November 20, 2009

Tales From The (Legal) Trenches

Category: News — Ira @ 6:48 pm

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It is unfair to believe everything we hear about lawyers.
Some of it might not be true.

—Gerald F. Lieberman
__________________

You’d never know it, just being around me. As most of my customers don’t. I never tell them. That I am an attorney. Fully licensed in PA. I’m just common old Joe Schmoe. Pleasant. Cheerful. Accommodating. I can even dredge up a passable chuckle at the same tired old attorney jokes every time they’re trotted out. And believe me, I’ve heard them all.

I don’t do much anymore, of the legal work. Mostly write wills for the Amish here in Lancaster County. Word of mouth gets me a number of clients each year. Works for me. Produce something tangible, and get paid for it. Otherwise, the system is so adversarial, so parasitic, so contentious that I left it years ago. The stress, and the seeming lack of tangible accomplishment, got to me. So far, no regrets.

But once in awhile, in the course of my duties as general manager of Graber Supply, it does become necessary to strip the veil. To show my true colors. Mostly that happens when customers can’t or won’t pay their bills. After I’ve cajoled them. After they’ve promised for the tenth time the check is in the mail. And it isn’t. About then they receive a very official looking letter, complete with all the legalese. Pay up. Or else I’ll see you in court. Signed: Ira Wagler, Esquire. General Counsel.

The letter works most of the time. But not always. And then, after some months of patient, if sporadic persistence, I head off to the small claims court. File a Complaint.

Yep. I sue. Without even the slightest tinge of conscience. A contract is a contract. And in PA, an uncontested debt is voided after two years. So the window for action is fairly limited.

It doesn’t happen often. At most, maybe twice a year. Oddly, the people I go after are usually Amish or Mennonite. Plain people. Or at least from that background. It’s strange. Maybe they think I’ll just let it slide. From their actions, or lack thereof, that’s what they must think. Either that, or if they ignore the problem long enough, it will just go away. It won’t. As some few of them have learned the hard way.

I do have a little trick up my sleeve. If you make me come after you, I’ll sue your business. And you personally. And your wife. All the names I can throw in there, I will. Whatever sticks, sticks. Whatever doesn’t, the judge can remove.

I figure most of the time, the slackers’ wives aren’t even aware of what’s going on in the business. If a guy won’t pay his bills, he may well be hiding that fact from his wife. Might as well do my part to inform her. It’s got to be a rude awakening, to be served papers stating that you are being sued in court for an overdue debt.

But mostly, I want the wife included in the suit because if we win a judgment, we can have the sheriff go in and sell their stuff. All marital property. Furniture. Fixtures. Tools. Vehicles. Even clothes. Not that we ever have. But it makes for a pretty hefty bargaining chip. Can’t be ignored, like before.

Last summer, I went after a local Amish guy. He’d merrily purchased a lot of building materials during the previous year. Seemed like a decent guy, with his fingers in a lot of projects. He paid on time. Until all of a sudden, after running up over ten thousand dollars in bills, he just disappeared.

It was not a good situation. We sent monthly statements. Called. Patrick even stopped out at his house a time or two. No luck at anything. The guy wasn’t around and he was sure not making himself available. After a series of increasingly threatening letters, I finally took his case to small claims. Filed suit. Against his business. Him. And his wife. We waited.

Within a week, a desperate call from the wife. She must have talked to her attorney. Could we please remove her from the suit? We were firm, but kind. Can’t do it. After we get a judgment, we’ll negotiate. But until then, we have to do what we have to do. The poor goodwife sighed and wept. She was expecting their third child shortly, she claimed. With all this stress, and her husband’s multitude of debt, she didn’t quite know where to turn.

I felt sorry for her. And even more irritated at her husband. Putting her through all that. She filed notice that she would attend the hearing to defend herself. And try to get herself removed from the proceedings.

“That’s all I need,” I grumbled to Pat. “Some poor weeping destitute Amish housewife, showing up to tug at the judge’s heartstrings. I won’t have a chance.”

