In November, we observed both Veterans Day and Veterans' History Awareness Month to honor and celebrate the contributions of veterans to our state and country. These are significant occasions, but it is also important to recognize and stand up for our veterans and military families throughout the year.
This update provides examples of the work being done year-round at the Attorney General's Office, including:
Like many Washingtonians, my family has a strong connection to and appreciation for the men and women who served or currently serve in uniform. As I prepare to enter my second term as your Attorney General, I remain committed to making sure my office is working hard for Washington's veterans and military families.
For previous updates or for additional information and resources about the unique legal rights, protections, and benefits available to military service members and veterans, please visit www.atg.wa.gov/Veteran-and-Military-Resources.
Thank you for following the work of the Attorney General's Office and please feel to contact my office.
Washington State Attorney General
Upholding Employment Rights for Military Personnel
Federal and state laws exist to prevent employment discrimination and protect civilian job rights and benefits for members of the military, including those in the Reserve and National Guard. For example, the federal Uniformed Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), gives an employee returning from federal active duty military service the right to be re-employed at the same position, and with the same benefits and seniority.
State law similarly protects the employment rights of individuals with military service obligations under state authority - members of the National Guard ordered to state active duty by the Governor. Under state law, it is illegal to deny employment, reemployment, or any benefit of employment to service members because of their military association and service obligations. The Attorney General's Office is responsible for enforcing state law violations after an initial inquiry has been made by the state's military department commander, the Adjutant General.
To better inform National Guard members and their civilian employers about the law, the Attorney General's Office, in collaboration with the Washington Military Department, recently created a new resource - an information sheet that provides an overview of the rights and responsibilities of both civilian employers and their employees who serve in the military. National Guard members can use this information and resource by sharing it with their civilian employers when providing notice of their state active duty service obligations. Employers can use this information to help make sure they are offering and in compliance with the employment protections under state law.
Advocating for Expanded Legal Assistance Resources
In conjunction with Veterans Day, I recently co-authored an opinion piece with John Tymczyszyn, the legislative director of the Washington State Veterans Bar Association. We discuss the need to increase access to legal help for current and former military service members. I will be proposing legislation to create an Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance within the Attorney General's Office. I anticipate providing additional details in an update focused on the 2017 legislative session, but in the meantime you can read the column at the following link to the Tacoma News Tribune: Washington veterans deserve more legal help.
Protecting Military and Veteran Consumers
Protecting veterans and military service members from shady business practices is among my top priorities as Attorney General. Earlier this fall, my office's Consumer Protection Division announced that USA Discounters will pay more than $2.1 million in relief to over 2,400 former and current Washington consumers.
USA Discounters, also doing business as USA Living and Fletcher's Jewelers, sold household furnishings, electronics, and other consumer goods principally on credit. USA Discounters typically marketed to members of the military and veterans, advertising that military, veterans and government employees would never be denied credit.
My office, joined by attorneys general from 48 other states and the District of Columbia, accused USA Discounters of unfair, abusive and deceptive debt collection practices, which included the following examples:
Deceptive pricing - A Lakewood customer used financing to buy a set of truck tires and wheels worth about $2,300. The customer understood, based on the company's advertising, that there would be a 2.75% mark-up on the purchase. However, the company's mark-up was actually 2.75 times the purchase price, plus 24% interest over three years, making the total cost of the tires and wheels more than $11,000.
Abusive debt collection - One soldier reported that the company regularly and illegally called his chain-of-command and friends, sharing inaccurate and confidential information about his alleged debt. Another reported persistent collection calls at 5:00 a.m. The calls continued even after a debt repayment plan was agreed to.
Improper collections lawsuits - The company filed nearly all of its collection lawsuits in a few jurisdictions in Virginia, regardless of a service member's location, deployment status, or residence. Of the nearly 170 judgments the company obtained against Washington customers, only three were filed in the proper jurisdiction - either in the state where the products were purchased or in the service member's current state of residence.
The recovery to consumers as a result of this action included the company writing off nearly $2 million in balances and judgments, crediting customers' accounts, and correcting negative entries on affected consumers' credit reports. More specifics about the case and settlement are available here.
Promoting Professional Opportunities for Veterans
State agencies such as the Attorney General's Office should be model employers in making sure veterans have ample employment opportunities after they separate from service. To help accomplish this, state law gives hiring preferences to veterans. I am proud that my office has many attorneys and professional staff with military experience.
In addition to the general veteran hiring preference, I created a new volunteer law clerk position specifically designed for a law school student who previously served in the military. The position will help us focus our work on issues that impact military personnel and veterans.
I encourage law students with military backgrounds to consider joining our office. Students interested in this position, or others interested in current employment opportunities with the Attorney General's Office, should visit http://www.atg.wa.gov/current-job-postings for more information.