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Sailor gets big payout in storage unit snafu

Feb. 6, 2013 - 08:06AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 6, 2013 - 08:06AM  |  
Cmdr. Wilma Roberts, a Navy nurse, has received a six-figure settlement from a storage company that sold her possessions while she was deployed overseas.
Cmdr. Wilma Roberts, a Navy nurse, has received a six-figure settlement from a storage company that sold her possessions while she was deployed overseas. ()
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A Navy commander who lost most of her possessions from storage while stationed overseas has reached a big settlement with the company that sold her out.

Her experience has led the Army agency in charge of household goods moves for service members of all branches to take steps to prevent similar occurrences.

Cmdr. Wilma Roberts, a Navy nurse, received "a six-figure settlement that she was pleased with," said John Odom, Roberts' attorney. He declined to specify the amount.

The settlement was reached in late December in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

A federal judge ruled in October that Wisconsin-based storage company Chips Express had violated the Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act by selling Roberts' possessions without a court order while she was on overseas duty.

The separate issue of monetary damages was scheduled to go to jury trial, but Chips Express and Roberts settled on the amount she would receive. Chips Express' attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Navy stored most of Roberts' possessions with Chips Express when she moved to Okinawa in 2008 on a tour scheduled to end in June 2010.

But after Roberts' tour of duty was extended, the Navy personal property office stopped paying the storage facility. In a court filing, Chips Express claimed it was told by a Navy employee that the Navy was no longer responsible for paying to store Roberts' property.

Chips Express sent bills to Roberts at an outdated address; when they were returned, the company got the Navy to give the OK to dispose of the property.

Navy officials admitted they made mistakes and told Military Times they are taking steps to prevent a recurrence.

A meeting is scheduled in early February among Navy, Air Force and Army Surface Deployment and Distribution Command officials to address the issue and to "[home] in on standard operating procedures" for personal property offices, said a spokesman for SDDC, which manages service members' household goods moves.

After Roberts' incident, first reported in Military Times, the SDDC legal policy office sent information to service officials, regional storage management offices and the International Movers Association stating that a review of the SCRA had determined that it was illegal to enforce a lien on a service member's property in storage without a court order. This provision of the SCRA has been law for years.

"They need to know Wilma Roberts is not the only one," said Odom, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel.

Pentagon legal assistance officials said there has been a slight rise in these kinds of cases within each of the services over the past year or so, involving government and privately arranged storage.

But there's been no discernible "pattern or cause," said Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith.

The services' legal assistance offices have issued guidance or bulletins to the force and to their transportation offices, she said, noting that legal officials actively work to ensure service members' SCRA rights are protected.

"Something needs to change so people's stuff doesn't go AWOL," Roberts told Military Times in 2011, shortly after she returned from overseas to find she had lost photos, china, three china cabinets, leather coats, rooms of furniture a lifetime of possessions.

Her goods were valued at about $65,000. A local man paid $2,101 at auction for her possessions, then sold almost all of them.

Regardless of the Navy's mistakes, the storage company violated the law by selling a service member's possessions without a court order, Odom said, adding that the burden is on the creditor.

He said he's seeing more illegal sales of troops' personal property. In 2012, he settled claims against three companies that allegedly did just that.

One case involved an Air Force senior master sergeant in Germany whose property was sold after the personal property office managing his storage sent a message to a South Carolina company to convert the storage bill to the master sergeant's expense. As in Roberts' case, the company sent bills to a former address, and they were returned as undeliverable.

The SCRA provision applies to troops who have moved to another duty station, as well as to deployed troops.

Odom's advice:

Photograph your possessions.

Do your own inventory; don't rely on the moving company's inventory, which lists box size, not contents.

Store photos and inventory in a safe place with someone you trust or in the cyber cloud. Don't put them with your other household goods.

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