Early on a chilly Friday in January, Franklyn Williamson walked into courtroom 264B of the Prince George's County, Md., district courthouse. An athletic 55-year-old realtor in Silver Spring, Williamson had canceled a Florida trip to appear in court that day. He wasn't there for a trial or an official hearing, however. Like the 169 other people on the docket that morning, Williamson had received an official court summons for a one-on-one meeting with a debt collector.

Greeting Williamson in the courtroom was a handwritten sign instructing him in English and Spanish to check in with a court clerk, who was seated next to an empty judge's chair. As defendants lined up to approach the bench, the clerk sorted their files into stacks for plaintiffs' attorneys representing American Express (AXP), Capital One (COF), SunTrust (STI) and several large debt collection companies.

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