On the day of the hearing, I sallied forth. Arrived a few minutes early, as usual. And there she sat, in the waiting area. Plump, pretty, thirtyish, heavy with child. No attorney. Most small claims cases are pretty informal. An English neighbor had brought her. Her husband was nowhere to be seen. I greeted her kindly. We chatted. She fluttered about, extremely nervous. No, terrified. We waited. And then the judge received us in the courtroom.

I sat at a table in front and to the left of the judge, she at a table on the right. The judge, a stern lady, sat behind her bench, robed, imposing. She recited the caption of the case. Graber Supply vs. ____. A suit for collection of unpaid debt.

The judge looked to me to begin. I was the plaintiff, the one bringing the suit. But before I could proceed, the Amish housewife interrupted.

“Please, please, may I speak?” She implored, rising to her feet. She trembled with tension and fear. The judge nodded. “I’m not here to dispute that the money is owed. It is owed, every penny of it. All I ask is that I be removed from the lawsuit. Please.” She suddenly burst into tears, short chopping sobs.

The judge was gracious. “You’ll have your chance,” she said kindly. “Let Mr. Wagler go first, then you can say what you want.” The poor woman nodded and sat down again, vainly trying to muffle her sobs with a twisted knot of a handkerchief already soaked with tears.

It was my turn. I plunged in. Gave the judge copies of past due invoices. Briefly stated how the husband had purchased building materials over the past year. And not paid. He wouldn’t talk to us, or respond in any way to our requests for payment. Or even come to the door when we stopped by. This action was our last resort. And, I said, since the wife had also benefited from the husband’s business, it was only right that she should be included. I asked the judge to keep her in.

Then it was her turn. In this terrifying moment, in this hostile frightening world, a gentle helpless lamb trapped in a den of lean and hungry lions, she struggled visibly for the inner strength for words to convey what she had come to tell us. She turned to me; her dark, deep tear-stained eyes reflected impenetrable depths of raw fear and grief and hopeless despair. She labored to regain her voice. And then, in trembling broken tones, she spoke.

“I have never gained anything from the things you sold my husband,” she choked. “Not once. There were many times in the past year when I didn’t know where I would find enough food to feed my children. I only found out recently that we have debts of more than sixty thousand dollars. We have no way to repay.” Lowering her face, she sobbed uncontrollably into her handkerchief again.

I sat there frozen. As did the judge. It was a scene straight out of a Dickens novel. The trembling broken heroine covering her face, cornered by her cruel oppressors. But bravely speaking truth to power as best she knew.

She turned to the judge and continued. “All I ask is that I be removed from this suit,” she sobbed. “If I’m not, and there is a judgment against us, they will send the sheriff to our house and he will sell everything we own. And…..I don’t want my children…..my little boys……to have to see that, to go through that…Oh….please…” Her voice broke abruptly, she leaned forward, under terrible duress, half collapsing onto the table, her body wracking with sobs. Otherwise there was no sound.

Her sons. That’s why she was here. Enduring this brutal ordeal. To protect her sons.

The judge looked on with open compassion and pity, greatly alarmed. As did I. For her and her condition. And all this stress might induce labor. A child might be born right here in the courtroom. At least the thought flashed through my mind. And through the judge’s mind, I’m sure. The English neighbor approached and soothed her, wiped away the tears. She struggled, breathed deep, grasped desperately for some semblance of composure. After some moments, she calmed down a good deal.

The judge then turned to me. Did I have any questions for the defendant? I did. I asked them gently. Had my boss not promised that we would not come out and take their stuff, as long as they made some effort to pay even a token amount every month? She nodded. Did she not believe him? She didn’t know, she just didn’t want a judgment against her. After a few more questions, I turned to the judge and flatly repeated my demand for judgment. Then sat down at my table. I felt unclean. And tired and old.

