Noble operates 67 stores in Texas, but the company files no suits there, Gentry said in his response. He argued, however, that the primary reason for the lack of suits in Texas wasn’t the inability to seize a debtor’s wages or pass on costs, but rather “the strong economic standing of the state.”
By contrast, Texas, where Noble is based, largely prohibits wage garnishments – and bars installment lenders that sue from passing court costs on to borrowers
His companies do what they can to avoid filing suit, he wrote, but, ultimately, it’s the customers who are responsible: “The loan information is fully disclosed to the borrower, they leave the branch office with money in hand and knowing their payment expectations. Yet when they don’t pay us back – you paint us as the bad guys.”
Wright, the former Noble employee, said she didn’t think the threat of lawsuits discouraged customers. “People are so desperate for money,” she said.
Thousands of Oklahomans have been sued more than once by high-cost lenders in the past five years, according to ProPublica’s analysis. Some consumers have been sued repeatedly over a period of years. For example, ProPublica identified 11 borrowers who had each been sued at least nine times.
One man and woman who live at the same address in rural Woodward County have been sued a total of 21 times. Attempts by ProPublica to reach them were unsuccessful. All but two of those suits were brought by subsidiaries of a single company, Ponca Finance. Ponca, which has filed at least 5,039 suits in Oklahoma in the past five years, declined to comment.
Michael Matthews, a lawyer with Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma who works with clients in Woodward and other nearby rural counties, said he frequently sees people entangled in suits over delinquent high-cost loans. Often, the borrower doesn’t appear in court or respond to the suit. “It’s such an easy process” for the lender, he said. Wage garnishment can follow swiftly.
A high number of suits might indicate a lender is relying on “aggressive collections methods rather than looking at a borrower’s reasonable ability to repay,” said Tom Feltner, director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America
Not appearing can pose a further danger, he said. Lenders can require borrowers to attend a hearing where they must declare what assets they have that may be eligible for garnishment. Borrowers who don’t show up can be declared in contempt of court, leading to a warrant for arrest.
This is not unique to Oklahoma. In 2012, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that a similar chain of events had landed some Missourians in jail. Last year, Illinois modified its laws to make such warrants rarer.
In Oklahoma, the outsized presence of high-cost lenders like Ponca is most striking in rural counties. Woodward County, for instance, has a population of about 20,000. High-cost lenders file about 400 suits there every year, accounting for more than one-third of all collections suits filed in the county court. Since the beginning of 2009, more than 1,300 different Woodward residents, more than 5 percent of the total population, have been sued at least once.
Not all installment lenders are equally aggressive, however. Some sued far less frequently than others, despite having dozens of locations in Oklahoma.
Gentry, the Noble executive, rejected the idea that his company might be doing a poor job of making sure his customers could make their payments. His company has operated for more than 30 years, he said, and would not have survived with sloppy underwriting.