RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Patron account debt collections - 4/30/2020
What laws or limits should libraries consider when storing and collecting patron account debts? ...
Posted: Thursday, April 30, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

What laws or limits should libraries consider when storing and collecting patron account debts?

Who is responsible for compliance: the library where a patron is registered (they set their own blocking policies), or the system maintaining the records?

Similarly, does the library system (who manages an ILS on behalf of its member libraries) have the authority over library records, including that of purging library patron accounts, according to local policy?

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

On the surface, these questions are very simple, since they boil down to: what are the laws impacting the flow of data comprising patron debt records (bills, fines, referral to collections), and who needs to follow those laws?

Of course, underneath that simplicity, the questions are mission-critical.  Libraries and library systems need to follow the relevant laws without error, and to ensure that while doing so, they reinforce the mission of their institutions.[1]

For this question, we’ll assume “patron account debts” as referred to by the member, are the four most typical “cost” records that a library maintains about patrons:

  • Late fee records
  • Replacement/damage fee records
  • Hold fee records, and
  • Ancillary costs records (duplication fees, etc.). 

Expressly excluded from this list of “patron account debts,” and from consideration in this answer, is debt related to deliberate property damage, personal injury, or express[2] contractual liability.  

And with those specifications in mind, here we go.

What laws or limits should libraries consider when storing and collecting patron account debts? 

To get to the important details in this question, we have to start with the fundamentals.

The first legal consideration when storing and collecting patron account debts is the nature of your library or library system, which is governed by a combination of the New York State Education Law (“Ed Law”), and the New York Not-For-Profit Corporations Law (“NFPC Law”), your charter, and bylaws.[3]

These laws and documents impact how your library or system 1) owns property; 2) sets the terms for that property to be borrowed; 3) maintains records regarding such activity; and 4) (if relevant) contracts with third parties (such as collection agencies or data repositories) to manage them.

The second legal consideration is the nature of the patron debts: are they set by law or regulation (like a tax or permit fee), or are they the by-product of a policy or agreement (like a service contract)?

The Ed Law and the NYPC Law, and related regulations, do not prescribe late fees, replacement fees, hold fees, or ancillary fees for patrons.  Rather, the Ed Law emphasizes that use of a library should be without costs to its community, as can be seen in this excerpt from Ed Law Section 253:

The term “public” library as used in this chapter shall be construed to mean a library, other than professional, technical or public school library, established for free public purposes by official action of a municipality or district or the legislature, where the whole interests belong to the public; the term “association” library shall be construed to mean a library established and controlled, in whole or in part, by a group of private individuals operating as an association, close corporation or as trustees under the provisions of a will or deed of trust; and the term “free” as applied to a library shall be construed to mean a library maintained for the benefit and free use on equal terms of all the people of the community in which the library is located. [emphasis added]

This “free” access within the area of service is also emphasized in Ed Law Section 262, which states:

Every library established under section two hundred fifty-five of this chapter shall be forever free to the inhabitants of the municipality or district or Indian reservation, which establishes it, subject always to rules of the library trustees who shall have authority to exclude any person who wilfully [sic] violates such rules; and the trustees may, under such conditions as they think expedient, extend the privileges of the library to persons living outside such municipality or district or Indian reservation.

That said, state law does contemplate the need for libraries to incentivize the return of books, and in solving that problem, it does not mess around.  As provided in Ed Law Section 265:

Whoever wilfully [sic] detains any book, newspaper, magazine, pamphlet, manuscript or other property belonging to any public or incorporated library, reading-room, museum or other educational institution, for thirty days after notice in writing to return the same, given after the expiration of the time which by the rules of such institution, such article or other property may be kept, shall be punished by a fine of not less than one nor more than twenty-five dollars, or by imprisonment in jail not exceeding six months, and the said notice shall bear on its face a copy of this section.

Forgive me if you find this boring, but I find it fascinating: New York State law’s only mention of fines in the context of accessing library services is a section that authorizes libraries to work with local law enforcement to impose fines and enforce the return of books through criminal prosecution.  Meanwhile, the law makes NO mention of collection of late fees or penalties per policy or through civil debt collection.[4]

Although Ed Law 265 is the only legislation to prescribe a remedy for failure to timely return library materials, I am not aware of any public or association library that actively uses it, although this ability has been on the books in its current form since 1950.[5]

So if the debt a library patron owes a library isn’t a “fine” under Ed Law Section 265 (or up to six months in jail!), what is it?

