Justice Department Files Lawsuit Against Father & Son Moving & Storage in Billerica, Massachusetts, for Unlawfully Auctioning Off Belongings of Deployed Servicemember

The Justice Department today filed a lawsuit in the District of Massachusetts alleging that PRTaylor Enterprises LLC, a company doing business as Father & Son Moving & Storage (Father & Son), violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by failing to obtain a court order before auctioning off the entire contents of a U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant’s two storage units while he was deployed overseas.

The SCRA, which provides a wide variety of financial and housing protections to members of the military, prohibits storage companies from auctioning off servicemembers’ belongings without a court order. The lawsuit further alleges that among the Technical Sergeant’s possessions sold by Father & Son were military gear and mementos that had belonged to a cousin who was killed in military action, his grandfather’s military service medals, a dresser that was handmade by his great-grandfather, and personal photographs.

“Congress enacted the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to protect the patriots who protect all of us by serving in our nation’s armed forces. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act outlawed the kind of conduct alleged here, and for good reason. No individual or organization should be able to get away with the kind of devastation this young man suffered when he returned home from an overseas deployment and learned that many of his most valued family mementos were gone. The law protects servicemembers from losing their property, including items of great sentimental value, because of their service,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The Department of Justice is filing this lawsuit today to ensure that this servicemember receives just compensation and to prevent this from happening to another member of our military. We must and will put an end to these unlawful business practices.”

“This servicemember was called overseas to serve our country and returned home to find his personal possessions, family heirlooms and military awards auctioned off to the highest bidder,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. “That is unacceptable. We will continue to protect the rights of servicemembers who dedicate their lives to preserving our security and freedom.”

The law places the burden on moving and storage companies and other lienholders to determine whether the property in their possession belongs to a servicemember. The complaint alleges that several facts should have put Father & Son on notice that the Technical Sergeant was a servicemember, including that he told an agent of Father & Son that he was in the military. The complaint also alleges that Father & Son picked up and packed the Technical Sergeant’s belongings at Hanscom Air Force Base while he was present and wearing his U.S. Air Force uniform. The lawsuit asserts that Father & Son sent correspondence to the Technical Sergeant at his previous address of record at Hanscom Air Force Base while he was stationed overseas.

In addition to seeking damages for the servicemember, including the value of the auctioned items, the Justice Department is seeking to enjoin Father & Son from illegally auctioning off servicemembers’ possessions in the future in violation of the SCRA. The lawsuit also seeks a civil penalty.

This lawsuit resulted from a referral to the Justice Department from the U.S. Air Force. Servicemembers and their dependents who believe their SCRA rights have been violated should contact the nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program Office. Office locations may be found at http://legalassistance.law.af.mil/. The department’s enforcement of the SCRA is conducted by the Civil Rights Division’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country. Since 2011, the department has obtained over $474 million in monetary relief for over 120,000 servicemembers through its enforcement of the SCRA. Additional information on the Justice Department’s enforcement of the SCRA and other laws protecting servicemembers is available at www.servicemembers.gov.

