The Justice Department today filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of North Carolina alleging that Billy Joe Goines, the owner and operator of Goines Towing & Recovery (Goines), auctioned off, sold or otherwise disposed of motor vehicles owned by servicemembers using court judgments obtained without filing proper military affidavits, in violation of federal law.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) provides a wide variety of financial and housing protections to members of the military. For example, it requires plaintiffs seeking a default judgment in court to file an accurate military affidavit stating whether or not the defendant is in military service, or that the plaintiff is unable to determine the defendant’s military service status. The SCRA also requires that that towing companies seeking court orders in civil proceedings make a good faith effort to determine whether a defendant is in military service. If it appears that the defendant is in military service, the court may not enter a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff until after it appoints an attorney to represent the interests of the servicemember.
The complaint alleges that since at least 2017, Goines disposed of motor vehicles belonging to servicemembers after either failing to file, or filing inaccurate, military affidavits in court proceedings against those servicemembers. The complaint further alleges that Goines filed military affidavits stating that he did not know whether the defendants were in military service even though many of the motor vehicles were originally towed from locations on or near the Camp Lejeune military installation, and there were multiple indications that the vehicles were owned by individuals in military service.
“By failing to file, or filing ‘rubber stamp’ affidavits without doing due diligence to determine a vehicle owner’s military service status, this company unlawfully auctioned off, sold, or otherwise disposed of servicemembers’ vehicles in violation of federal law,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division. “This conduct is especially egregious because many of the vehicles were towed from a military bases, had military decals, patches, and decorations, were financed through lenders geared towards members of the military, and contained military uniforms and paperwork, including orders. This lawsuit helps ensure that these servicemembers receive compensation for these actions and puts all towing companies on notice that such unlawful business practices will not be tolerated.”
“Our troops put their lives on the line to secure our freedom, and should never have to deal with unscrupulous tow truck operators unlawfully taking and selling their vehicles,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Easley for the Eastern District of North Carolina. “Our troops fight for our freedom abroad, and we will zealously fight for their rights here at home. Predatory conduct against members of our military is unacceptable, especially in North Carolina, one of the most military-friendly states in the nation. We stand with our troops, and insist that they be treated with the respect they deserve.”
In addition to seeking damages for the aggrieved servicemembers, including the value of the vehicles auctioned, sold or otherwise disposed of by Goines, the Justice Department’s complaint seeks to enjoin the company from failing to file, or filing inaccurate, military affidavits in the future. The lawsuit also seeks a civil penalty. This lawsuit resulted from a referral to the Justice Department from U.S. Marine Corps legal assistance.
Servicemembers and their dependents who believe their SCRA rights have been violated should contact the nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program Office. Office locations may be found at http://legalassistance.law.af.mil/.
The Justice Department’s enforcement of the SCRA is conducted by the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country. Since 2011, the Justice Department has obtained over $481 million in monetary relief for over 123,000 servicemembers through its enforcement of the SCRA. Additional information on the Justice Department’s enforcement of the SCRA and other laws protecting servicemembers is available at www.servicemembers.gov.
The complaint contains allegations of unlawful conduct, and the allegations must be proven in federal court.