Monday, June 29, 2009

Hammer time (Part VIII)

Ah yes, the right of the accused to a trial by a jury of his peers. Stupid Sixth Amendment. Aren't Constitutional amendments supposed to protect the downtrodden and oppressed? (Oh, right...sorry.) And the appeal was scheduled for a full two months in the future, presumably so an expedition to the Arctic Circle could be organized to round up a herd of Fred's peers.

In addition to leaving our security deposit in Fred's grubby flippers for sixty more days, there was another problem with the trial date: it coincided with one of the many steps I was treading in the Maine State Police application process, the full details of which will be chronicled in the book "Not Quite Hero Material," available soon at your local bookstores or, more likely, on this blog over another overlong series of posts. I don't remember exactly which step in the process this one was--if I recall correctly, the timing should make it the review board--but I do remember clearly the boldface all-caps print telling me that THIS TEST MAY NOT BE RESCHEDULED.

I couldn't be in two places at once. It was time to get help. I needed a lawyer.

But how to find one?

My previous experience with members of the legal profession in Massachusetts fell into three categories:

- Randy, the corporate counsel from my last job. Like me, Randy was a Colgate grad, and as such, the stories I heard about his exploits featured more keg stands than witness stands. Besides, as one might expect from a corporate counsel, housing law was not his area of specialization;

- Late-night commercials for personal injury attorneys with names that sounded like rejected professional wrestlers, such as Jim "The Hammer" Shapiro and Howie "Squid Pro Quo" Fine. Their ads were always fun, with very serious-looking men wearing very bad toupees asserting "I'm Bobby 'The Teddy Bear' Robertson, but my friends call me 'The Executioner.' If you've ever been injured, know someone who's been injured, or have injured someone else, you're probably entitled to sue them. Call now and we can have you in a neck brace before you're off the phone! As I like to say, 'Habeas Corpses, baby'!" And, of course,

- Law & Order reruns.

None of these seemed like an entirely satisfactory resource. Instead, I turned to the Yellow Pages, where I found the listing "Lawyers - Landlord & Tenant." There were two names there, one of which was "AAA Super Best Legal Guys," so I picked the geographically closer one, Attorney David T. DeCelles of Arlington, MA.

I know what some of you are thinking, and you should be ashamed of yourselves. But I also know what some OTHERS of you are thinking, and that is: After all the time and effort I've put into this, I'm going to trust my case to a name picked at random out of the Yellow Pages? To which I respond: well...er...um...

The important thing here is that I wasn't looking for legal help, merely someone who could stand in my place and request that the trial be postponed until such time as I could be present for it. A trained seal could do as much. Unfortunately, walruses are their natural predators, so I needed a human.

I called up David and explained the case to him. He asked a few intelligent questions and agreed that I was totally in the right, so he obviously knew what he was talking about. We settled on an hourly rate that I hoped was fair, and I sent him a copy of the court documents and my notes on the case to date. (Some have said that I can be a bit long-winded when I write, dragging an account on for pages and pages when the pertinent details could be summed up in just a few paragraphs. I have no idea what those people are talking about, but in case they were right, I did hope he was a fast reader. He was charging by the hour, after all.) Again, I emphasized, I just needed someone to show up for the court appearance and ask for it to be postponed until I could be there. He assured me that he'd take care of it. Satisfied, I headed off to Maine for a trial of a different sort.

I returned to find a letter in my mailbox from the Third District Court of Eastern Middlesex (giggle...I said...), Cambridge Division. Ah! My new trial date! I eagerly tore open the envelope and read:

"Michael Morrison (Plaintiff) vs. F. Boland (Defendant).

This action came on to be heard at this sitting
Judge Hogan
and the Plaintiff
Michael Morrison
having failed to appear this action is dismissed."

Blink.

Dis...huh?

I sat down.

A trained seal. A trained seal!

I placed a call to my apparently untrained seal and left a message on his answering machine. "Hi David, Mike Morrison here. Just got back from my trip and found a letter here stating that the case was dismissed because I failed to appear. Why would it say such a thing? Give me a call when you can, please." I thought I sounded very calm, as they say one does when one is on the verge of committing a violent crime. I then headed inside to await the late-night ads in hopes of finding new legal representation.

Fortunately, David contacted me before it came to that. Turns out that a clerk in the district court had told him that the case was not scheduled for that day, or in fact for any day in June. Being an attorney, bless his heart, he made sure to get that in writing. Armed with this evidence of administrative misinformation, he assured me that it would be a simple matter to get the case back on track. He would file the necessary motions to do so and keep me informed. In return, I would put down the knife and back away slowly.

A new trial was scheduled for July 10, then rescheduled for July 17 when Fred protested that he wouldn't be able to make the first one. (The irony was not lost on me, either.) Since I was not required to appear, I had nothing to do but wait and hope that David made it to this one.

He did. And it went well. Because I enjoyed them so much, I'll let him tell it in his own words [with my comments in brackets]:

"Mr Morrison:

"Yesterday (July 17) I appeared before Judge Kilmartin [couldn't get a Judge Kilfred?] regarding my motion to get this matter back on track for the jury trial as per Mr. Boland's statutory demand.

"Although I was there at 9:00 AM, Mr. Boland had called ahead and said he would be late.

"Even after his arrival, we were not heard until 11:20 AM.

"Mr. Boland filed a written opposition. [Remember when he defaulted--twice--and I didn't oppose letting him back in? Do you see why I feel some antipathy toward the man? I bet he cheats at solitaire, too.]

"After interrogating Mr. Boland, Judge Kilmartin not only allowed the motion (reactivating the case); but also amended the original complaint to add Fred Boland, Trustee, Peachtree Trust, as a second party defendant.

"The latter occurred because Mr. Boland made much of his claim that you had selected the wrong defendant in that the building had been sold, during your tenancy, by himself, as individual, to a trust in which he is the trustee.

[This is my favorite part!] "Instead of creating a favorable impression by revealing that fact, the impact was the opposite in that it appeared to Judge Kilmartin, and rightly so, that Mr. Boland was trying a relatively unsophisticated trick to avoid liability.

"The matter has been scheduled for trial at the Cambridge District Court, Jury Session, for 9:00 AM on October 2, 2002. Of course, you must appear to testify on your own behalf, and I shall be there as well.

Very truly yours,

David T. DeCelles."

October 2. Fifty weeks to the day since I first filed in Small Claims court. A trial by jury! I might have to get a haircut for that one. I assumed David would coach me about such things. I wonder if I got to help select the jury? Ooo, what an experience this would be!

Well, I was right about that part.

Next post: Justice comes with cheesecake

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