A 22-year-old single mother in Oneida County faces 60 days in jail for contempt of court because she didn’t spend her stimulus check on back rent or give her debit card to her landlord’s lawyer after she was ordered to do so by a judge.
The woman, Cassandra Beatty, has been fighting an eviction for months. Her lawyers and experts on housing law say the actions of Oneida County Judge Patrick O’Melia probably weren’t legal — adding that they constitute a “debtors’ prison.”
Through most of the process, like many Wisconsinites facing eviction, she did not have legal representation. This meant she was in court hearings as O’Melia and the landlord’s attorney talked over, about and to her while she struggled to keep up. At every phase, O’Melia got more and more frustrated with her, she and her lawyers say.
“It was stressful, it seemed like any time I said anything, they thought like I was being disorderly or didn’t care,” Beatty says. “They didn’t understand that I wasn’t doing it to go against them.”
Beatty had been living in a $755 a month, two-bedroom apartment in Rhinelander with her boyfriend and two-year-old son at the beginning of the pandemic. Beatty and her boyfriend broke up and she fell behind on rent, but believed she was protected by the Centers on Disease Control (CDC)’s eviction moratorium.
From falling behind on her rent to the contempt orders, each setback was an example of problems caused by poverty compounding on themselves in a process that ended with an annoyed judge punishing her for her inability to pay, experts say.
“This, to me, has an awful underpinning that seems like this is happening because the person is being treated differently because they’re low income,” Mitch, a professor at the UW-Madison School of Law who teaches tenant law, says. “It’s not just an issue that’s the result of poverty, poverty is causing these issues.”
The landlord, Penkert Properties, filed an eviction in August of 2020 and Beatty filed a notice that she was covered under the moratorium. The landlord took her back into court, saying she had lied in an affidavit because she did have some money that could potentially go to rent.
The CDC moratorium, according to one of Beatty’s lawyers, Kristin Slonski, includes vague language that says tenants must “pay as much as they can.” In most other eviction cases since the moratorium was instituted, the amount that can be paid has primarily been left up to the tenant who best understands her own bills and finances, Slonski says. But at a hearing in February in which Beatty had no legal representation, O’Melia sided with the landlord and lifted the stay on the eviction.
“Everybody has been proceeding as if the tenant is the one to make that decision,” Slonski says. “Where does partial rent fall on my list of priorities between keeping my car running, cell phone going and kids fed, all those other expenses? At the end of the day you’ve got 20 bucks left and you have to decide to give that 20 bucks to your landlord, who has already filed an eviction action against you — or spend it on your cell phone as you’re looking for a new job.”
In April, Beatty was in court — again without legal representation. At this hearing, O’Melia ordered her not to spend her stimulus check or any tax refunds. When Beatty, who lives below the poverty line, received her stimulus check, she spent it on “necessities.”
“I used it to live,” she says. “It’s not like I went out and got a new TV.”
The stimulus checks from the federal government, sent multiple times since the pandemic began, greatly reduced “material hardships” for low-income families, a recent report from the University of Michigan found. But for Beatty, it also caused stress.
“It helped a lot but it caused a lot more stress than it was really worth,” she says.
In early May, she was again hauled into court, where O’Melia found her in contempt because she’d spent the stimulus money. In order to avoid 60 days in jail she would have to give the landlord’s lawyer her debit card within 24 hours of receiving her tax refund.
Slonski and Mitch find this order especially strange. The landlord doesn’t have the PIN, and therefore can’t access the account. And if the goal is to prevent Beatty from spending the money, she could just go to the bank and get a paper check or withdraw cash.
Beatty did not follow this order either, but called Judicare, a legal services clinic in Northern Wisconsin. At this point, Slonski and another lawyer, Samuel Hutchison, took on the case but their backs were against the wall because of the timing.
Wisconsin state law exempts certain funds from being taken in a court judgement. If a person’s income is less than the federal poverty limit, wages can’t be garnished. If a person has less than $5,000 across all personal bank accounts, that money can’t be touched.
But even though Slonski and Hutchison thought O’Melia had violated this law — or at least found a back door around it — the time limit of 15 days to file an appeal had already passed.
“When she first called she was like ‘can he do this?’” Slonski says. “If you don’t have a lawyer and you don’t appeal in time on an eviction action — just 15 days — whatever the judge ordered, it’s set in stone. At that point, whether it was wrong or mistaken, whether we disagree with the order, it is unassailable and if you disobey it you’re subject to contempt. The fact she didn’t have an attorney early enough to be like, ‘Whoa, whoa whoa, this seems like an underhanded way to get around the statutory garnishment exemptions.’”
On June 1, Beatty was in court, with Hutchison this time, but it was too late. O’Melia, increasingly angry, found her in contempt again and in order to avoid jail she’d need to pay $500 to the landlord.
“Now you’ve got an angry judge,” Slonski says. “This feels really punitive because it can only serve to hurt her. The judge wasn’t hearing it. The point being she’d turn over $500 in cash in order to avoid going to jail, even though she is destitute enough that the statutory exemptions cover everything she has in her checking account, everything in her savings account and all of her income. It’s very unusual. It doesn’t usually work that way.”
Beatty and her son are now living with her mom, after O’Melia’s repeated insistence that it was an option — even though Beatty says she doesn’t have a great relationship with her mom. Her 18-year-old brother had to move out of the house to accommodate her and now Beatty and her child are packed into a house with two other kids.
The $500 fee is stayed while Slonski and Hutchison are searching for ways to appeal O’Melia’s order, but their options are limited. If she can’t pay it, she’ll be sent to jail for 60 days. She also now owes nearly $10,000 in back rent and damages.
“I’m afraid that what we’re going to find out after we’ve done all the legal analysis [is that] legally speaking she’s at a dead end and now she’s facing this really, what I think is an unfair use of the court system,” Slonski says. “Judgments go against poor people all the time, but when they can’t pay them we can’t put them in jail. We don’t have debtors’ prisons any more. The only exception is when they fail to pay a contempt of court sanction. She really does face jail time if she can’t scratch together this money.”
The Judicare lawyers are struck by a judge bringing his political views into the courtroom — Slonski says O’Melia used Republican “talking points” about unemployment insurance and other government benefits in court. Mitch, who pointed out that debtors’ prisons don’t actually work when it comes to making people pay back what they owe, sees the same thing.
“I’m pretty surprised. It seemed like a very activist move by a judge or a judicial officer to put that type of restraint in place or attempt or proclaim they can,” he says. “It sounds like what’s happening is that the judge is so flabbergasted someone didn’t follow his orders that he’s taking a step that I’m a little bit surprised they did and I think they probably cannot do.”
A lawyer for Penkert Properties did not respond to a request for comment.