CBA Record October 2017


“THEY NEVER GAVE ME ONE. I DON’T WANT TO MOVE.THEY CAN’T KICK ME OUT.” Actually, they could. I did my best to explain the law in a few quick sentences— that a property owner can evict anyone without a lease with only 30 days notice. All I could do was try to get her extra time to move. Elsie and I sat in the front row of the courtroom. When the sheriff called the case, I tapped her on the shoulder, and we stepped before the bench. The judge, a veteran of eviction court, didn’t even glance at the old lady wearing a heavy wool coat in July. He rifled through the court papers and asked me, “How much time does she need?” “At least a month your Honor.” “My client has lived in her apartment for 15 years. She’s deaf. It will take time to find a new place she can afford. As you can see, she’s elderly and infirm.” “Your honor,” huffed the pompous young attorney representing the landlord, “The property manager gave her plenty of advance notice. We’d like her out in a week.” Still looking down at the court file, the judge asked my client, “How long do you need to move?” Elsie stared. “Your honor,” I said, “As I told you, she’s deaf. She can’t hear you. You have to write everything down for her. I quickly wrote the judge’s question on my legal pad and showed it to her. Elsie indig- nantly responded, “I DON’TWANTTO MOVE. I’VE LIVEDTHERE 15 YEARS. IT’S NOT FAIR.” At the sound of Elsie’s voice, the judge finally looked at her. Pulling his eyes away from the goiter on her neck, he fixed a steely gaze on the other lawyer and said, “She’s going to need a little extra time to find a new place, don’t you think?” The attorney looked at the floor and mumbled ok. The judge gave her 60 days to move. As I started to walk away, Elsie told the judge, “MAKE THEM FIX MY TOILET. IT DOESN’T FLUSH.” The judge recoiled and quickly called the next case. Six months later Elsie appeared in my

office with a new wad of grubby papers. Turns out that, a month after she moved, she was sued for damages to the apart- ment. When Elsie didn’t go to court, a $2,500 judgment was entered and her bank account was frozen. I was furious. Ok, I figured her apart- ment had been pretty messy but there was 15 years of normal wear and tear, AND the place was being gutted. What the hell??? But, the court date was months ago. What could I do? I asked Elsie about the money in her bank account. Was it Social Security money? Creditors can’t touch Social Secu- rity. “IT’S MY MONEY. THE BANK CAN’T TAKE IT.” Do you have any other bank accounts? If not, this money was safe—everyone is entitled to keep $2,000 safe from creditors. “I WANT MY MONEY BACK!” Where do you live now? What’s your address? Silence. Elsie had made her point. It was up to me to figure this out. Three days later, we were in court again. I asked her to point out her old landlord to me. A short time later, she gave me a nudge and pointed at a plump little man strutting up the courtroom aisle. I went over, intro- duced myself and asked if we could talk in the hall. I left Elsie in the courtroom. “How’s old stinky doing” he asked with a mean smile. What zip code is she pollut- ing these days? When I didn’t respond, he said, “So, do I get my money today or do I garnish her bank account? Her choice.” I tried to keep the disgust off my face and said we would let the judge decide what to do. He grinned and strutted into the courtroom. When the case was called, the landlord announced to the judge that after my client had been evicted, he’d discovered that her apartment was such a mess that he needed $2,500 to clean it. I didn’t bother to respond to that non-

sense. Instead, I said, “Your honor, the plaintiff did not evict my client. She was evicted by the corporation that owned her building. He was merely the property manager. The eviction was handled by the corporation’s attorney, as required by law. The property manager has no right to sue my client and he cannot represent the building because he is not an attorney. As a result, the judgment that he took against my client is void and the case must be dismissed. The judge looked at the little man stand- ing there. “Are you an attorney?” “No,” he sneered. “Counsel is right. Non-lawyers cannot represent corporations. You must either sue this former tenant in your own name or hire an attorney like you did for the eviction. I have no choice but to vacate your judg- ment, strike all liens against the defendant’s bank accounts and dismiss the case.” Elsie had won—she owed no money and her bank account was freed. As soon as I had a copy of the judge’s order, I hustled my client out of there and back to my office. I gave her two copies of the order and wrote: Go to your bank and give them a copy of this order. Then move all your money out of that bank and open a new account somewhere else. Do it today.” Elsie stood up and gathered her belong- ings. Without a word, she carefully folded the court order and tucked it into her coat pocket, turned and walked out of my office. I never heard from her again. But I never forgot her. I had used the law to help an old lady who was getting a raw deal in the city’s drive to gentrification. Elsie was a challenging client–unsightly, uncooperative and unappreciative. We tend to look away from people like Elsie, allowing them to be bullied. What was happening to her was not fair. I knew how to use the law to make it a little less unfair. So do you. While the law isn’t perfect, it exists, in part, to make sure the strong can’t take advantage of the weak. But the weak, on their own, rarely know the law and if they do, they often can’t access it. They need CBA RECORD 37

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