When Lisa Gillis received a collections notice in the mail on Jan. 30 for a parking ticket nearly 10 years old, she says she was surprised. The date of the infraction, she explains, was in 2006, but she did not own the vehicle even then. “I sold that car in 2004,” she says. “I was so irritated.” Since she was not the legal owner, Gillis says she is trying to obtain documentation to prove she does not need to pay the fine of $24.01.
Recently the city of Eugene stepped up efforts to collect past due fines and enlisted the help of a collections agency — law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, based in Austin, Texas, with offices across the country — which means more people may be receiving similar notices.
“Linebarger is the one we’re using for parking tickets,” says Cheryl Stone, court administrator at the Eugene municipal court, about the city’s collection efforts. “It’s the first we’ve used this firm.”
Gillis says that since she sold the car so long ago, it is difficult to prove that she actually sold the car. She contacted the dealership that bought the car from her, but with no luck. “As it turns out, they only hold bills of sale for 10 years,” she says, adding that she is now applying to the DMV for a title report. “Hopefully it truly does clear it up,” she says.
According to the Oregon Department of Justice website, three formal complaints have been filed against Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson. All of them were resolved. The Better Business Bureau website lists 151 closed complaints against the company in the last three years, but it gives Linebarger an A-plus rating.
“In many cases the complaint is the result of a misunderstanding,” says Joe Householder, the media representative for Linebarger. “This is money that the city is owed. It’s needed to fund important services.” Householder explained that Linebarger is one of the biggest government debt collecting agencies in the country. “We bring an economy of scale,” he says, noting that any illegal practices would result in the loss of the partners’ law licenses.
Stone says that the state of Oregon issues a list of approved debt collection agencies to which municipalities can sell their outstanding accounts receivable. “As part of the process, they checked out references,” Stone says about the state’s list. “I’m not aware of any of these grievances.”
She added that if the vehicle is sold and the title is not transferred promptly with the DMV — by the buyer or seller — it is possible to get a parking ticket that is not yours. “We’re absolutely willing to work with them to get it resolved,” she said about anyone who might be in such a situation.
Heidi Hubbard, representative at the city’s parking department, explained that it is possible to receive a parking citation even years after the sale of the car due to discrepancies in the city’s records.
The first time someone gets a ticket, Hubbard says, the city records the car owner’s information. “That info is put in the Eugene Municipal Court database,” she says. But if the ownership of the car changes, the city will be left with outdated information. “DMV doesn’t notify all the courts, municipalities, institutions,” she says.
“To take care of that, they are asking for proof of sale,” Hubbard says about the collection firm. “I’m hoping they can say that’s not your debt.” She adds, “If there’s any notice of collection in the mail from these people, it’s a legit collection.”
Gillis says she wished it had never reached this point. “Had I ever got a letter about this I would have cleared it up at that time,” Gillis says of her 10-year-old ticket.