The judge looked somber. She would make her decision and we would receive it in the mail within a few days. We stood as she walked out. I held the door open for the Amish housewife and the English neighbor as they left. The poor woman, still shaking and weeping softly from the stress and fear, returned to the shattered wreckage of her desolate world, a world in which her shiftless lout of a husband had allowed her, in her fragile highly emotional state, to come to this place and face the music all alone.

I walked away knowing I had won. She had no documentation to dispute my claim. No proof of LLC or Corporation protection. Technically, the letter of the law was on my side. Back at the office, I sagged into my chair, exhausted. “It was awful,” I told Pat. “Just awful.”

A few days later the ruling came down. The stern lady judge had copped out. Found some obscure technical reason to postpone a decision. I think she just invented some-thing because she couldn’t bring herself to rule against the Amish housewife. She rescheduled another hearing. Thankfully, before that happened, a committee was appointed to oversee the Amish guy’s finances. The day before the second hearing, we got a call with an offer to settle for sixty-five cents on the dollar. We fell over our-selves to accept it. And so it all went away.

Maybe the judge was wiser than I first thought.

I was greatly relieved. For the poor housewife. And for myself. I’m not sure it was in me, to go back and do it all over again. Too many moral ambiguities, too much strain, too much stress. In a world where black and white all too often fade to murky shades of gray.

That’s why I don’t do this stuff every day anymore.

But once in awhile, it’s OK. Recently, I had my second action this year. Mainstream Mennonite guy, from the next county. Around four grand, he owed. Throughout the spring and summer, I called periodically. Always, he made promises. Next day. Next week for sure. He would send a check. Of course, he never did.

So in late September, I gathered my papers. Trudged off to District Court. Before leaving the office, I had a Google search done for his wife’s name. Cross checked to make sure I had the right person. In the Complaint, I included the business, and the husband and wife individually as defendants. Paid my filing fees. Then awaited their response.

They were tough. Refused to sign the receipt and accept service. The court sent me another bill for $75 for a deputy to personally serve the papers. That money went right down the rat hole, with all the rest. I’d add it to my final judgment, I figured. So I waited.

A few weeks later, a call from the husband. Shaken. “I don’t want to get sued,” he stammered. “Can’t we work something out?”

“Simple enough,” I answered. “Pay up.” He hedged. “I won’t drop the suit until you pay up,” I said. “You’ve lied to me too many times. Promised to pay. I’ve never seen a cent.”

“Can’t you at least take my wife off?” He begged.

“Nope.” I said. We hung up.

The weeks passed. I figured he might call to settle. He never did. So on the scheduled morning, I packed my papers in my briefcase and headed to court.

I arrived early. Waited. Maybe they wouldn’t show. Fifteen minutes before the hearing, they walked in. I’d never seen them before. Always dealt with him over the phone.

He seemed hunched down, resigned, beaten. She was strong, tall, stony faced. And nail-spitting mad. She marched up to me. Glared. “Why am I on this suit?” She snarled. “I’m not part of his company. It’s an LLC. You lied on the Complaint. I never was a part of this. You lied.” She spat the words at me.

I was in no mood to take it from her. “Look,” I shot back. “He didn’t tell me he was an LLC. He had an affirmative duty to do that. When he didn’t, he lost his LLC protection. If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at the guy next to you. And if you want to discuss lying, talk to him about the dozen times he promised me the check was in the mail. He didn’t pay his bills. That’s the only reason you’re here.”

Certainly my words were not conducive to their marital harmony. But it seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to say. No sense blaming me for their troubles. She sat there steaming, not even slightly mollified.

He desperately wanted to settle. She was determined to confront me before the judge and force me to remove her name from the suit. “Whatever,” I shrugged. “It’s not personal to me. I’ll settle. Or I’ll go before the judge. Either way, I’m getting my money or a judgment. If I get a judgment, it’ll be a matter of public record. And I’m coming after you. Believe me, I’m coming after you.”