Rather than pursue the “265” option, most libraries have elected to use the  authority of their boards under Ed Law 226, and the NFPC Law, to simply condition the acquisition of a library card (and thus, access to core library services) on the patron’s knowing consent to a voluntary system of fines and penalties.   In other words, patrons agree to pay money in return for the ongoing privilege of borrowing books.   

While recent developments under consumer protection laws characterize it otherwise,[6] this voluntary, quid-pro-quo condition of otherwise free library access is viewed by the law as “contractual.”

Library boards, empowered by the law to set policy for the proper functioning of the library, use this contractual system to:

  • Incentivize return of assets (late fees);
  • Replace items that are not returned (replacement costs), and
  • Offset extras that are not part of a library’s core services (access to on-site photocopiers; hold fees for out-of-system interlibrary loans).[7]

This was a long answer to this second consideration, but it is critical.  What is the nature of patron debt?  It’s contractual.  This is what enables library debt to be farmed out for collections, or certain patron debt to be discharged in bankruptcy.  This will become relevant further into our analysis.

The third legal consideration is that every record related to patron debt is subject to the requirements of New York’s CPLR 4509, which means that—other than as needed for the proper functioning of the library—the records must be kept confidential.  They are just as private as circulation records and internet searches.

The fourth legal consideration is the medium of the record: hard copy, or electronic (or both)? In the event the record is electronic, the SHIELD ACT, which went into effect this March, may govern the keeper’s security and data breach requirements.

And finally, the fifth legal consideration is: what are the parameters for enforcing or collecting on the debt, anyway?  A combination of state and federal law, together with the library/system’s policy.  We’ll tackle this factor in-depth in the “diagnostic” section, below.

Which brings us to the member’s next two questions:

Who is responsible for compliance: the library where a patron is registered (they set their own blocking policies), or the system maintaining the records?

Similarly, does the library system (who manages an ILS on behalf of its member libraries) have the authority over library records, including that of purging library patron accounts, according to local policy? 

As you can probably tell by the remaining length of this “Ask the Lawyer”, there is not one, simple answer to either of these questions.  In fact, there are multiple answers, controlled by multiple factors.

Here is a process for sorting those factors out, and ensuring your library or system is enforcing fines and fees within the boundaries of the law.

Does the library or library system avail itself of Ed Law 265?

Are you one of the rare institutions actually using (not just threatening to use) law enforcement to assist with returns?  If “yes,” there should be a written policy for sending out notices and coordinating with local law enforcement. 

Also, if you do this, please write me at adams@stephaniecoleadams.com, because it would be really interesting to hear about your experience, you bibliophilic unicorn.

If the answer is “no” …

What document shows the patron has expressly agreed to pay the debt your library is charging as a condition of having a library card?

This would be the policies or terms the patron consented to follow when they signed up for their card.  It should be a clear statement of fines and fees that patrons expressly agree to, and the patron’s express consent to that agreement (signified by a signature or authenticable electronic signature) should be demonstrable at any later date the library or system needs to enforce the debt.  In some systems, this might even be covered in the member agreement (or a policy).

If the conditions showing a clear consent to fees aren’t clearly set forth in one document, or present at the time they are incurred (in a way that will show the patron knowingly incurred the cost), that should be corrected.

Many boards and staff inherited fee structures from previous administrations.  It is wise to revisit the compliance and function of fine policies and the systems for enforcing them no less than every five years.  This is particularly true since in the last five years, there have been changes to how fines may be collected, and changes to laws regarding maintenance of electronic records. 

Is that “debt agreement” with a single library, or an entire system serving that library? Whoever the agreement is with (the “creditor”) is the entity directly responsible for how the debt is enforced and related legal compliance.

This is important to clarify.  If the debt agreement is with a system, that system is the “creditor” and the system should be the entity maintaining the information, not the patron’s main library.  On the flip side, if the debt agreement is solely with a library (and the system has separate terms, or there is no system involved) that library is the creditor, and is the party responsible for the information’s use and maintenance.  The documentation related to fees, and the enabling policies, should leave no room for ambiguity in this.

This does not mean that any library within a system needs to conform its fine policy to all the others in that system.  Rather, within the bounds of the law, it means that a system enforcing multiple member library policies must ensure that patrons have notice of the different fee structures they might be agreeing to, before the imposition of a fee.

Wait! What about library systems that maintain overdue records and enforce collections on behalf of member libraries?  Or libraries and systems that contract those services out.

This is where terminology becomes important.  In a policy to charge fees for late books and replacements, a patron becomes a “debtor” (an entity who owes money to another entity).  The entity they owe it to (the library or system) is the “creditor.”  Meanwhile, any third party hired to track the information related to the debt on behalf of the creditor is a “contractor.”

