On a recent April afternoon on Noble Street, Rogers settled into the shadow of a blazing sun to chat about the poor state of his finances, something he and his attorneys blame on two Alabama statutes called the Small Loan Act and the Consumer Credit Act.
The Small Loan Act, enacted in 1959, covers loans of less than $1,000. The Consumer Credit Act, enacted in 1971, applies to transactions of more than $1,000. The Small Loan Act limits annual interest rates on such loans to 36 percent. While that's not nearly as gargantuan as those allowed under the Deferred Presentment Act of 2003, under which rates can reach the equivalent of 456 percent, they can still be crippling to someone like Rogers, who was already on the edge, financially.
Relaxed in the company of a stranger, Rogers looks a questioner in the eyes, fumbles sometimes for the right words, but always sticks to the subject at hand, especially what he sees as the source of his indebtedness on and off since about 1983, a business across the way and down the street.
James Chamblee, the owner of Family Loan Co., disagrees with that assessment. The source of Gregory Rogers' indebtedness, he says, is Gregory Rogers.
In the middle of the two opposing viewpoints is Chamblee's lawsuit, Rogers' counter-suit and finally an arbitrator's finding in favor of Rogers.
Chris McCary, a former attorney for Rogers at Legal Services — who did not represent him at arbitration but is familiar with the case — explained that the case eventually went to arbitration because of a clause buried in a loan document Rogers had signed.
In the middle of this explanation, Rogers took the opportunity to interrupt McCary to ask, "What is an arbitration clause?"
Then he added, "I can't read, so those people at Family Loan took advantage of me and now they are mad at me."
After his mother died in 1983, Rogers explained, he started doing business with Family Loan. Until then, his mother had handled his money, a monthly Social Security disability check. Since then, he has dealt with Family Loan and Chamblee on a fairly regular basis.
If he needed money for groceries in the middle of the month, or if he needed to get the gas turned back on, or if he wanted to buy a portable stereo, he would visit Family Loan to borrow enough to carry him over to the end of the month.
And up until 2004, he was, as Chamblee put it, an excellent customer.
But then came the lawsuit.
"It was back in 2004, he got real mad at me," Rogers says of Chamblee. "He said I owed him money and he was going to get his lawyer. Well, I thought he was jiving, but then I got this legal notice in the mail. I didn't know what to do so I went to see him," he said, gesturing to McCary.
McCary first turned his attention to setting aside the judgment against Rogers, which he succeeded in doing. Then he took a closer look at the case.
He asked Rogers if he had any paperwork from his years of doing business with Family Loan. To his surprise, there was plenty.
"He brings me this garbage bag full of paperwork into the office," McCary said. "This stuff went back for years. I knew there was something there, but I didn't have the time to dig into it." Instead, McCary told Rogers to go find a lawyer.
In a complaint filed in late 2004 in Calhoun County Circuit Court, Birmingham attorney Thomas Baddley wrote that Rogers secured a loan of $1,157.74, but after paying life insurance, interest, interest surcharge, credit life insurance, property insurance and other fees and charges, including those from previous loans, he was left with $66.83.
Baddley asserted in the complaint that Family Loan had misrepresented the true cost of the loans.
For his part, Chamblee, who has been in business in Anniston for 60 years, maintains that his business did nothing wrong. His insurance company, he explained, made the decision to pay an undisclosed amount at arbitration, not him.
"We charged the fees that were outlined and allowed by the state Legislature," Chamblee explained. "It might seem high, but it's not as high as a bounced check. Credit card interest is high, too. I don't like paying high prices for gas, but I pay it."
Then there is the moral question surrounding the decision to loan money to and require a mentally handicapped, illiterate man to sign complicated legal contracts. "He might be illiterate," Chamblee said in a phone call, "but does that mean that he should be punished? Just because he didn't graduate from high school doesn't mean he shouldn't be able to borrow money. Gregory had a need and I filled it."
Chamblee added that he never forced Rogers to purchase life insurance, only advised him that it was available.
Gadsden attorney Wilson Webb has plenty of experience representing people like Gregory Rogers, people who have fallen into debt with finance companies and with payday lenders.
The biggest problem he sees in Rogers' case, and with others like it, are the many "dubious products" customers are either made to or led to believe they must purchase, such as insurance.
"I can tell you that in my experience, a lot of people who go get loans such as these are led to believe that if they don't buy the products, the insurance and so on, they won't get the loan. They have all kinds of things from life insurance to disability, per diem insurance. All these things are tacked on to the loan and the only people who ever benefit from them are the lender and the insurance companies. Believe me, this isn't for the benefit of the borrower."
Webb passed on the more moral questions surrounding the decision to enter into a contract with someone who may not be mentally competent or who might be easily influenced. He took the opportunity instead to address the heart of the matter:
"You know, my question is, where was the state?"
People fall through the cracks in all societies, Webb explained, whether they are the mentally disabled, the unemployed, the working poor or those who struggle from paycheck to paycheck. Some states look after people like that. Others — clearly Alabama is one — do not.
"It is so easy for people like this to get stuck in a revolving door of debt," he said. "They don't know to get help, or they are afraid to get help, and no one is looking out for them."