A high-profile legal case of a moving-storage firm selling the belongings of an active-duty Air Force sergeant in Massachusetts is once again highlighting the importance of storage companies checking before auctioning off items of those in the military.

Last month, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston filed suit against PRTaylor Enterprises LLC, a company doing business as Father & Son Moving & Storage, for allegedly selling off the guitar, washer and dryer, furniture and past military medals awarded to relatives of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Charlie Cornacchio.

The company was charged with violating the U.S. Servicemembers Civil Relief Act by failing to obtain a court order before auctioning off the entire contents of Cornacchio’s storage units while he was deployed overseas, according to published reports.

Joseph Doherty, chief legal and legislative officer at the national Self-Storage Association, said the Massachusetts controversy is one of the more blatant cases he’s heard of regarding a storage company getting in trouble over the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, if only because the company knew, or should have known, Cornacchio was in the military.

According to published reports, company personnel picked up his items at Hanscom Air Force Base, just outside of Boston, and even met Cornacchio while he was in uniform.

As a result, someone at the company must have known they were dealing with a member of the military – and that the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act’s protections would apply to Cornacchio if he was ever sent overseas, said Doherty.

“The case in Boston was like, ‘Hey, guys, what’s wrong with you?’” Doherty said of the company’s apparent failure to follow proper identification and legal procedures under the federal act.

Legal experts say the law is clear: Storage companies must ask customers in advance if they’re members of the military and must check with a Department of Defense database to see if those customers are on active duty when a dispute arises, usually over rental payments. If a customer is indeed on active duty, a court order must be obtained in order to auction off belongings.

Confirming identity

The problem is that, in many instances, there are military personal with the same names and even same birthdates, leading to confusion and firms getting inaccurate information about the status of a military customer.

So it’s essential that storage companies also get a military customer’s Social Security number in order to verify that he or she is really the right person when they check with DoD, says Jeff Greenberger, an attorney at Cincinnati Greenberger & Brewer LLP, which focuses on real estate and self-storage.

“I keep banging on the drum at every self-storage meeting I go to: Get the Social Security number of (military) customers,” said Greenberger, who says he handles about a dozen Servicemembers Civil Relief Act complaints a year. “A customer may be reluctant to give up a Social Security number. But it’s really important to get it.”

Both Doherty and Greenberger say it’s also important for self-storage companies to get other information from military personnel, such as the names and contact info of people they can reach if they can’t get hold of a customer who’s in the military.

Use your common sense

Other tips from legal experts: try to get a software contract program that automatically highlights self-storage customers who are in the military; and train employees thoroughly so they ask all customers if they’re in the military and obtain appropriate identification information.

“Get as much information as you possibly can – contact people, alternative backup contact people,” says Doherty.

And if someone shows up at a self-storage facility wearing a military uniform, make a mental note of it and then fill in the appropriate forms accordingly.

“It’s just common sense,” says Doherty.

Jay Fitzgerald