SALEM — A former North Shore man was wrongfully jailed for 10 days by a now-retired Salem judge who apparently took issue with what she perceived as his poor attitude, the state's highest court decided on Thursday.
The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that Joshua Grullon, who grew up in Lawrence and later lived in Beverly after his divorce, was denied virtually all of his due process rights by both the judge and the Department of Revenue during the 2018 hearing that ended with him being sent to jail.
But the SJC sidestepped the question of whether Grullon should have been entitled to a court-appointed attorney who, his current lawyers argue, would have been able to explain what Grullon was less artfully trying to tell Judge Randy Jill Kaplan during the November 2018 child support hearing.
Grullon's attorneys, and other advocates, had hoped that the case would establish the right to counsel during civil proceedings where there is a likelihood of someone going to jail.
The court said this was not going to be that case — though in a separate concurring opinion, Chief Justice Ralph Gants suggested that if the court finds other cases where, as happened to Grullon, parents are deprived of their due process rights, "a right to counsel would be necessary to ensure that these procedural safeguards are faithfully applied."
Anna Richardson of Veterans Legal Services, which represented Grullon, said she was pleased that the court clarified the obligations of judges and the DOR to ensure that child support orders are fair, and fairly enforced by taking financial circumstances into account.
"Mr. Grullon served ten days in jail for being poor," said Richardson in an email. "Today, Veterans Legal Services celebrates the Supreme Judicial Court’s acknowledgment that was wrong and the SJC's affirmation of his constitutionally protected rights, which is an important step away from the criminalization of poverty."
Grullon, 32, was divorced in 2017. He had been ordered to pay $123 a week in child support, but soon, partly due to his arrests on unrelated cases involving a new girlfriend, he fell behind and was more than $5,000 in arrears when his ex-wife asked for a contempt hearing.
Grullon, who by then had moved to Springfield while attending the New England Tractor Trailer School, tried to file a request to modify his weekly obligation. But according to the decision, Kaplan refused to consider it.
The attorney for the DOR asked the judge to order Grullon to pay $500 immediately or send him to jail. Grullon, who was taking part in a training program to learn how to drive tractor-trailer trucks and receive a commercial driver's license, could not afford to pay anything.
The training program was being paid for by the Veterans Administration. Grullon served five years in the U.S. Navy after graduating from Greater Lawrence Technical School.
As the hearing was about to conclude, Kaplan told Grullon, "You need to get a job, sir, and I want to see when you come back here, I am going to order, I'm not going to incarcerate you today. I need to see that you have a job and that you're doing something."
The judge — who had not been told by the DOR lawyer that Grullon's ex-wife was receiving public assistance and that their child was receiving assistance through the Veterans Administration — told Grullon that his ex-wife wasn't getting any money and that the child was his responsibility.
Grullon attempted to explain that he'd been in touch with the veterans agent in Lawrence to ensure that his child was receiving funds.
"She's fine," he said before the judge cut him off, according to the transcript. "Well, sir, if that's your attitude, then maybe I'll be rethinking what I am going to do today, sir."
"Your Honor, I just wanted to say that she is well taken care of. I've been assured by the, by Jaime Melendez, who is the Lawrence Veterans ..." Grullon said before the judge again stopped him.
"Sir, you do understand you have a child and this is your obligation," Kaplan told him.
Grullon responded that he did understand.
"It's nobody else's obligation," said the judge. "So telling me she's fine and it's not a big deal, now I'm rethinking what I am going to do. Because that's a really poor attitude to come in here. I was giving you a break today."
"Yeah, I just stepped on my own," Grullon said.
"You did," Kaplan responded. "Five hundred dollars, 10 days in jail."
"I just shot myself," said Grullon.
"Yeah, you did, sir," Kaplan responded.
The court found that not only was that not a basis to jail someone, but that the judge had failed to make any findings as to Grullon's ability to pay the money, that she violated his due process rights by refusing to consider Grullon's request to modify the support order, and that the Department of Revenue had failed in its legal obligations to advise Grullon of his rights as well.
Grullon spent 10 days in jail. He later made a partial payment of the amount he owed, using a refund he'd received from the trucking school.
He eventually did complete the program and found work in the trucking industry.
Kaplan, 62, retired from the bench last year.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.