The hunched down, beaten man recoiled visibly from my words. He seemed terrified at the thought of a legal judgment against him. He asked me to leave them alone for a few minutes. I walked away. Minutes later he called me back. He’d give me a check if I told the judge we’d settled. “Write the check first,” I said. “Then we’ll see the judge.”

So that’s what we did. He wrote me several checks, to be cashed monthly. The grim wife argued to the end about the actual amount owed. Accused me of fudging the invoices. They even came to the office to wrangle about the final amount. She fussed inordinately about a $5 late fee. We worked it out. She was still steaming mad when they left. Still spitting nails. Don’t know why. We could have settled over the phone. But some people insist on doing things the hard way.

And so I won. Recovered what was rightfully ours. But it was draining. I was flat-out exhausted. From all the confrontation, the bitter words, the tension, the harshness, the seething rage. In the end, other than having done my job, there was little satisfaction in my victory. It seemed hollow, empty.

And that’s why I don’t do this stuff every day anymore.

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(20 Comments) »

  1. It was stressful just to read! Interesting contrast of the two wives of the two jerks. Excellent story telling as always, Ira.

    Comment by pilgrimhen — November 20, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

  2. Gut wrenching tales. But if they take the product, they must pay. Did you ever file a lien against someone’s property? Is a lien less or more drastic than small claims?

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — November 20, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

  3. Another excellent work!

    Comment by Dorothy — November 20, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

  4. HORRORS…. it seems safer to never marry. Some people are just plain jerks. I can see why you can’t do this stuff every day, the whole system is insane. Thanks for your great gut-wrenchimg tales!

    Comment by Amy — November 20, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

  5. We are in the process of suing one of our renters. Just sick of the lies and promises to pay… Hopefully it ends well. I guess time will tell.

    Comment by Dawn — November 20, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

  6. Sad that some get caught up in living beyond their means. I have several friends who quit the legal profession, unable to stomach the harshness on a daily basis. Great reference to Dickens!

    Comment by Katy — November 21, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  7. Just when I think nothing can surprise me ever again, the lack of shame some people feel as they go deeper into debt (hiding it from their spouse) and not even attempting to pay something towards it springs forth surprise anew.

    Comment by Monica — November 21, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  8. I see a future John Grisham novel wriiten by Ira Wagler!

    Comment by andrew yutzy — November 21, 2009 @ 9:54 pm

  9. Kept me glued to the page as usual :) Having to take someone to court is not a pleasurable experience. I have been in the position of “unknowing wife,” however I feel I was to blame for being so trusting and naive. Hopefully I have learned from that and if not, the constant monthly reminders in the form of payments on my ex-husband’s debt is keeping me on my toes. Thank you once again for sharing your thoughts and stories.

    Comment by Erin — November 21, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

  10. Having been married to two of those jerks in my life, I really identified with the first story. I never actually had to go to court, but I did sell all my belongings and beg my family for money to cover their debts before it actually got to court. It’s not easy being on either side.

    Comment by Deb — November 21, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  11. I find it odd that you had to be satisfied, no – eager, to get just 65% of what you are rightly owed.

    Is not the bankruptcy system rigged the same way? If one does not mind the bad reputation (if it ever entails one), a 35% or more discount is coming down the road for not paying what was agreed. While it is merciful enough to both parties to renegotiate later, the debt remains.

    If they cannot pay, why not take a loan (an previously agreed upon contract to repay over a longer time, at an agreed upon price) if that is worth it, or else sell some things yourself to cover it now? That 35% is a loss to you, and enough of that could end up with many other folks losing a good supplier. Who will the build up these local relationships and delivery systems again? The “economy” is not some vague “thing out there” but the concrete relationships that people have imagined and executed. Granted, competition generally means another can step into place; but if the failures become widespread, who will risk it? (And who will have capital to start anew, if large percentages what they counted on as wealth evaporates?)