It is the creditor—the entity situated to assert a debt in a court of law—who is responsible for the proper management of debt-related information. While they can retain a contractor to manage the database, and even perform related functions (sending out notices, making calls to encourage returns), they remain the party ultimately responsible for use and maintenance of the information.  They are also the sole party empowered to sign over the authority to collect the debt to an agent (a “collection agency”).[8]

In New York, some library systems are the creditors, but some (if its founding documents, the membership agreement, and policies provide for it) are just the contractors for their member libraries. The ability to set this relationship up, and to effect the resulting responsibility and authority, starts with the entity type and its contractual affiliations, which will vary from system to system, and will change based on charter, bylaws, and strategic decisions. 

This is why founding documents are always the “first legal consideration.”

What policy at the entity required to maintain the information (the creditor library or system) clearly sets out how debt-related information is generated, maintained, used, and purged?

It can have any number of names, but this policy should reference the terms the patrons have agreed to, all relevant laws, and be tied into the institution’s policy for data breach.  If the creditor uses a third party to store the data, or a collection agency, baseline criteria for those contracts is also part of this answer.  Further, the policy should specifically address how long fee records are maintained after they are incurred, and under what terms patrons might be forever barred from borrowing privileges based on such fees.

For libraries and systems that use fees, below is a sample policy that covers the different considerations of charging fees.  Variable items are in yellow, critical items (meaning a library/system should have a clear policy and provision regarding this) are in red:

TEMPLATE Policy Regarding Terms, Records, and Payment of Patron Fees

Terms of Borrowing

As a condition of borrowing privileges, patrons agree to fees as set forth in [all documents listing a fee].

Education Law 265

The [XXX library/system] [does/does not] use the remedies allowed by Education Law 265 for the return of late items.

Threshold for Suspension of Borrowing

Patrons with over [$amount] of unpaid fees will have their borrowing privileged suspended.

Fee Records

Information regarding fees is housed on [place/entity housing information].

The security provision for [place] are [insert].

[Place] is only accessible to trained employees of [institution and any affiliates who must access it].

Notice of fees owed will only be sent out via sealed envelope sent via USPS, to the email of record of the patron, or provided on a printed paper upon the patron’s request in person. 

Information related to fines shall not be conveyed over the phone unless as an ADA accommodation.

Collections

Once outstanding fees reach [$threshold amount], a third-party collection agency may be used.

The contract for any collection agency shall include a commitment to follow all relevant consumer protection laws and [insert priorities of the library regarding contact with patrons].

To ensure confidentiality of patron records as required by CPLR 4509, no such agency shall be authorized to contact patrons at their residence in person or via the telephone. 

The [library/system] shall cease collection efforts as to any patron who informs the library that they have filed bankruptcy.  To re-institute borrowing privileges during bankruptcy, the patron should send a copy of the bankruptcy filing to the library. In the event new charges after the bankruptcy filing again reach the threshold for suspending borrowing privileges, privileges will be suspended.

Other than trained employees, and any third-party collection agency, only the patron and those duly authorized per CPLR 4509 may access records related to patron fees.  Collection notices may only be sent via USPS, and to the email of record to the patron; contact may only be via phone if initiated by the patron.

In the event a patron fee record is authorized or accessed in violation of this policy, the library/system will take all appropriate corrective action, and if required, will follow the notification procedures in the library/system’s policy regarding data breach.

Payment of fees

Fees will only be accepted by the [library/system] per the relevant fiscal controls, as set out in [reference fiscal control policy/ies, or the terms in a collection agency contract].

Accounting

Unpaid fees are listed as “receivables” and accounted for in book-keeping as required by GAGAS.

Unpaid fees are no longer collectible in a court of law six (6) years after they are incurred, and thus are written off the books after six (6) years.

Record Purge

After unpaid fees are written off the books, the library will purge all print and electronic records of such fees, except for preserving de-identified data for purposes of assessing library operations.

Permanent Loss of Privileges

Patrons responsible for [$amount] of unpaid fees (based on any combination of late fees, replacement costs, or other unpaid fees), unless the debt is discharged in bankruptcy, will be permanently barred from applying for another card from the [library/system], and such record shall be maintained in perpetuity.

 

Template language, of course, is only provided so it can be conformed to the unique position, practices, and goals of your library/system.  Within the scope set out above, there is a lot of latitude to do things in a way that reflects the unique needs of your institution. What is important is that there be clarity about the use of fees, and how they are managed.  Further, institutions placing a high priority on collectability of fines should have the full suite of language reviewed by their lawyer annually.

What policy or standard operating procedure at an entity NOT required to maintain the information, but accessing it for customer service, clearly sets out how debt-related information is accessed and not improperly shared?

