Monday, June 29, 2009

The perfect post title...for justice! (Part IX)

It seemed to take forever, and yet it seemed to take no time at all, much like reading this blog, only not. Finally, before we knew it, the day was here. October 2 dawned clear and cool. It was the perfect weather...for justice!

This was it. It would be the final battle. One of us would not be leaving that courtroom alive. Or at least, one of us would not be leaving with our security deposit. To improve odds a bit, I asked James and Bert to go with me. Together, we formed a perfect team...for justice!

James and Bert were still roommates, so I met them at their place and we headed toward the Cambridge District Court in Bert's car. Howard Stern was playing on the radio. I've never been a big fan of Howard's--partly due to an unfortunate experience with a previous roommate (who is, by himself, a story for another day), and partly because, well, you can't like everybody. For some reason, though, on this day, I didn't mind. We were loose, relaxed, ready for action. We were on the side of good. We had the strength of our numbers and a lawyer on our side. On a day like that, even Howard Stern seems OK. Better than OK, it was perfect. The perfect radio...for justice!

We parked on the street (the perfect parking spot...ah, nevermind) and headed into the imposing stone structure. I'd made a practice run the day before, so we found it easily, and with the extra time we allotted for traffic we were actually a little early. We located the right courtroom and were the first ones to take a seat. David DeCelles wasn't there yet, so we were content to just talk amongst ourselves and wait.

Now, I mentioned last time that I might have to get a haircut for this one. When this court process had started, I had a tangly, frizzy mess of ruggedly handsome curls that ended somewhere in the vicinity of my shoulder blades. Between my last appearance with Fred and this one, I'd sent all those ruggedly handsome curls to Locks of Love, much to the delight of my parents and the dismay of my hockey team, which believed that my hair had Samson-like qualities. (To this day, I like to picture some little girl opening a package from Locks of Love, putting on the wig inside, getting a faraway look in her eyes, and saying, "I think I wanna be...a goalie when I grow up.") I'd decided to shave my head partly in conjunction with the aforementioned State Police interview process, and partly because it was just so darned *hot* that summer. Since I no longer needed a beard to make my gender apparent from a distance, that went, too.

But I didn't realize just how different I looked until Fred gallumphed in and took a seat right next to me. He swept the room with his beady little eyes, but I was blocking his view of Bert and James, and he obviously didn't recognize me. He took out a yellow legal pad--probably the closest relationship he's ever had with legality--and scrawled some notes. I did my best to read them over his shoulder, but his inability to evolve opposable thumbs didn't do much for his handwriting.

I was still trying to decide if I should strike up a conversation with him about kids these days when the judge entered the room. (After all the episodes of "Night Court" I've watched, I'm still surprised that we didn't have to "All rise!" when he entered the room. Once again, real life falls short of my TV-generated expectations.) As in Waltham, we began with a roll call. I think my favorite exchange of the whole proceedings was this one:

Judge: "Morrison v. Boland."

Fred: "Defendant."

Me: (after a beat, turn and give Fred my biggest smile) "Plaintiff!"

He jumped as high as his stubby little fins could propel him and quickly flipped the legal pad over so I couldn't see it, edging away from me as he did. Most enjoyment I got out of the whole trial.

We were again offered the option of mediation, but as it had worked so well for us before, we politely declined. With that, we were left to our own devices as the judge moved on to the next case. Fortunately, David showed up then and pulled me outside the courtroom for a chat. Bert and James followed.

Remember, this was the first time I had met my attorney face to face. For lack of a better description, he looked like a lawyer; tall, well-groomed, with distinguished gray hair and the requisite leather satchel. We shook hands all around and then got down to business. After a few minutes refresher and a few additional details, David offered to go talk with Fred. We waited in the hall.

He came back after a bit with an update: Fred was offering to refund our entire security deposit to us now.

"Right now?"

"Yes, today."

It was too easy. Not so much for us, but for Fred. And since we'd now purchased almost $500 of David's time to date, and we knew the law allowed for triple damages for this offense, it wasn't enough. Fred was not getting off that easy, and we told David so. He nodded and headed back into the courtroom.

He came out after a much longer pause this time. "He's not willing to negotiate," he said simply. "He wants to take his chances with the jury."

Okay. Unless the jury was composed entirely of crooked landlords, we had this in the bag. I mean, we had an attorney! And I'd gotten a haircut! What more could we need?

We spent some time going back through Fred's list of damages, explaining again why each one was bogus. After that we just stood in the hall and waited. And waited. And waited. James called in to work to say that he'd be later than he thought. Bert and I wallowed in our unemployment and just kept on waiting.

David popped in and out of the courtroom to check on the proceedings in there. At 11:00, he came back out with a grim look on his face. "They haven't even started jury selection yet," he reported.

Tell me again about the speedy trial? Is that really the same amendment as the one about a jury of your peers?

"Why don't we see if there's a free mediation room," our attorney suggested. "It can't hurt anything at this point."

We shrugged our assent, and off he went. It turned out that there was both a free room and a mediator to go with it, so we trooped on in. I don't know if David had to do any arm-twisting (sadly, only of the verbal variety) to get Fred in there, but he joined us shortly thereafter. The mediator, Denise, was a pleasant woman who acted like she'd probably been there long enough to have heard it all but not quite long enough to stop caring.

Once again, each side presented its case. We went first, and as I was getting pretty used to this by now, I summed up our side for her in much less time (and with fewer walrus jokes) than it's taken me to write.

Then it was Fred's turn. By now he had abandoned the "I don't own the property, I just own the trust" defense, and he saw what happened when he tried relying on the arbitration clause of his lease. Instead, his argument now seemed to be that giving the security deposit back to any one of us would result in each of the other two suing him for the same amount, so that he would be liable for paying triple the amount of the original deposit back to us.

I'm not exactly sure how this was a defense. Neither was David, who started gleefully cross-examining Fred until Denise made him stop. She decided it might be best if she spoke to each side separately, so she ushered Fred out of the room and sat back down with us. As soon as the door closed, Denise cut to the chase.

"How much would you be willing to settle for here?" she asked.

This was the first time we'd been asked that question, and we really weren't sure. "How much can we get?" we asked.

She shrugged. "Would you take the full deposit?" We shook our heads. "1,800? 2,000?"

"Fred needs to pay something for this," I broke in. "Or he's just going to do it to the next tenant. And we're not willing to let him keep a nickel of that deposit. Two thousand would still leave us short after our legal fees."

It was David's turn to pipe up. "Don't worry about that," he said. "If that's all that keeps this from being settled...we can work that out."

"So, two thousand?" Denise asked again.

We looked at each other. We looked at David. We looked at each other again. We were all thinking it, but I had to say it.

"Absolute minimum. Please don't start there." David nodded his agreement.

Now it was our turn to head out into the hallway, while Fred waddled back in. We sat down on the uncomfortable wooden benches that were apparently purchased for every courthouse in Massachusetts. After a few minutes of silence, I had this conversation with David:

Me: "We're in the right here, aren't we? I mean, I'm sure every client you've ever had thinks that he's in the right...but it seems like we really are. He's pretty much taken the Mass housing law and violated it word for word, hasn't he?"

David: "The guy's a bozo."

I've changed my mind about what I said earlier. THAT was my favorite exchange of the whole proceedings.

"So why are we talking about settling?" I asked. "Seems like, if the book is this open and shut, shouldn't we throw it at him?"

"Well, you'd like to, but the reality is that it doesn't usually work that way," answered David. "People are rarely awarded the full amount to which the law says they're entitled. We'd probably have to be here all day before they selected a jury and heard the cases before ours. They might not even get to us today, and then we'd have to come back. If we can get a check out of this guy today, we should take it."

I was still chewing on that when the door opened and Denise motioned us back in.

"Mr. Moland has agreed," she began, "to write you a check today for $2,000, in return for the three of you dismissing the claim against him."

You could see that coming, couldn't you? In hindsight...well, we'll get to that later. Again, the three of us looked at each other, visions of triple damages slowly fading from our eyes.

"I don't know," I said slowly. "We've already paid a lot in attorney's fees, and we've been here for another three and half hours' worth today..."

"That...don't worry about that," David shook his head reassuringly.

We looked at each other again. Not much point in paying for an expert opinion if you're not going to take it. Also not much point in pushing for a trial your lawyer obviously doesn't want. Besides, if he was willing to reduce his fee to get this settled, he obviously thought it was the right move. And it was closing on a year, now, that I'd been pursuing this. It was time to put it to rest. Looking again to James and Bert, we all nodded.

"All right," said Denise brightly. She quickly scratched out the terms of the agreement. It was very straightforward; Fred wrote us a check, we dropped the case, and both sides agreed not to sue the other over this again. We all signed it, and Denise went off to make copies.

For some reason, to prove to us, once and for all, that he was indeed the biggest wanker we could ever hope to meet, Fred opened his mouth.

"Any of you guys work with computers?" he asked.

We looked at each other. Bert and I both worked for software companies, so we kind of fit the bill. We shrugged.

"My son's been having trouble trying to save a document that he's been working on for school," Fred said. "When he opens it up and changes anything, then tries to save it, it tells him that it can't locate the file. Have you guys ever heard of anything like that happening? Any idea how to fix it?"

I was dumbfounded. I opened my mouth to reply, but no sound came out. This man--no, I can't even call him a man--this mammal had spent the last fifteen months trying to steal $1,650 from us, and now he had the nerve to ask us for help? If I were to light him on fire, I wouldn't stop long enough to spit on him, and he's asking for help? In what twisted recess of his mind does that make sense?

I don't remember exactly what we told him. I think Bert may have mumbled something about file corruption (appropriate, that) and we left it at that. If I had it to do over again, I would've told him to delete his Windows boot file and left him staring at the black screen of death, but I was too flabbergasted to think of that at the time. We just needed to get the check and get out of there. Denise returned to the room with several copies of the signed mediation agreement and passed them around.

The chairs in the mediation room were extremely large and unwieldy, which is the only reason that Fred is still alive today. After we all had our copies of the agreement, he said, "Now, I can't write you the check today, because I don't have enough in the account to cover this. I'll have to send it to you."

I blinked. James began turning purple. Bert made an odd gurgling sound. Acting quickly to protect his clients from themselves, David stepped in.

"Make the check out to me," he said. "I will wait until Thursday to deposit it and then send a check to Mr. Morrison. Is that acceptable?" He looked at us.

"Next week would be--" Fred began. Denise cleared her throat. "Yeah, OK, I can get it done by Thursday."

Deep breaths all around.

We left, shook David's hand, thanked him for all his help, and went on our way. James called into work again to say that he'd be even later, and we headed over to the Cheesecake Factory for lunch and much-needed beer.

Next (and final) post: The Aftermath; lessons learned, bridges burned, and more things staying the same.

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