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    What GAO Found The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently updated and streamlined its launch and reentry licensing regulations but has made less progress on other key commercial space transportation regulations. The new licensing regulations, issued in December 2020, replaced prescriptive requirements—in which a certain technology or action was required—with a performance-based regulatory framework, which provides applicants flexibility in how they achieve required outcomes, such as a specific level of safety. Given its focus on the licensing regulations, FAA placed on hold revisions to other regulations governing commercial space transportation—revisions which, according to FAA officials, are warranted given the industry's evolution. For example, FAA has not yet begun to revise its financial responsibility regulations, which require launch companies conducting FAA-licensed launches to purchase insurance to cover damage to third parties in case of a launch mishap. According to FAA officials, revising these regulations is their next planned rulemaking and when finalized, will respond to GAO's recommendations to improve FAA's methodologies for evaluating and calculating potential third-party losses from launch and reentry mishaps and help ensure the federal government is not exposed to greater liability than expected. FAA also faces ongoing challenges regulating an evolving industry. In particular, as GAO previously reported, FAA continues to face the challenge of whether and when to regulate the safety of crew and spaceflight participants. While some companies have announced plans to take tourists to space within the next several years, FAA is prohibited by statute from regulating crew and passenger safety before 2023, except in response to events that caused or posed a risk of serious or fatal injury. However, FAA has taken some steps in anticipation of the expiration of the statutory moratorium, such as working with its industry advisory committee to develop and disseminate human spaceflight best practices. FAA also has taken some steps to help the agency keep pace with changes in the industry. For example, in response to recommendations GAO made in 2019, FAA recently assessed its workforce to identify skills and competencies that are needed among its workforce and is working to improve its workload projections to better account for the full range of its regulatory activities and the timeline of its licensing process. Such efforts are critical for ensuring FAA can better anticipate and respond to the growing and evolving commercial space industry and FAA's emerging workforce needs. Why GAO Did This Study The commercial space transportation industry provides launch services for government and private customers that carry objects, such as satellites and vehicles with scientific research, or passengers to or from space. Continued growth and evolution in the industry is expected as reliance on space-based applications increases. Within FAA, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is charged both with overseeing the industry, including licensing and monitoring launch vehicle operations, and promoting the industry. This statement describes FAA's efforts to update regulations governing commercial space transportation; challenges FAA faces regulating an evolving industry; and steps FAA has taken to help ensure it is positioned to meet the needs of the evolving industry. This statement is based largely on GAO's body of work on commercial space transportation, including GAO-19-437 issued in May 2019. To update this information, GAO interviewed FAA officials and reviewed applicable statutes, regulations and selected industry documents.
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    Three Japanese nationals, including the president and chief executive officer of Yokohama, Japan-based Kanto Kosan Co. Ltd. (Kanto Kosan) were indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday in connection with an alleged long-running scheme to defraud the U.S. Navy and pollute Japanese waters by dumping contaminated water removed from U.S. Navy ships into the ocean.
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  • Telecommunications: FCC Has Implemented the Lifeline National Verifier but Should Improve Consumer Awareness and Experience
    In U.S GAO News
    As of June 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required consumers nationwide to use the Lifeline National Verifier (Verifier), a centralized process and data system, to check their eligibility for Lifeline. Because consumers who participate in certain federal benefits programs qualify for discounted phone and internet service through Lifeline, the Verifier checks state and federal benefits databases to verify consumers' eligibility. The Verifier also includes a manual review process for consumers to submit documents proving their eligibility if they cannot be found in a database. As of November 2020, the Verifier had connections with databases in 20 states and 2 federal agencies. GAO found that although consumers in states without state database connections had the same likelihood of actually meeting eligibility requirements as consumers in states with such connections, they were less likely to be found eligible for Lifeline through the Verifier (see figure). Average Eligibility Determination for New Lifeline Applicants in States with and without State Database Connections to the Lifeline National Verifier, June 2018 through June 2020 FCC coordinated with state and federal stakeholders to implement the Verifier. However, stakeholders told GAO that many eligible consumers are not aware of the Verifier or Lifeline. Consumers may lack this awareness because FCC's consumer education planning did not always align with key practices, such as developing consistent, clear messages and researching target audiences. As a result, eligible consumers may not apply for Lifeline. Moreover, while FCC originally envisioned tribal governments and organizations assisting residents of tribal lands with the Verifier, it has not provided them with quality information to effectively do so. Although FCC reported that the Verifier is meeting its goal of improving the consumer experience, GAO found that the manual review process, which