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Alabama appeals court upholds woman’s constitutional right to protect wages

Daisy Pruett works hard at the Wal-Mart store in Moulton, AL, taking home about $600 with each paycheck.

Though this money is barely enough to pay rent and make ends meet for Pruett and her two children, on September 18, 2012, a lower court signed an order that allowed a debt collector to take 25 percent – $150 – from each paycheck. 

The SPLC and Legal Services Alabama took her case before an appeals court that overturned the decision last month – helping ensure Pruett wouldn’t lose one-quarter of her wages. The reversal confirmed that the Alabama Constitution allows Pruett to choose to protect her entire paycheck from garnishment because it qualifies as minimal income, the minimum amount of money necessary for survival. It’s a decision that will protect the paychecks of very low-income Alabamians across the state, preventing creditors from pushing them into a position where they cannot provide for themselves or their families. 

“This ruling corrects an abuse that would have had a drastic and disproportionate effect on the lowest-income Alabamians, depriving them of the amount set by Alabama more than 100 years ago as the constitutional minimum necessary for survival,” said Sara Zampierin, staff attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center. 

In collection actions, such as the one against Pruett, a debt collector can obtain court orders allowing it to seize assets from an individual or to obtain a portion of the person’s earnings directly from the employer. All states allow consumers to protect some essential assets from creditors, but, in Alabama and in many other states, these protections are insufficient and leave many individuals unable to provide for their families.

“The court’s ruling is a great victory for the citizens of the State of Alabama because it recognizes and protects each citizen’s right to choose what property to exempt,” said Pam Jackson, staff attorney for Legal Services Alabama.  “It puts actual money back into the pockets of the least among us, allowing them access to food, clothes, and medicine.” 

The Alabama Constitution allows individuals to protect up to $1,000 of personal property, including wages. Since the late 1800s, the Alabama Supreme Court has upheld individuals’ rights to this exemption, noting that it was necessary to protect individuals from destitution and secure a home and means of livelihood beyond the reach of creditors. The state constitution has protected $1,000 of property for more than a century without increase, despite the fact that a century ago, $1,000 had the buying power of more than $23,000 today.

In this case, the debt collector argued that Pruett could not claim the full amount of each paycheck as exempt from garnishment because those wages plus her personal property— a 15-year-old car and old furniture and appliances that Pruett did not wish to claim as exempt—amounted to more than $1,000.