November 12, 2009

Occam Unlocks A Secret

So I'm handling this eviction this morning. As with most of my evictions, my staff does all the prep work and I don't review the file until I get to court that morning.  This one looks... well, it looks a little sketchy, actually. Oral lease, landlord claiming less than $500 a month plus utilities on a 4+3 in a better-than-baseline part of town, the rent calculation and the amount on the 3-day notice aren't the same. And $500 a month would be way below market rates, especially for this neighborhood.

My client turns out to be an attractive early-40's single African-American woman, well-dressed and with a professional demeanor. A very soft-spoken mid-20's African-American man is with her; they do not resemble one another so my initial assumption is that this is her boyfriend or possibly a friend of some kind.  A few questions directed to her elicit the facts that her tenant moved in back in the middle of June, and paid money to my client in double-digit figures every couple of days. I also learn that the tenant moved out about two weeks ago, so all we're doing is arguing about the back rent, and since the rent is so low, we're not really talking about a lot of money.

Then, the tenant shows up.  I size her up:  her description pretty much matches that of my own client; she is attractive, in her early 40's, female, African-American, is dressed appropriately for court and has a professional-seeming attitude.  In my experience, professional people tend to be reasonable and willing to compromise, so I think, "Great, this one is going to go down easy, it's just about money and it's under two thousand dollars so I can broker out a payment plan all quick-like, get on the record that she's already moved out, and I'm done."

But a few questions to the tenant elicits her claim that there was no lease of any kind, at all.  She produces for my review a detailed calendar showing a log of all the money paid on utilities and to pay my client's gas money.  "Gas money?"  Huh?  "Well, what was the arrangement between you?"  "There was no arrangement at all.  Nothing oral, nothing in writing.  I'd just given my testimony in church about my children and I falling on hard times and your client practically begged me to move in with her, and after I prayed about it I agreed to do that."  WTF?

After this, there were plenty of venemous complaints back and forth about the other party's adult or teenage children. Both women refuse to make eye contact with one another and call one another liars.

This is the point when I start to think that maybe there's some other wrinkle to this story that is not apparent from the pleadings.  And I think I know what's up, I lived in the big city for many years.  But why isn't someone just telling me this?
So I figure then, "Well, I guess I'll just have to try the case, and let the judge sort out all this nonsense."  Which I do, and it only takes about a minute before the judge asks, "How did you two even meet each other?" "We met at church," is the answer from both parties.
Church?  That's kind of ironic, don't you think?
The defendant's story is then that my client let her move in, kind of just to let her move in. "So, wait, was this like, an act of charity from one church member to another?" I ask.  "No, it wasn't like that, see, here's a list of the money I paid her and here's a list of the money she paid me."

And my client agrees, kind of, saying, "No, this wasn't about charity; she was supposed to pay her share when she moved in all along."

Have you figured out the "secret" piece of the puzzle yet?
Then I open up the answer to the complaint and see that the defendant invoked the affirmative defense of "retaliation." Usually that would mean the tenant asked for repairs to the place and rather than do the repairs, the landlord decided to evict her instead.  (Turns out, you can't do that.)  But here, the narrative portion of the form says that the retaliation was for the tenant's "refusal to share the master bedroom with the plaintiff."

Now have you figured it out? Here, I'll make it really obvious:
The defendant included in her offer of documentary evidence, a set of personal greeting cards and handwritten notes in which my client asks her to move in with her, and expresses sentiments of personal affection. They are all signed "Love," and one of them has this word underlined.

Occam's Razor is the maxim that when there are two explanations for a phenomenon which explain the phonomenon in an equally satisfactory manner, the simpler of the two is to be preferred.* So one hypothesis would be that there was some sort of an informal roommate or boarding-house type arrangement that wasn't quite charity but wasn't quite a lease and was never properly-defined so both women didn't really have an agreement about what the obligations would be and the accounts need to be minutely examined to be settled up.