FCC used to determine the eligibility of more than half of applicants in many states, is challenging for consumers. However, FCC does not collect complete information on consumers' experience with this process, and thus is limited in its ability to identify and address the challenges consumers face. Such challenges likely contributed to eligible consumers giving up on their applications. For example, we found that more than two-thirds of applicants who underwent manual review between June 2018 and June 2020 did not complete their applications. FCC's Lifeline program discounts phone and internet service for eligible low-income consumers. In 2019, FCC authorized $982 million in support for 6.9 million eligible consumers. FCC created the Verifier with the stated goals of reducing fraud and costs and improving the consumer experience. The Verifier includes an online application, connections to state and federal benefits databases, and a standardized manual review process. GAO was asked to review FCC's implementation of the Verifier. This report examines: (1) the status of the Verifier; (2) FCC's coordination with stakeholders and efforts to educate consumers and facilitate tribal stakeholders' involvement; and (3) the extent to which the Verifier is meeting its goals. GAO reviewed FCC orders and documentation; analyzed Verifier performance and Lifeline subscriber data; interviewed FCC and other agency officials, and selected industry, state, tribal, and consumer stakeholders; and surveyed state officials. Stakeholders were selected to obtain a variety of non-generalizable viewpoints. GAO is making six recommendations, including that FCC develop a consumer education plan, provide quality information to tribal organizations, and collect information on consumers' experience with the manual review process. FCC agreed to take steps to address all of GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202)-512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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  • Medicare Severe Wound Care: Spending Declines May Reflect Site of Care Changes; Limited Information Is Available on Quality
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO's analysis of Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) data show that in fiscal year 2018, 287,547 Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries had inpatient stays that included care for severe wounds. These wounds include those where the base of the wound is covered by dead tissue or non-healing surgical wounds. About 73 percent of the inpatient stays occurred in acute care hospitals (ACH), and a smaller percentage of stays occurred in post-acute care facilities. Specifically, about 16 percent of stays were at skilled nursing facilities (SNF), and about 7 percent were at long-term care hospitals (LTCH). CMS data show that Medicare spending on stays for severe wound care was $2.01 billion in fiscal year 2018, representing a decline of about 2 percent from fiscal year 2016, when spending was about $2.06 billion. Spending declined as a result of decreases in both the total number of these stays, as well as spending per stay, which both decreased by about 1 percent. The decrease in per stay spending was likely driven, in part, by a change in where beneficiaries received care. CMS data show fewer severe wound care stays in LTCHs, which tend to be paid higher payment rates. At the same time, more severe wound care stays were at two other types of facilities that tend to be paid lower payment rates: ACHs and inpatient rehabilitation facilities. GAO's analysis of CMS data also show that, while the number of LTCHs that billed Medicare for severe wound care decreased by about 7 percent from fiscal years 2016 to 2018, Medicare beneficiaries continued to have access to other severe wound care providers. For example, CMS data show that most beneficiaries resided within 10 miles of an ACH or SNF that provided severe wound care in fiscal year 2018. Figure: Percentage of Medicare Fee-for-Service Beneficiaries Residing within 10 Miles of a Health Care Facility That Provided Any Severe Wound Care, by Facility Type, Fiscal Year 2018 Note: The “other” category includes facilities such as psychiatric hospitals or units. There is limited information on how or whether the decrease in LTCH care for severe wounds may have affected the quality of severe wound care Medicare beneficiaries receive. For example, CMS collects information on the percentage of patients with new or worsened pressure ulcers at post-acute care facilities, but it does not measure the quality of care they receive. Medicare beneficiaries with serious health conditions, such as strokes, are prone to developing severe wounds due to complications that often lead to immobility and prolonged pressure on the skin. These beneficiaries may require a long-term inpatient stay at an ACH or a post-acute care facility, such as an LTCH. LTCHs treat patients who require care for longer than 25 days, on average. In 2018, LTCHs represented about $4.2 billion in Medicare expenditures. Prior to fiscal year 2016, LTCHs received a higher payment rate for treating Medicare beneficiaries than ACHs. Beginning in fiscal year 2016, a dual payment system was phased in that paid LTCHs a rate similar to ACHs for some beneficiaries and a higher rate for beneficiaries that met certain criteria. As this payment system has moved from partial to full implementation, lawmakers had questions about how it may affect beneficiaries' severe wound care. The 21st Century Cures Act included a provision for GAO to review severe wound care provided to Medicare beneficiaries. This report describes facilities where Medicare beneficiaries received severe wound care, Medicare severe wound care spending, and what is known about the dual payment system's effect on access and quality. GAO analyzed Medicare severe wound care access and spending data for fiscal years 2016 and 2018 (the most recent data available); reviewed reports; and interviewed CMS officials, researchers, and national wound care stakeholders. HHS provided technical comments on a draft of this report, which were incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact James Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or cosgrovej@gao.gov.
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