For collaborating entities with access but not responsibility for fee records (for instance, a member library within a system, or a system who must follow a member’s policy) compliance with a clear policy or SOP should be part of routine training for employees and volunteers.

Standard Operating Procedure Regarding Confidentiality of Patron Fees

The [XXX library/system] maintains confidential data regarding patron fees, including late fees and hold fees, on a password-protected database only available to trained employees. 

The [adopting institution] accesses and adds to this information to assist patrons in accessing and addressing issues related to fees.

Other than trained employees, only the patron and those duly authorized per CPLR 4509 may access records related to a patron’s fees.

Notice of fees owed will only be sent out via sealed envelope sent via USPS, to the email of record to the patron, or provided on a printed paper upon the patron’s request in person.  Information related to fines shall not be conveyed over the phone unless as an ADA accommodation.

In the event a patron fee record is authorized or accessed in violation of this procedure, the [adopting institution] will take all appropriate corrective action, and if required, will let [XXX library system] know, so it can follow the notification procedures in the [XXXlibrary/system]’s policy regarding data breach.

Fees will only be collected per the attached [relevant fiscal controls/policy/member agreement].

Employees are trained on this standard operating procedure prior to doing any work related to fees, and not less than annually. 

This template language, is only provided to inspire a standard operating procedure that addresses critical details; any final SOP should be conformed to the unique practices of your library and system.

If a collection agency is used to encourage returns and enforce late fees, who retains the agency and monitors its performance?

This should only be the entity expressly authorized by the patron agreement to collect the debt (the “creditor”).

Is there a written policy for how the library or system accounts for patron debt in its books?  When, if ever, is that debt written off?

Patron debt is a “receivable,” meaning it is on the books as money owed to the library, until the debt is forgiven or written off.[9]

How long is a patron’s debt enforceable?

In New York, a debt owed per a contract is enforceable for six years, unless otherwise provided.[10]  Unless reduced to a judgment, efforts to collect debts that are enforceable run the risk of being considered unfair debt collection practices.[11]  However, a library can continue to condition borrowing privileges on truing up past accounts and returning/replacing lost items, even if they are not collectible in a court of law.

Does the record-keeping policy of the library or system tracking the patron debt continue the consequences for the debt after it is written off?  Or does the policy not write off the debt, ever? 

There is no “right” answer here, but there should be mission-sensitive harmony between policies and how the library is accounting for the debt.  If a 1995 debt was written off the books in 2005, it might not make sense to enforce the debt’s consequences past 2015.  Figuring this out is a great excuse for a library’s treasurer, accountant, and director to go out for lunch.

The final, final answers to the member’s question are therefore:

1) Every library and library system will have a different array of answers to the member’s questions. 

2) The key take-away is that to ensure legal compliance about managing patron debt, an institution must address the above-listed considerations.

Coda

OK. I said I wasn't going to say anything, but I have to.

Anyone who reads the law can see that use of late fees is not a practice baked into the legal roots of public and association libraries.  Rather, libraries in New York State are expressly created as free institutions—institutions assured the collaboration of law enforcement when there is an abuse of their free resources.

I appreciate that viewing the problem of unreturned books as a “criminal” matter can pose some concern for libraries.  However, as a former criminal defense attorney, and now a business attorney, I can tell you that in many ways, a system that caps fines at $25 and holds the threat of jail time for anyone—even those who can easily afford larger library fees than some—is actually comparatively egalitarian. 

That said, the fact that Education Law 265 is not more utilized shows that at some point, critical connections within communities (libraries and municipal prosecuting attorneys) were not forged to empower this approach. Rather, it seems that many libraries resorted to fines and collection operations, monetizing the human tendency to forget to return library books. 

Over time, these fees were regarded as a revenue stream.  In some places, it might even supplement budgets that should be fully supplied by sponsoring municipalities.[12]

I see this failure to use 265 as a failing of the law.  And as someone who has devoted their adult life to the law, that is disappointing to see. 

That said, I take heart that in 2015, 30 states’ Attorneys General took action to ensure library fees could no longer impact people’s credit, limiting the toolbox of collection agencies enforcing library fees.[13]  And I am glad many libraries are taking fresh, critical looks at how to encourage responsible library use and good stewardship of library assets, without resorting to financial fees.  

The plain and repeated language in New York’s Education Law states that public and association libraries are “free” to their communities.  Compliance with that language should be the aim of every public and association library, even as they exercise their authority, also created by law, to protect their assets and serve their unique areas of service.

 



[1] Much data-driven, well-researched, and passionate content has been generated about libraries’ use of fines and penalties.  This answer just sticks to using them with an eye to legal compliance.

