By Scott Prater
Imagine returning home from a deployment only to discover all of your possessions have disappeared or opening a certified letter that declares pending litigation against you.
A few high-profile court cases have shed light on service members’ rights recently and the 50th Space Wing Legal Office reminds Airmen that legislation exists to protect them.
Capt. Nicole Naeser, chief of legal assistance, highlighted these cases with Schriever Airman and Family Readiness Center staff recently. Ultimately the discussion centered around the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a statute originally passed by Congress during 2003 that provides protection for members in a variety of ways, including civil court cases and administrative actions. It also provides protections for members involving taxation, house/apartment leases, automobile leases, interest rates and insurance.
Ultimately the Act protects members who serve on active duty from adverse consequences to their legal rights that may result because of such service, so that members may devote their full attention and energy to the mission.
“Airmen may not be aware of some important changes that were passed when Congress amended SCRA in 2010,” Naeser said. “One of the most important changes that came with the amendment gives service members a private right of action.”Naeser explained that previously, the U.S. attorney general and states’ attorneys general were the only entities who could seek enforcement against businesses such as rental companies and mortgage lenders for example, for violating the Act. The private right of action, on the other hand, gives individuals the right to file suit against those businesses if the individual’s rights are violated or they are charged excess fees.
The most recent cases to hit newswires have involved mortgage lenders and storage unit facilities.
The SCRA also addresses service members who enter the armed forces after they have already taken on a home mortgage.“Some companies were foreclosing on service members while they were deployed,” Naeser said. “The cases are rather egregious and unfair to members who return home to find their home slipped out from underneath them. The Act prohibits that action and a service member in a recent court case was awarded a large settlement.”
In another case, a U.S. Navy Sailor stored her possessions in a commercial storage locker then went on a deployment. Her deployment was extended, and through a mix up, her storage locker payments were not made. The storage facility owners handled the case like they normally would — they sold the contents of the service member’s locker.“Under the Act, companies are prohibited from doing such things without a court order,” Naeser said. “The point of SCRA is to provide some additional protections for service members in exactly these types of situations.”
The recent positive judgments have a larger impact on military members. Simple monetary awards are beneficial for individuals, but proper enforcement means the law carries more weight for service members.“The main objective behind SCRA is to ensure service members are able to focus on mission needs,” Naeser said. “Because of the requirements of their jobs, this allows service members to have some protection built in.”
With its 2010 amendment, Congress passed some significant improvements to SCRA. One change is an improvement of the ability for service members to terminate cell phone contracts under broader circumstances. Congress also clarified statutory language regarding early-termination charges on residential housing leases and vehicle leases.Of course, no protection is fool proof and Naeser said unscrupulous business people have already begun finding loopholes or workarounds in an effort to avoid SCRA, mainly by attempting to persuade service members to sign waivers.
“We advise people to never sign a SCRA waiver,” she said. “Civilian entities are required to follow laws when producing the waiver option.”Airmen who wish to learn more about the SCRA or who have questions on how it can pertain to their specific circumstances can contact the Schriever legal office at 567-5050 or visit the office during walk-in hours Mondays and Thursdays from 3 to 4 p.m. or Tuesdays and Fridays from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m.
“All Airmen should understand their rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act so that they may take full advantage of the protections it provides,” said Col. Jonathan Webb, 50th Mission Support Group commander. “Our Airman and Family Readiness Center here offers a variety of financial counseling services that address the importance of the Act and the positive impact it can have on our financial well-being.”