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Soldier wins settlement from storage company

Sep. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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A special operations soldier has won a settlement from the storage company that got rid of his property while he was deployed — including $8,044 worth of Army-issued equipment — in violation of the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act.

The settlement was reached Aug. 21, following a June 26 ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt that Southern Mini Storage of Sanford, North Carolina, violated the SCRA rights of the soldier by disposing of his property without a court order. Bertie Butler, owner of Southern Mini, had no comment on the case or the settlement.

But while a federal court has resolved one issue for the soldier, he awaits resolution from the Army after his unit blamed him for the lost equipment.

“There’s no doubt [the storage owner] violated the SCRA,” said the soldier, who asked that his name and rank be withheld. “But what he did caused me to be found negligent by the Army. ... I don’t really care about the money. I would rather the Army said they made a mistake and I wasn’t negligent.

“I want to prevent them from doing this to other soldiers.”

The Army made the couple pay $8,044 for the military gear when an investigation by his unit determined that the loss was due to the soldier’s “simple negligence.” Later the Army refunded about $3,500 to the soldier, after determining it had docked him too much money. Regulations limit the amount of liability to one month’s pay if a soldier is found negligent. Having to pay $1,500 a month for nearly six months after they moved was a hardship, said the soldier’s wife, Angela Williams. “We were totally flat broke.”

The amount of the court settlement was not disclosed, but it’s more than the worth of the items in the storage unit — valued at nearly $40,000, said Angela Williams. “There were irreplaceable things,” she said, such as three boxes of pristine Christmas ornaments from her great-grandmother and her grandmother, and ornaments made by her children. “And the emotional turmoil is still lingering” because of the unresolved questions with the Army, she said.

After discovering the loss in December 2010 while her husband was still deployed, Angela Williams sought help from her husband’s unit and from legal officers at Fort Bragg, but no one mentioned the possibility that the storage facility owner may have been in violation of the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act by selling the property of a service member without a court order. Nor did the Williamses realize that the SCRA applied to them. Extra protection from the courts under the SCRA ensures every effort is made to reach the service member. The member can request a delay in proceedings because of a deployment, for example.

The soldier’s unit began an investigation into the lost equipment in August 2011, when he was outprocessing before making a permanent change-of-station move, and he once again informed officials of the lost equipment. The unit investigation found simple negligence on the part of the soldier, and made him pay $8,044 for the lost equipment. An Army judge advocate general officer signed off on the Army investigation.

“I couldn’t believe the legal review from the JAG at Fort Bragg. It was simply wrong,” said retired Air Force Col. John Odom, an expert on the SCRA and one of the attorneys who represented the Williamses in their lawsuit against the storage company.

The review “failed to spot two critical issues: the violation of the SCRA, and the fact that they can’t dock more than a month’s pay” when a loss to the government results from a service member’s negligence, Odom said. If there weren’t such limitations, he said, “people wouldn’t drive ships and fly airplanes” if they had to reimburse the government for the entire cost of the ship or airplane after an incident. “It’s a DoD recognition that there has to be a reasonable limitation on financial liability for service members for loss or damage to government property resulting from their negligence.” Regardless, in this case, there was no negligence on the soldier’s part, Odom said.

The Williamses filed a complaint with the Army Special Operations Command Inspector General about the unit’s investigation more than a year ago. Officials at Fort Bragg referred questions to Army IG headquarters, and information was not available by press time about the findings, or whether officials expect to reverse the finding that the soldier was negligent.

Angela Williams said they haven’t received the final report, but they’ve been told the ruling of negligence still stands.

But Odom contends the Army should have refunded the entire $8,044 to the Wiilliamses, and he’s working with the soldier to complete that process to get the rest of the money back. “If the Army wants their money, the Army should be going to see [the owner of the storage company],” he said.

As for the finding of negligence, “nothing could be farther from the truth,” Odom said.

“How can this many people who are supposed to know the law that protects service members look at this and miss these issues?” Odom said.

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