Investigation reveals it’s “very hard” to recover civil judgments; area courts owed $12M in fees


TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- Since News Channel 11 started investigating Tri-Cities plumber Glenn Harris and consumer allegations that he never finished contracted work that he was paid to do several viewers have reached out to News Channel 11 about Harris. Some of them said they were awarded civil judgments against him, but have never been paid. News Channel 11 looked into civil judgments to see how often they go unpaid and whether the court system is set-up to help victims recover money.

Washington County couple Larry and Sandy Burleson said they hired Glenn Harris in 2007 to renovate their bathtub. But they filed a civil lawsuit against in Washington County that same year. In a court document the Burelsons claim he never finished the job and the work he did complete was faulty.

“It’s devastating,” said Sandy Burleson, “You’ve got your whole house tore up and you don’t know where to turn.” Burleson said she was cleaning up around the bathtub pipes one day after Harris performed work on the plumbing. “There were all kinds of cans, spray foam cans that were underneath it.” Burleson said after taking a bath that night, things got worse. She said, “As quick as I got out of the tub and opened the drain there was this noise and that noise was the water had gone through the wall, down to the downstairs carpet, which was brand new and we had a mess because I removed the can that was holding up the drain pipe…The pipe wasn’t held together with any glue, tape, anything.”

A Washington County court record shows the Burlesons were awarded a $10,000 judgment against Harris in 2007. But, nearly a decade later, Larry Burleson said Harris has not paid them back. “The court could not give us a good answer of how to go about collecting it,” Larry Burleson said. “It was just left up to us if we wanted to collect the judgement. But there’s no way that you can collect that on your own.”

News Channel 11 searched Washington County court cases and discovered Harris has had at least four other civil judgments issued against him in the last 12 years. Court officials said they do not have any record of any of them being paid. News Channel 11 was able to contact two plaintiffs listed in two cases. They each said they have not received any payment from Harris.

News Channel 11’s investigation also found that it is not easy for court systems to collect money they’re owed. We discovered Washington and Sullivan counties are owed millions of dollars in court fees, fines, restitution, and judgments. In Fiscal Year 2014-2015, both counties only collected roughly 25 percent of what they were owed. For one 12-month period, each county still has an outstanding balance of around $12 million dollars each.

Sullivan County Circuit Court Clerk Tommy Kerns said there are several reasons why bills go unpaid. “Some of those reasons [are] because people are poor; probably one of the largest reasons, in circuit criminal is because the person is in prison and you can’t make payment because the person’s in prison.” But Kerns said he is proud of the collection rate in his county. “The national standard [in FY2011-2012] for collecting money in circuit court was 9 percent. We’re 20 some percent ahead of that.”

Kerns said it is “very hard” to recover civil judgments. “When the victim comes and initiates the process it costs the victim more money,” Kerns said, “You have to weigh is it worth me spending all this money, time and effort to try and get something. Does it balance out?”

The Burlesons said they spent a few hundred dollars to sue Harris, pursue him in another county, and garnish his bank account, but discovered the account was closed. “There’s something wrong with the county, city because they are allowing people to just receive a judgement on a piece of paper,” Sandy Burleson said.

Kerns offers this advice to help people avoid becoming victims. “You have to protect yourself. Nobody’s going to protect you.”

News Channel 11 reached out to Harris for a comment on this story, but he did not want to provide one. He said he was not the only person who owned the companies listed on the civil cases, but would not elaborate. His name is the only individual name listed as the defendant in the court documents News Channel 11 reviewed.

Copyright 2016 WJHL. All rights reserved.

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