[2] Meaning the debt is based on a specific, written contract with the precise amount owed set forth and signed by the patron.

[3] This structure is more fully set forth in answer like this one: https://www.wnylrc.org/ask-the-lawyer/raqs/103.

[4] Since the maximum imprisonment term of six months makes the detention of a library book a misdemeanor, this remedy is “criminal”.

[5] Further, when one looks at the centralized guidance for operating a public or free association library in New York, the issue of fines and fees is not substantively addressed.  While the excellent guidance here: http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/helpful/helpful.pdf states that policies, including those about fines, should be well-thought out, there is no background or guidance on fines. 

[6] Without turning this into a law review article, I’ll simply say that since 2015, credit reporting agencies have not been allowed to add library fines to credit reports, because they are not viewed as “contractual” (see the settlement terms found at https://ag.ny.gov/pdfs/CRA%20Agreement%20Fully%20Executed%203.8.15.pdf).  That said, in the legal biz, the conditioning of access upon the agreement to pay fines is “contractual,” and based on that construct, some libraries do use collection agencies to sue for unpaid fees.

[7]It has been my conclusion that hold fees within cooperative library systems are contrary to relevant law and regulations.  But that’s a column for another day.

[8] Of course, collection agency contracts should have protections and assurances requiring the agent to follow the law. That is partially to protect the creditor in the event their agent violates the law (and can also function to protect the library-patron relationship).

[9] An illustration of how such receivables are viewed under accounting procedures for public libraries can be found in this 2014 NYS Comptroller’s audit of Oswego Public Library: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/audits/libraries/2014/oswego_sd.pdf

[10] See Section 213 of New York’s Civil Procedure Laws and Rules.  The limitation period to use Ed Law 265 is two years, but since 265 doesn’t seem like a popular option, we’ll just stick that fact in a footnote.

[11] The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) prohibits the use of any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt (see 15 U.S.C.S. § 1692e).

[12] In many ways, it is akin to the addiction municipalities have to municipal court fees.  If you ever need to hear a good rant, ask me about that one.

[13] The legal action discussed in footnote 7.

Tags: Fees and Fines

Topic: Charging Research or Consulting Fees - 4/4/2019
My library has long been in the practice of charging what we often refer to as a "research fe...
Posted: Thursday, April 4, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

My library has long been in the practice of charging what we often refer to as a "research fee" or "consulting fee." I am familiar with some libraries who have a similar practice, but wonder if it's legal for us to charge an hourly rate for work done by volunteers? The workflow has always been as follows: a reference request is received by the Librarian, a determination of whether the question is appropriate for our collection is made, then the work is delegated to a volunteer. In general, we've never taken on a job of over 2 hours, and most questions relate to our genealogy collections / searching vital records.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

It is well established that a not-for-profit organization can benefit from volunteer labor.  This is true even when the labor brings the organization tangible benefits, like the money from a bake sale, or as in this case, a research fee. 

But when using volunteer services and charging a fee, a library (or any chartered not-for-profit) in New York must engage in a systematic analysis to ensure the arrangement is in step with numerous laws and regulations.  How can a library, museum, or archives do this? 

Follow the three-step process below.

 

STEP ONE

First, identify the services the institution would like to provide through volunteer labor. 

This is rather like writing a job description or hire letter.  An example based on the member’s scenario could look like this:

Research Volunteer

Under the general oversight of [paid position] in [department], the Research Volunteer performs specific research tasks related to personal requests by [institution] members and other users. These tasks are not to routine operations of [department], but benefit the public and [institution] by serving members and others in a way directly related to [institution]’s mission to [insert mission], as well as raising revenue in support of that mission. 

Your hours and participation as a Research Volunteer are voluntary, but we do ask that you work with [person] to coordinate your time; this will enable us to support your work, and keep things organized.  This work is a valuable service [institution] can only provide through the services of volunteers, and we thank you for your dedication and hard work!

The essential elements of this first step are:

  • clarifying who is supervising/helping the volunteer;
  • clarifying the tasks of the volunteer;
  • specifying that the tasks are not routine duties of paid staff;
  • confirming that the work is voluntary; and
  • documenting that the work is directly related to the institution’s mission.

You’ll see why these are important in the Steps Two and Three!

 

STEP TWO

Next, check your organization’s founding laws, charter, founding documents[1], bylaws and plan of service (I call these “core rules”) for any terms that apply to the service you defined in Step One. 

Look at the laws and documents.  Is there something preventing the institution from charging a fee for this specific service?  Is there any cap on that fee?