    This is why hard commodities have always served best as a medium of exchange in long-lasting societies. For example, the Byzantine Empire lasted 1,000 years, with virtually no inflation. The choice is ours to make among ourselves as to what kind of contracts we will accept. A help for getting back to a solid standard in the fluctuating fiat “dollar” prices of historical, nearly-universal medium of exchange is found here:
    http://www.SilverAndGoldAreMoney.com . It would take some doing and some pain to make the transition, but something like this is bound to happen anyway, Those who could move with it ahead of hyper-inflation would profit most.

    Comment by LeRoy — November 23, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  12. Interesting! They were either Amish or Mennonite or from that background. Take this story as a lesson to teach your children about money and living within your means.

    Then again most people say they’re honest until they get hungry. Great story.

    Comment by Chris — November 23, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

  13. The comments are always worth a read- particularly enjoyed LeRoy’s up there.

    My comment: When I’m wrong and you prove it and don’t let me wriggle out of it, that’s when I get mad…or that’s the way it is with a lot of people. I wonder if the wife was an innocent victim of the husband in the first case while in the second case, the wife was more involved, perhaps even pushing a more unwilling husband to overspend. It happens. Not all wives are innocent and naive…

    Comment by ann — November 28, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  14. It sounds to me like you want to be able to give out “no risk” loans to people, depending on the legal system to coerce payment.

    You might instead consider altering you business practice so that legal enforcement is unnecessary. Only give loans to people you trust, and view the loans you do give out as carrying some risk of default.

    I agree with others that non-payment of debt is bad, and this is certainly a lesson to teach children.

    But the other side of the coin is that blindly giving out loans to people, assuming the government will bail you out of your bad decisions, is also bad. It’s bad when Goldman Sachs does it, it’s bad when General Motors does it, and it’s also bad when Ira Wagler does it.

    Comment by Jacob — November 29, 2009 @ 8:24 am

  15. I was trying to be too clever with my last sentence and it does not make much sense. My main point is that there is a moral hazard associated with relying on the government to enforce your contracts or loans. The moral hazard is that the costs of bad decisions (dealing with untrustworthy people, or loaning money to deadbeats) is largely externalized, and as a result there is less incentive to scrutinize reckless decisions. Ira made bad decisions to extend credit to people who had no intention to pay, and rather than accept that and work to make better decisions in the future, he turns to Papa Government to make the people pay.

    Comment by Jacob — November 29, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  16. Thanks for the nod to comment 11, “ann.” Over Thanksgiving holiday I finally found time to read a recommended Feb. article by a former Asst Sec’y of the Treasury under Reagan. He shows how we were managed into this mess over the last decades. And, by implication, that manufacturing and protection of it is the real key to having an economy. The truth is, Internationalists are protecting _their_ interests, which include de-capitalizing those with biblical ethics in the US (for various reasons, depending on the group). The high finance is over my head, but fascinating. Point is–again–my local economy, if it stays local, can save my part of the economy (duh). If we had a national vision once again, same deal. At least we could get a state by state vision, over solid county by county leadership at this time. (See the Solari Investor’s Circle model for help with that, on the page linked in #11.)

    http://www.counterpunch.org/roberts02242009.html

    Comment by LeRoy — November 30, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

  17. The point I forgot to mention is that the Amish already do such an intra-mural economy in large measure!

    Comment by LeRoy — November 30, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

  18. Just read the last comments… interesting LeRoy- thanks for the further input.

    Comment by Ann — December 5, 2009 @ 9:06 am

  19. with all due disrespect for the main characters, i.e. the bad guys who don’t pay what they owe, this story only corroborates the negative stereotypes that most of us have about lawyers.

    legalities notwithstanding, why include the wife, especially if she is so obviously oblivious, innocent, and not to mention destitute? answer that, ira wagler.

    Comment by dan — December 10, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  20. Wow! I’ve never had to deal with things like this, but I can see the horror in it. Especially for an ex-Amish man who holds in high regards the Amish way of life and who has a soft spot for women and children. When they don’t act creepy, that is. Glad you don’t have to deal with this much. If that is still the case, that is.

    Comment by Francine — January 20, 2013 @ 8:44 pm

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