never tried to dodge my debts," she said, flipping through eight and a half pages of medical bills.

"Account after account after account," she said, referring to balances left after the insurance made payments. But she had no consolidated statement showing the total amount she actually owed.

Jones started paying, but was still dragged into Decatur Township Small Claims Court on a $2,200 bill not found in her records.

"If you had told me that I have six months left or a year, to think that I would be doing this as I try to navigate my own death, it is offensive," she said with disgust about what happened.

Jones is one of the nearly 7,000 people sued by MedShield and collections attorney Derek Johnson over a two-year period.

"He told the court I hadn't been making any payments. I had copies of my canceled checks to prove that yes, I had," Jones explained.

In the end, the judge ordered her to pay $450 in attorney fees and garnished her wages.

"He said 'I'm going to hurt you, I'm going to raise what you're paying,' Jones said of the judge.

It was then, Lisa Jones decided to take on a second fight for herself and those who owed much smaller debts.

Jones filed a complaint, asking the Indiana Disciplinary Commission to investigate Derek Johnson.

In her filing she wrote: "Mr. Johnson and his firm have made a game out of making money on sick people."

But the disciplinary commission ruled Lisa Jones' complaint did "not raise a substantial question of misconduct."

13 Investigates found it wasn't the first time claims against Johnson and the Decatur Township Small Claims Court were dismissed.

Jones called the system a "big, big joke."

Now, someone is taking action on the heels of what 13 Investigates found: Former patients like Ashley Wilson and Gina Hoggs forced to pay two or three times more than what they owed, after Johnson tacked on a $450 attorney fee.

"I just felt more victimized than I ever have in my life," said Ashley Wilson.

"This shouldn't happen," said Gina Hoggs.

13 Investigates caught up with Derek Johnson and asked tough questions. "You're actually charging them more than what they owe?" to which Johnson refused to respond.

Proposed rule change

"I don't see how anybody could see your series without thinking, 'Maybe we need to take a second look at attorneys fees,'" said Judge Louis Rosenberg.

Marion County Circuit Court Judge Louis Rosenberg is the advisor for all Marion County Township Courts. Judge Rosenberg is now proposing a rule change posted with the Indiana Supreme Court putting limits on how collection attorneys like Johnson collect fees, saying  "the court has found divergent practices..."

Under the proposed countywide rule:

-Attorneys must document and justify the amount of time spent on a case. Work done by a paralegal can not be included. (A rate can still be collected by a paralegal.)

- No more charging each individual for full travel expenses. Attorneys would have to divide up the cost between all cases heard on the same day in the same court.

"What we need is a happy medium. One that balances the general interest and the reasonable expectations," Rosenberg said of the proposed changes.

The Indiana Supreme Court will post Judge Rosenberg's proposed rule changes on its website.

If you would like to comment you can do so for the next 45 days by sending your input to Judge Rosenberg. After the comment period, the judge can then decide to modify his proposal or adopt it as written.

Contact the court here.

You can also email your comments here.

Or mail your comments to:

Hon. Louis F. Rosenberg, Judge of the Marion County Circuit Court
City-County Building, W-506
200 E. Washington St.
Indianapolis, IN 46204