This exercise will vary greatly from institution to institution, since many variables can impact what’s in the “core rules.”  Here are just a few examples:

A public library could never charge a member to borrow a book or to use the internet, because Education Law Section 262 requires that public libraries be free (to cardholders).

For a private library, its charter could contain an express rule that certain services must remain free—a restriction that might not be found in the law, but could be just as enforceable.  A similar condition could be in its bylaws, or a donation document.

And if an institution is a 501(c)(3), care must be taken to make sure the revenue generated by the service is “substantially related” to the institution’s not-for-profit mission, or the institution could risk having to pay “unrelated business income tax.”  The service should also be reviewed to ensure it is not an “excess benefit transaction” or a non-disregarded membership benefit.[2]  A mis-step on any one of these could have serious tax consequences.

When doing the “Step Two” analysis, it is ideal to confirm your conclusions with a lawyer. 

 

STEP THREE

Once an institution uses Step Two to confirm it can charge for a service, it is time to return to your description from Step One and make it official, by putting the scope of work and details in a “Volunteer Letter.” 

Why so formal?  Because in recent years, the State of New York has cracked down on enforcement of quasi-volunteer, or just plain muddy, instances of volunteer labor at not-for-profit institutions.  This has even included examining perks and partial payments to volunteers!

Why is that?  While not-for-profit volunteering is unequivocally allowed, like anything, the system can be abused.  To avoid that, and to create clarity in these critical relationships, the New York Department of Labor has issued some pretty strict guidelines, such as:

Unpaid volunteers at not-for-profits may not:

  • replace or augment paid staff to do the work of paid staff
  • do anything but tasks traditionally reserved for volunteers
  • be required to work certain hours
  • be required to perform duties involuntarily
  • be under any contract of hire by any other person or business express or implied
  • be paid for their services, except for expense reimbursement

Sound familiar? This is where the work you did in Step One pays off!  By identifying the work as part of a “Volunteer Program,” clarifying that the service is offered through the hard work of volunteers (and never paid staff), and that there is no compensation to the volunteer, your documentation will be ready to show compliance in the event the Department of Labor audits your institution (which, from time to time, they do).

 

Final thoughts

Volunteers can be critical contributors to an organization.  If allowed by your organization’s core rules, a not-for-profit can absolutely benefit from the fruits of their labor.  By following the steps outlined above, and setting the relationship up carefully, a not-for-profit (and its volunteers) can reap great rewards.

The essential element of this is clear documentation.  A letter to every volunteer, stating their role, the rules of the position,[3] that it is not replacing or supplementing paid staff, and thanking them for their service, will position an organization to easily demonstrate compliance. 

A quick annual check with the institution’s insurance carrier, to make sure volunteers and their activities are covered by the institution’s insurance, is wise, too.

Thanks for a great question!

 


[1] A trust, endowment, deed, or other founding document that may also impose conditions on the entity.

[2] Per IRS Publication 526, the following 501(c)(3) membership benefits can be “disregarded” (not considered a taxable benefit) if a member gets them in return for an annual payment of $75 or less. These “benefits” can include any rights or privileges that a person can use frequently while you are a member, such as: a. Free or discounted admission to the organization's facilities or events, b. Free or discounted parking, c. Preferred access to goods or services, and d. Discounts on the purchase of goods and services.  [emphasis added]

[3] Since volunteers can be critical contributors to the work environment, they should attend the annual sexual harassment training put on by your library, and be trained along with the employees.

Tags: Policy, Fees and Fines

Topic: Creating A Bankruptcy Discharge Policy - 2/20/2019
We are a school district public library, and a governmental entity, considering crafting a policy ...
Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

We are a school district public library, and a governmental entity, considering crafting a policy relating to debts discharged in bankruptcy, if the library is named as a creditor. 

Are replacement costs for library materials exempt from or subject to discharge of debt? Overdue fines? 
Fees levied in an attempt to recover materials (i.e. collection agency fees)? (We do not submit overdue fines to collection agencies, only the replacement costs of materials, in an attempt to recover them)

Are we allowed to impose restrictions on borrowers whose debt has been discharged, if they have not returned materials owned by the library? For example, can we deny loans to a borrower until they return library materials, or pay for them, if the debt has been discharged; or can we limit the number of items loaned for a period of time?

The following is an example of a such a policy. Is it problematic?

The Library will comply with Discharge of Debtor decrees by bankruptcy courts. Once the library is notified that a bankruptcy has been filed, collection activity is suspended on the customer’s account and on the accounts of any minor children (to the extent that the charges existed prior to the date of the bankruptcy filing) until the library is notified of the outcome.
Cardholders who have: 

  • Filed for bankruptcy,
  • Named The Library as a creditor,
  • Received a discharge, and
  • Presented the appropriate documents to the library
  • Shall have outstanding balances for fines, fees, and collection agency charges removed from their accounts. However, all Library materials borrowed on any account covered by the bankruptcy decision must be returned in order to have a Library card in good standing. 

Only charges owed to The Library as of the date of the decree will be waived. Fines and fees incurred after the period of time covered by the bankruptcy proceedings are not covered by the discharge document and will remain on the borrower’s account and those of any minor children. 

Thanks for any guidance!

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Before we get to the nitty-gritty on this question (and we will), let’s reflect on why libraries charge fines and replacement costs in the first place:

  • To encourage timely return of materials
  • To offset staff time and resources consumed by retrieval efforts
  • To replace items when retrieval efforts are ineffective

And always, lurking in the background, is the notion that fines and replacement costs are an alternative to the most under-utilized section of the NYS Education law, the criminal provision in Section 265:

Whoever wilfully detains any book…belonging to any public or incorporated library…shall be punished by a fine of not less than one nor more than twenty-five dollars, or by imprisonment in jail not exceeding six months…..

So far, I have not had a client use their “one phone call” to let me know they have been arrested on an “265,” but the possibility is never far from my mind.

Of course, no one picks a library career to pursue their dream of arresting people who love (and lose) books.  And, although less draconian, I bet no one picks a library career for the joy of assessing late fees.  That said, library materials costs money, and people can be irresponsible about returning items to the library.  So what’s an institution to do?

Some libraries are experimenting with no-fine models[1], since fines can have a disproportionate impact on those in poverty.  Others have great success with routine “amnesty” days and other creative ways to take the sting out of returning books late. And still others want to make sure that the traditional model is as streamlined and legally compliant as possible.  That is what the member’s question is about.

A “bankruptcy discharge policy” is a logical component of a library’s approach to fines, replacement costs, and efforts to collect them.  It addresses the potential “dischargeability” (wiping out) of library fines when a person seeks the protection and “fresh start” created by bankruptcy.  It can also help libraries (and their collection agencies) follow the law, which gives people seeking bankruptcy very specific protections.

Before we address the member’s specific questions about adopting such a policy, it is important to take a moment to reflect on (legal) language.  This is because there is a basis to argue that overdue fines and replacement costs, while valid conditions of having a library card, might not qualify as typical commercial “debts;” this could mean that in many cases, libraries owed fines and replacement moneys might not be precisely “creditors.” This is pointed out in the 1997 case Riebe v. Jeurgensmeyer[2], where the judge writes:

The origin of this federal case is a minor's failure to return a library book. In 1995, Elizabeth Riebe, a minor, borrowed a library book from the St. Charles Public Library ("the Library"). The due date came and went without Ms. Riebe returning it. The Library waited. After Ms. Riebe failed to return the book for six months, the Library retained Defendants [a collection firm] to write to her parents ("Plaintiffs") requesting payment of $ 29.95. 

Addressed to Plaintiffs, the letter, as Plaintiffs see it, implied that they, or their daughter, could be arrested and imprisoned for intentional theft of public library property. Attached to the letter was a copy of the provisions of the Illinois Criminal Code. Rather than paying the $ 29.95 or at least returning the book, and thereby putting the matter to rest, Plaintiffs filed a complaint in federal court, alleging that Defendants' letter violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA"), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq.(1996).

In ruling that the FDCPA doesn’t apply to attempts collect library fines (and thus that the library could not be liable for the zeal of their collection agency under the FDCPA) federal Judge Charles R. Norgle (who clearly esteems libraries) wrote:

Here, there was no initial "business dealing" creating an obligation to pay, only an obligation to return a library book. In theory, this may have created some type of contract, but not in the context of a "business dealing" as contemplated by the FDCPA, e.g, the purchase of consumer goods or services. … Rather, the borrowing of a library book is a public privilege that largely depends on trust and the integrity of the borrower. [emphasis added]

Now, the FDCPA is not the Bankruptcy Code, and it is possible that a person seeking relief from debt under the Code and might be able to reduce or completely discharge their fines and replacement charges from a library.  But for over twenty years, Riebe has been cited as good law, so it is possible that this view of library fines and replacement costs as something more fundamental that a business debt could carry over. 

I emphasize this because it means some types of library fines and costs might be dischargeable, but others, since they are not consumer “debt” in the traditional sense, might not.[3]

So, with all that, let’s get to the nitty-gritty:

Are replacement costs for library materials exempt from or subject to discharge of debt? Overdue fines?

Because of the factors cited above, there can be no one-size-fits all answer to this!  It will depend on a few factors.  Under certain circumstances (replacement costs, fines connected to vandalism or wanton theft) the court might rule that what’s owed to the library is not a “dischargeable” debt.  But that might not be the case for the average family declaring bankruptcy because they got swept at the knees due to illness or job loss, and who might have additional hardships to show to the court.  As with many things in bankruptcy, it will depend on the circumstances.

Fees levied in an attempt to recover materials (i.e. collection agency fees)?

I would argue that imposing additional administrative costs for retaining a collection agent risks transforming the library-patron relationship described so well by Judge Norgle in Riebe.  In doing this, the likelihood of the costs being dischargeable increases.  But again, it will depend on the underlying nature of the fine or cost.  Someone who checked out 10 DVD’s on their first week as a cardholder and never returned them might have a tough time proving that the costs aren’t the result of theft (and thus non-dischargeable).

Are we allowed to impose restrictions on borrowers whose debt has been discharged, if they have not returned materials owned by the library? For example, can we deny loans to a borrower until they return library materials, or pay for them, if the debt has been discharged; or can we limit the number of items loaned for a period of time?

Regardless of where your board may fall on its philosophical approach to fines and collections, any time a cardholder declares bankruptcy, all efforts to collect fines or replacement costs should cease.  Critically, this means if borrowing privileges are only suspended due to unpaid fines, borrowing privileges should immediately be reinstated.  On the flip side, suspension due to unreturned materials (for which no replacement cost is being charged) can continue. 

The most important thing, as the member suggests, is to respect the process when your library is notified of it. Any library, or agent of a library, who gets a notice that a cardholder is filing bankruptcy should cease all financially-related sanctions.  If there are extenuating circumstances (let’s say the amount owed is related to an act of vandalism, or failure to return 50 full-color art books) refer the matter to library’s attorney, or alert the bankruptcy trustee, who might contest discharge under the precise factors of the bankruptcy code.

With all that in mind, I suggest some alternative language for a policy, which would addresses both the human aspect of bankruptcy, and some of these subtleties:

Bankruptcy Discharge Policy

The Library understands that sometimes people must seek relief from debt in bankruptcy and are entitled to a “fresh start” after such relief is obtained.

Procedure

Cardholders seeking a discharge in bankruptcy of moneys owed to the library should notify the library of having filed for bankruptcy.

Once the library is properly notified that a bankruptcy has been filed, the library and/or its agent will immediately cease contacting the cardholder about the financial amount(s) owed. 

The library shall then evaluate its response to the notice.  In making such an evaluation, the nature of the conduct leading to any fines, costs, and suspended privileges will be considered.  In particular, but not exclusively, the discharge of any costs related to wanton destruction or significant failure to return borrowed items may be contested.

After notice of filing, but prior to discharge, if borrowing privileges are suspended solely on the basis of unpaid fines and replacement costs, borrowing privileges will be immediately reinstated; borrowing privileges suspended on the basis of unreturned items, for which no replacement cost is sought, will remain suspended.

To ensure all charges are listed on the bankruptcy schedule, the cardholder or their attorney may contact the library to request a statement of account at any time; such contact must be in writing so there is no risk of the library appearing to have violated the bar on collection activity.  An attorney or trustee requesting this information on behalf of the cardholder must include permission from the cardholder as required by CPLR 4509.

The library supports that people seeking relief in bankruptcy are entitled to a “fresh start” after the discharge of debt(s).  Upon presentation of a “Discharge of Debtor” listing the library, all moneys owing shall be removed from the cardholder’s record, up to the date of discharge, for the cardholder and any minor children in the family. 

Further, if replacement costs are discharged, the library will not regard the failure to return the corresponding item as a basis to bar reinstatement of borrowing privileges.

Late returns or losses after the date of discharge will be subject to routine policies, including fines and suspension of borrowing privileges.

This approach both maximizes the potential for a bankruptcy discharge to be the compassionate re-set of the cardholder’s account it is intended to be…while taking into consideration that not all charges might be worthy of discharge (which is up to the bankruptcy court to decide).

Thank you for this careful question.

 


[1] A topic discussed in an interesting TED talk by librarian Dawn Wacek.

[2] United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, October 31, 1997.

[3] The member’s question states that the library is a “government entity,” an assertion that is potentially relevant under the Bankruptcy code.  Without making this response pages longer, I will simply state that I don’t believe a public library has quite the same status governmental entities do under the Bankruptcy Code; however, as shown in Riebe, libraries can occupy a unique position that should inform their approach to this issue.

 

Tags: Fees and Fines, Policy

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