The other hypothesis is that these two had been dating, and then broke up. Occam guides us to this solution to this collection of otherwise-incongruous facts rather than the eviction action taken at face value.  These women met at church, had a romantic fling, and decided to shack up. Then, the bloom faded from the rose. It "didn't work out," to use the phrase so many people do in order to gloss over the specifics of their romantic failures. Turns out that dating and having sex on the one hand isn't quite the same thing as building a household together on the other hand, and they were good together doing the first thing but not so good together doing the second thing.

And because they had met at church, and each considered herself to be a morally good and religious person, they were both in outright denial about having had a sexual relationship with another woman. So neither of them could or would say, out loud, that they had been a couple, that the two of them had shared The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

That made me sad. They hadn't done anything wrong. Yes, they were unwise in the opening days of a passionate affair, and jumped the gun to move in together too soon, but that didn't make either of them bad people who had done anything to be ashamed of. But they both believed they had done something morally wrong. It made them feel guilty and ashamed. And they were both apparently willing -- despite their ill-feelings bad enough to come to court and call each other liars and thieves -- to keep a pact of mutually-assured moral destruction so as to never, ever, say out loud that they had once been lovers instead of platonic roommates.

Now, I did not ask my client about this.  It seemed that it would have been impolite to ask my client "Were you and she lovers?" when she was being so studious about not going there.  Whether they had been or not wasn't of any particular relevance to the issues that were before the court, so I didn't feel like I needed that particular datum to do my job.

In all honesty, I'm not entirely sure that an eviction court is the best place for them to have sorted all this out. But of course I'm an advocate for my client, so I put the best case forward that I could.  I did not give voice to my suspicions about the real nature of their relationship because that seemed to be what my client wanted.

Which is stupid. If someone could have just said, "We were dating and moved in together, and now we're broken up," everything falls in to place. Settle up the utilities and go your separate ways, ladies. It's a shame that they felt pressure to conceal what was really going on, that it forced both of them to be (at least to that degree) dishonest about things. No one at the court would have cared that these two women had briefly been an item. 

And while I think they should have had the right to have got married if they wanted to, not every couple ought to get married and that goes for straight couples as well as gay ones.  It's a really good thing for these two that they didn't. To my admittedly jaundiced eye, they looked and acted like a lot of other recently-broken-up straight couples who I come across in eviction court.  Guys evicting their ex-girlfriends or women evicting their ex-boyfriends; that sort of thing happens pretty much every day.  This may have been the first lesbian couple I've seen in this context, but aside from their unwillingness to admit what they were (or rather, what they had been), at the end of the day it was the same sort of dreary and prosaic dispute that lawyers, judges, and courts across the nation have to sort through as part of providing the pillar of civil society that is the rule of law.

Wow.  Imagine that -- when homosexual couple break up, they have exactly the same sorts of problems to resolve as heterosexual couples do. Which is why they deserve the ability to get legally married, because from the law's point of view, one of the most important "benefits of marriage" is a mechanism for resolving most of those sorts of problems when the marriage end, in the form of a divorce proceeding; gay Americans deserve that same level of access to the justice system to help resolve those disputes as to straight Americans.

* Occam's Razor is not the idea that the simpler of two explanations for a phenomenon is to be preferred. The two ideas must be equally satisfactory in explaining the phenomenon. If one idea is more complex but better describes what is going on, then Occam's Razor does not apply and the complex solution is to be preferred.


Unknown said...

1. Who "won?" (at least in the judicial sense)

2. Your story takes me back-- I worked for a foreclosure mill law firm in Texas while I was in law school and I went to at least 20 eviction hearings every week, and accompanied the constable to some of the "move-outs." The worst was the cases where a husband discovered the foreclosure, for the first time, when he came home to find the constable's movers putting their stuff into a moving van. The mortgage money had gone to the wife's boyfriend.

3. I just discovered your blog. Nice.

Burt Likko said...

The winner of the case wasn't important for purposes of my story, but the plaintiff prevailed. I can't get out of my mind the idea that had the defendant told what I think was the truth about the relationship, she might have been cut a little more slack from the judge.

I, too, hate the actual lock-outs and I'm gratified that it so rarely comes to that. That's a very serious bummer of a story you've got there -- I hope there was no violence!