Mimesis Law
19 February 2017

Chase Bank Takes Jury Duty Pay From D.C. Jurors

February 14, 2017 (Fault Lines) – If you’ve never served on a jury, then you might not know that jurors get paid. No, it’s not very much money; it’s usually far less than minimum wage. It’s not an amount meant to fairly compensate you. Fair compensation would be too expensive. No, it’s more like handing someone an ice pack, after you punch them in the face. After all, the government is conscripting you for its benefit, regardless of whether you would rather be watching Maury or Dr. Oz.

Juries cause extra work for the courts—as if the litigants don’t cause enough problems. The court has to make up the jury list, send summonses out, sort questionnaires, hire employees that manage the process and people that show, possibly feed the jurors, and then pay them at the end. Paying jurors mean that the court has to go through the hassle of cutting checks to jurors. Nowadays, the government cuts relatively few checks. Most transactions are done electronically, like direct deposits. Even things like tax refunds are often done without paper checks. Cash is for scalawags.

Vendors know that government officials like to cut down on work, especially paperwork. So, they are constantly devising new products and services to sell to government, and they send out salesmen to inform the officials of this fabulous new product. Of course the vendor is making a profit for providing such a helpful product. Why else would someone devote most of their waking hours to things like document imaging products? Vendor makes some money, and the official saves work, time, and perhaps manages to cut the budget.

Something like that process probably played out in D.C. Chase came up with an idea to take over paying jurors. Instead of getting a paper check or an electronic deposit, Chase would give the jurors a credit card with their jury pay loaded on it. This way, the court didn’t have to hassle with paying the jurors, the jurors got their money in a useable form, and Chase would make a profit.

In other places that used Chase for this service, it cut the processing costs to 1/6th and Chase still made $2 per card. And jurors without bank accounts could more easily access the money. Faster, too. So, it seemed like a good deal for everyone.

Some D.C. jurors instead, with the help of a plaintiff’s attorney, concluded that Chase was screwing them to make a profit:

The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by D.C. attorney William Mark Scott, says burdensome debit-card fees deprived “those who duly fulfilled their civic duty” of fair compensation.

Nice words, but we all know they are all soothing lies. You don’t get fairly compensated for being forced to show up under the threat of arrest or fine.

“Chase has devised a deceptive and unlawful scheme to deprive jurors of their full payments for jury service,” the suit reads. “This is done without an iota of consent from jurors, who are, in fact, further misled by the deceptive materials Chase provides with its debit cards, which falsely advertise that jurors can receive their funds for ‘FREE.’ ”

Chances are the D.C. courts didn’t pay too much attention to how Chase was making a profit. It was too busy celebrating getting rid of work. Plus, they probably heard about all the success stories. Maybe they should have, but the court’s inattentiveness isn’t quite the banality of evil either. Either way, the jurors don’t have a say in how much they get paid and the manner of payment. Thus, it’s unlikely that terms like consent and deceptive are going to be legally meaningful here. But complaints need words, and those are words.

In the District, jurors receive $30 per day if they serve on a jury, plus a $4 travel allowance. But Scott’s suit alleges that he couldn’t access his full payment for serving on a jury in July because of two 25-cent charges after “not having enough money in the account to pay for a ‘declined’ Debit Card purchase,” according to the suit, and because of $1.50 in “inactivity fees.”

Everyone hates “hidden fees.” Cell phone companies create entire advertising campaigns that revolve around eliminating hidden fees. The clever way that Chase was able to sell its service to D.C. was to get some, or perhaps all, of its profit from the end users, the jurors.

On the other hand, Chase might have had (mostly) benign reasons for imposing fees. For example, allowing the cards to keep cash on them indefinitely creates an administrative problem for Chase. Perhaps instead of assessing fees until the balance was gone, Chase should have turned over the balance to D.C.’s unclaimed funds program. Maybe it was really all about the profit.

Meanwhile, small balances left on cards — like the $4 that people receive when they report for jury duty but are not selected for a panel — cannot be easily accessed and are effectively “forfeited to Chase,” the suit said.

One wonders how many people were routinely cashing those $4 checks. Maybe the numbers are about the same. Either way the juror didn’t end up with the money; the only difference now is which entity did end up with it. And those without a bank account couldn’t get anywhere near $4. Although most of the checks might have been cashed because D.C. seemingly had a way that the jurors could cash the checks at nearby ATMs.

And, as it turns out, it was the feds that put pressure on D.C. to switch to the cards:

Leah Gurowitz, spokeswoman for D.C. Superior Court, said more than 31,000 people served as jurors in the District during the last fiscal year, and jury fees totaled $701,000. She said the court began paying jurors with debit cards in 2015 on the recommendation of the U.S. Treasury Department, partly because of problems with courthouse ATMs that dispensed money to jurors.

“The program is not designed to save the court money but rather to make it more convenient for jurors — they don’t have to wait for checks to be issued each day,” she wrote in an email. She added: “Any fees imposed are negotiated between Chase and the U.S. Department of Treasury.”

On balance, it doesn’t seem Chase was treating D.C. jurors differently than it would any other cardholders. But this raises the question of whether Chase should be allowed to pocket the entire amount, based on a lack of activity. It seems rather than appropriate a juror’s hard-earned $4, some of its fees ought to be waived. And if the juror doesn’t use the card in a year, the money should go back to the taxpayers or unclaimed funds.

But the best question of all is if you’re only going to pay jurors $4, why even bother at all? It’s just transparent window dressing and an insultingly low amount.

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