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Search Now. Such garnishments are far more common in black neighborhoods. If Absolute Recovery garnished her wages, Miller stood to lose her apartment, her electricity or the car she drove to work.


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The pressure, she said, pushed her into bankruptcy court. Earlier this year, I headed to Memphis to meet people like Miller and find out why attorneys there kept funneling their black clients into Chapter 13 plans when so few could complete them. I came armed with what amounted to a score sheet for each attorney, showing how their black and white clients had fared. ProPublica had taken every case filed in the district over 15 years, paired it with census information and put it on a map.

In a starkly segregated city like Memphis, we could deduce the race of their clients with confidence based on where they lived. I caught up with Ray by phone. Like most of the higher volume lawyers in the district, Ray is white while most of his clients are black. About nine out of every 10 of his cases is a Chapter And he was twice as likely to file under Chapter 7 for a white client as he was for a black client.

None of this troubles Ray in the least. In his eyes, debtors need Chapter 13 to train them to get their financial houses in order and instill discipline on their unruly spending.

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Better to keep that option in reserve for something truly catastrophic, he said. Ray was not troubled by this either. As required by law, he said, he provides clients with documents explaining the difference, but any client who asks about Chapter 7 will get an argument from him.

To this day, many see Chapter 13 as the more honorable form of bankruptcy because it includes some attempt to repay debts. Instead, they said it was about holding on. For many people, the most important thing is keeping their car, a necessity in Memphis, which has little public transportation. Used car lots abound, offering subprime credit.


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  4. But Chapter 13 allows secured debts to be repaid over the course of the plan. In theory, loan payments on a car or mortgage can be reduced to an affordable level, providing time to catch up without fear of repossession or foreclosure. Lured by this promise, desperate Chapter 13 filers can spend years caught in a loop. The first time, she lost her job a year and a half after filing, and her case was dismissed after she fell behind.

    She then filed a third time. Bernise Fulwiley, 60, filed for Chapter 13 in to avoid foreclosure on her home, a brick bungalow with a large maple in the yard on a corner in Whitehaven. She has kept up the payments for two years, and is determined to make it for three more. Open this door! Help me, Lord! And then learn to live within your means. About 80 percent of his clients come from predominantly black neighborhoods. Only about one in five of the Chapter 13 cases filed by his black clients reached discharge, a rate typical for the district.

    They get sick. They get a divorce. Debtors are, indeed, allowed to switch from Chapter 13 to Chapter 7 after their cases have begun, although it typically requires paying an additional attorney fee. But this rarely happens in the district.

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    Only about 5 percent of Chapter 13 filings since converted to Chapter 7, according to our analysis. Often in Memphis, the whole goal of bankruptcy is just to address basic needs, even if only for a month or two. Nearly half the Chapter 13 cases filed by black residents in the district had utility debt, our analysis of filings found. MLGW does offer programs for low-income customers and installment plans for those who fall behind. But that assistance is limited to just a few thousand households. And the installment plans require customers to make the payments in addition to their normal monthly bills.

    By declaring bankruptcy, debtors can start a monthly Chapter 13 plan tied to their income and get the power turned back on within a month or so. But she understands why debtors do it. In , about a quarter of black residents filing Chapter 13 had outstanding debt with the Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court, which handles mostly misdemeanors and traffic offenses, our data shows. Court officials said licenses are only suspended if defendants fail to pay fines within 12 months. But only about people were enrolled in the program as of March, they said. They can get their licenses reactivated within a matter of months and stretch payments over five years, if they make it that long.

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    In Chicago, similar pressures have led to a recent boom in Chapter 13 filings. Chapter 13 filings by black residents in the Northern District of Illinois rose 88 percent from to , we found. Black households are particularly vulnerable to financial difficulties like these. They have less income , fewer assets , and less financial stability than white ones — all deficits with deep roots. When they are hit with financial emergencies a cut in pay, a needed car repair , they are less likely to have the resources to withstand them.

    The same vulnerabilities that make black Americans more likely to file for bankruptcy make them less likely to succeed in bankruptcy. In Memphis, that means the debtors who use the bankruptcy system the most — low-income black debtors — fare the worst. I asked Tom Fila, a Yankee transplant who has practiced bankruptcy law in Memphis for more than 20 years, about one of his clients: The firm had filed 17 cases on her behalf, all but two under Chapter These repeat filers tend to be among the poorest.

    Fila bristled at the implication that his firm had filed the cases for any reason but the best interest of the client. Of course, most of the time attorneys in the district do get paid something. But what has made bankruptcy a viable business for the biggest firms in Memphis for so long is the sheer volume. Things have worked this way in the district for as long as anyone can remember.