December 20, 2006

Trial of the Century

Today, I finished a two-day unlawful detainer trial. Two days? You ask. How can an unlawful detainer trial possibly take two days? Well, I'll tell you.

The defendant has the right to propound discovery, which they did. They have the right to subpoena witnesses and documents for the trial, which they did. They have the right to demand a jury, which they did. They have the right to have the case heard by a "real" judge instead of the commissioner normally assigned to hear such cases, which they demanded.

Now, these defendants failed to post jury fees, so they lost their right to a jury trial. But other than that, they exercised nearly every procedural right that they have to try and slow down the eviction.

Keep in mind -- this was an eviction based on a thirty-day notice. There are virtually no defenses to a thirty-day notice. We did it that way because my client wanted to sell the property, and felt that it would be easier to sell the property if the house was vacant. This is what we call in the legal field a business decison.

They found one of the only defenses out there, though: retaliation. They did their level best to try and come up with some theory that the eviction was the result of their complaints about the way that their septic tank had recently been replaced when it had failed. They pored through every law they could find, and offered about nineteen affirmative defenses (many of which did not apply, such as alleged violations of laws regulating the sale of timeshares).

And also keep in mind -- these people were representing themselves in court. Pro per parties have a hard time of things, because legal procedures are quite complex. The rules of evidence, for instance, are very easy for people to run afoul of when offering testimony, particularly the narrative testimony that pro per parties necessarily must offer. But to make the matter worse, there was a "conflict resolution counselor" who was "assisting" them. Whether this went over the line into unlawful practice of law or not is unclear as I did not inquire about relations between this "counselor" and the defendants -- but at least she did not attempt to speak on behalf of the defendants during court appearances.

Now, consider that the judge in this case gave the defendants a very wide berth to explore and offer pretty much whatever evidence they wished. I was, I admit, not a lot of help to the judge, as I had my client there and I had to put on a show for my client. So that meant I had to make an appreciable number of legal objections to the testimony and proceedings -- and that was not assisted by the defendants' assertion of a variety of legal rights, to which I had to respond with appropriate legal argument.

So not that it was wrong for the judge to have done so, but the result was that the defendants were given a lot of slack to explore highly irrelevant areas of evidence, and they did so cumulatively (meaning they offered the same evidence over and over again). I understand why the judge did it the way he did it -- he wanted to make sure the defendants felt like they got a fair trial.

None of this was particularly upsetting to me, and the trial caused me no anxiety other than the amount of my time that it consumed. What bugs me, though, was that we made a very generous settlement offer to these people before the case started. They demanded ample time to move out, and they demanded money. So, we offered them forty-five days to move out and we offered to pay them $2,400 to help them move. But some people just can't take "yes" for an answer. They insisted on at least sixty days and $5,000.

The result, after two days of trial? A writ of possession to issue forthwith (meaning as soon as the Sheriffs get to it, which will be within one week) and a lockout to take place within five days of the issuance of that writ. And they are now liable to my client for nearly the $5,000 that they wanted to be paid, for holdover rent and the attorney's fees they made my client incur by demanding a two-day trial of an issue that could have been resolved in ten minutes.

What frustrates me is that these are older folks, who obviously will be particularly susceptible to the cold winter weather into which they are facing imminent ejection. They could have taken a very generous deal but let their emotions get in the way of doing so. They could have probably worked things out with my client before I ever got involved. It seems like such a waste. It's some consolation to remind myself that they are the architects of their own destruction, but nevertheless it leaves me feeling unhappy, because the whole thing was such an unnecessary waste of time, resources, energy, and opportunity.

1 comment:

Salsola said...

A win is a win>