Monday, June 29, 2009

There's no "im" in "mediate" (Part VI)

If you're still reading this, you have an even more boring job than I did. Good for you! Thanks for killing some time with me.

Now, back to the neverending saga of Fred "M"oland. If I recall correctly, the facts of the case were thus:

- I was one of three roommates who rented a moderately dilapidated apartment from Fred.
- We moved out in July of 2001 and waited three months for the security deposit that, by law, he had 30 days to return.
- We filed suit against him in Small Claims Court in October of 2001 and won, not once, but twice, when Fred failed to show up for either appearance.
- The court ordered Fred to pay up by April 15, 2002 (an enjoyably auspicious date for numerous reasons, chiefly being both tax day and the day the Titanic went down). I was to return for a "payment review" a week later, at which point, had Fred not paid, I could hire a constable to collect from him. (But would I be able to find the LAPD officers from the Rodney King video in time?)

And the most important fact of the case thus far:

- Fred is an idiot.

So it was no surprise when, after receiving notice of the second judgment, he again filed the same series of motions to remove the judgment and award himself the same $9,000 in damages. And I do mean "the same", because he simply mailed in an exact copy of his previous letter, right down to the February date and the typos.

And so, at 9 AM on April Fool's Day--really, I couldn't make this stuff up, though I wish I was--I found myself sitting once again in my favorite seat in the Waltham District Court of Middlesex County, listening to the magistrate call the docket of cases for that morning. For the third time, he called out "Michael Morrison vs. Fred Moland," and for the third time, I raised my hand and replied, "Plaintiff."

And for the first time, a voice called out "Defendant."

I didn't recognize him at first. You'd think it would be hard to forget the pig-eyed, ox-jowled, balding-walrus-headed face of your arch-nemesis. Turns out that those exact features are common to a much larger portion of the Boston small claims court population than I would have believed. To this day, when I meet someone matching that description, I'm aware of the instant dislike that I have for him (or, more rarely, her). I suppose it's similar to the new awareness that you have for a certain type of car or laxative after you've purchased one yourself; it was always there, you just notice it more now that you're looking for it.

Wow! Fred was actually there! This would mean that I would have to argue the case on its merits, rather than simply winning by showing up! It was like being thrust from the Special Olympics into the X-Games. All the nervousness that I'd felt the first two times came flooding back to me in a torrent of anxiety. At that moment, I was aware of two things: one, that I could not recall ever having won an important one-on-one competition in my life; and two, that antiperspirant ads are horrendously misleading. "Body-heat activated," my butt. "Body-heat overwhelmed" was more like it.

When both parties show up in Small Claims court, they offer you one last chance to work out your problems without involving the law. Trained mediators are standing by to try to help the two parties reach an arrangement before wasting the judge's time. If you cannot come to an agreement, you can still go back to the courtroom and battle things out there.

The judge explains all of this to you when he calls your name, and asks if you would like to attempt mediation. Being still without gainful employment, and not averse to wasting Fred's time (which, if you recall, he'd previously valued at roughly $150 per court appearance), I said sure. I'm not sure why Fred agreed as well; it may be that he didn't want to appear unaccommodating, though I doubt that. He may have known that he didn't have a legal leg to stand on and thought that he could talk his way into a smaller settlement. Or maybe he is just genetically programmed to come into contact with as many people as he can annoy. I'm really not sure. In either case, we both headed back out to the lobby to await our turn at mediation.

And await it.

And await it.

And await it.

Lemme tell ya, you want uncomfortable, try sitting on a wooden bench next to the person you're taking to court. I've had blind dates that weren't as bad. Well...not much worse, anyway.

After an hour of waiting, a mediator emerged from one of the side rooms and approached us. Finally!

"Hi," she greeted us cheerily. "Are you waiting for mediation?"

I nodded. Fred slapped his front flippers together and honked affirmatively.

"Well, I'm one of the mediators here," she began perkily. "We're just finishing up with this case, and yours is next on my list. Unfortunately, I've got to leave in fifteen minutes, and I wouldn't want to start with yours if it doesn't look like we'll have time to get through it. So I'll ask one of my colleagues to put you at the end of her list, OK?"

I nodded wordlessly. Fred scratched himself with a tusk.

"Great! OK, we'll see you then." She left. We waited some more.

After another hour, we were finally ushered into one of the side rooms, and seated at a large wooden table with several comfy chairs that were entirely too heavy to be wielded as weapons--a trait, I noticed, common to most of the furniture in the courthouse.

The mediation process was, after all that, remarkably ineffective. Basically, it's a chance to argue with a complete stranger rather than the person you hate. I suppose it cuts down on assault charges, but it's also a much less satisfying feeling, y'know?

I presented our side of the story, mostly the part about a Massachusetts landlord having 30 days after move-out to return a security deposit or provide a list of deductions, and how we were now 212 days beyond that. Fred presented his list of made-up damages and demanded that I fork over another $7,350 to pay the balance. I laughed at him and pointed to a few of his damages, including the "lost rent increase" and the items that he had included on the original statement of condition and was now charging us to repair. He admitted that "some of the items on there are a little questionable."

At this point, the mediators stepped in, asking if there were any charges that we could agree on.

"Yes," I replied. "We left the bottles and cans bagged up in the basement, just like it says. But I'm not paying him $60 an hour to take them to the recycling center."

"My son didn't like that job at all," said Fred.

"You pay your son $60 an hour?" asked the mediator.

"No, I paid him $5 an hour."

"So would you be willing to settle for your actual cost, then?" asked the mediator.

Smoke rose from Fred's tiny ear flaps as he thought about that. Finally, he nodded. Good for you! Have a raw fish.

"OK, so 7 hours at $5 an hour would be $35. And would that be acceptable to you?" asked the mediator, turning to me.

Now, I know I shouldn't have gone into mediation with an uncompromising attitude. But there was no way I was going to pay him a dime for labor his son did. And we certainly were not going to go through the rest of the list of damages one by one and whittle them down to nothing.

So I nodded.

"Sure," I said. "If he'll give us credit for the deposits on those cans and bottles. Let's see, he said it was over 800 of them...at a nickel apiece...that comes out to $40...so we're five to the good!" I smiled.

Fred's beady eyes sank even further into his wrinkly hide. "Now you're just getting nitpicky," he accused.

"Yes, and you're still a thief."

That about did it for our mediation session. This one would be up to the judge to decide...again.

Next post
: My decision would have involved more sawblades

No comments: