Authors: Eric Dinnocenzo
Tags: #Mystery: Legal Thriller - Legal Services - Massachusetts
|Eric Dinnocenzo - The Tenant Lawyer|
|Eric Dinnocenzo (2011)|
|Tags:||Mystery: Legal Thriller - Legal Services - Massachusetts|
The Tenant Lawyer
“I will turn your raw deal into a rare meal, with steak and
— Ray Stone
ursday was eviction day at the Worcester Housing Court. Typically there were about a hundred cases on the calendar, and the lobby was jammed full of people. The lucky ones got seats on the four old wooden benches that lined the dull gray walls, while the rest stood around looking as if they’d been waiting for hours at a bus station to go to some unexciting destination. Some were alone, some talked to their lawyers, some talked to friends or family members, and some talked to other tenants who were also being evicted. All waited for their cases to be called.
This Thursday was no different, I observed, as I entered the housing court lobby and merged with the vast, throbbing crowd. A small lump formed in my throat and my heart raced. I was always nervous on the days I went to court. In the four years that I’d been practicing law, it was something that had never gone away.
As usual there was a loud buzz from the conversations in the lobby, like the sound of heavy machinery at a construction site. The noise made it difficult to talk to clients so that I sometimes had to almost shout in order to be heard. I took a look around the lobby. I always had trouble discerning who was a landlord and who was a tenant—something that still amazed me. Two years earlier, when I first went to the housing court, I had expected a more striking class and racial divide between the two groups. But that was not the case. There was, however, one notable exception—there were always some people there who looked very poor, who looked as if they were down and out. And they were always tenants.
At the housing court you never saw a landlord or a tenant dressed in a suit, or even a shirt and tie. For that matter, the lawyers didn’t dress particularly well either. It wasn’t uncommon for them to wear sport coats and slacks. Their suits, when they wore them, often looked dated and out-of-style, not to mention wrinkled and worn. On this particular morning, I felt a little overdressed in my Burberry suit, a remnant of my previous life as an associate at a large Boston law firm.
Maneuvering through the dense crowd, I passed by a few lawyers I had been up against in the past who were speaking with their clients. I traded friendly nods with the ones who made eye contact with me. They represented only landlords, since tenants couldn’t afford to pay their fees. As the resident legal services lawyer, I represented only tenants and did so free of charge, which meant that I was pretty much the only show in town for them.
Roughly ninety-five percent of the tenants at the housing court were from the slums of Worcester or lived in public or government-subsidized housing. Rarely did you see working-class tenants there. In most cases when they received eviction notices, they either paid the back rent and the case was discontinued, or they vacated their apartments before the trial date and moved in with friends or family. But the poor usually didn’t have those options, so they showed up in housing court to fight their evictions.
I finally made it to the far end of the lobby where a set of glass doors led to the clerk’s office. The first thing I wanted to do was file pleadings for some of my other cases, cognizant of the fact that if I got held up in conversation with one of my clients I might forget to do so.
A young girl, who looked to be between five and seven years old, suddenly darted in front of me, and I came to an abrupt stop to avoid a collision, my briefcase knocking against the side of my leg. Looking up at me with a startled expression, the girl ran back to her mother and wrapped her arms around one of her legs, then looked up at me with wide eyes, as if assessing whether or not I was dangerous. I smiled at her and, in response, she loosened her grip on her mother’s leg and her expression softened. Meanwhile, her mother continued her conversation without even noticing what had happened. They were obviously tenants. Landlords didn’t bring their children to court with them.
In addition to being nervous, I felt wired and tense, the result of a lousy night’s sleep and two large cups of coffee I had consumed that morning to try to make up for it. My girlfriend, Sara, and I had gotten into an argument the night before—one that felt as if there was no way out of it, as though we were on opposite ends of a carousel going around and around a center that neither of us could reach, and I ended up lying awake in bed for a couple hours until I finally nodded off. I was usually able to fall asleep after our arguments, but this time I had trouble doing so. Truth
told, I couldn’t even remember exactly how the argument had started, except that it had been over something small and inconsequential. That was how many of our more serious arguments started. We’d bicker about minor things, and then it would snowball until both of us were hurling all kinds of accusations and past resentments at one another. Those past resentments—which neither of us could seem to fully put behind us—always remained just underneath the surface and would bubble up and explode from time to time.
Our relationship had been changing for the worse for some time. And that night, lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, I felt sadder about it than any time I could remember. I felt we were about to head over a cliff, and while I could see the cliff up ahead, I was powerless to stop us from going over it.
“Baker versus Gonzalez!” a female voice shouted, its sheer volume causing my head to swivel in its direction. Standing in front of the clerk’s office holding a manila case file in her hands was Carol, one of the housing court mediators.
Another tenant is going to get pressured into a bad settlement, I thought.
The court employed four mediators in total who were charged with facilitating settlement agreements between landlords and tenants. Before the parties went in front of the judge, they first met with a mediator to see if they could resolve the case. Without the assistance of the mediators, the judge would be faced with the impossible burden of hearing hundreds of eviction trials each year. And as all of the lawyers who practiced at the Worcester Housing Court knew, Judge McCarthy wanted to hear as few cases as possible.
Carol had a well-deserved reputation for stripping unrepresented tenants of their rights in mediation. Once she got them behind closed doors, she’d side with their landlords and put the screws to them, despite the fact that she was supposed to be impartial. “When can you move out?” was often the first thing she’d say to them, in a way that sounded much more like a command than a question. Because she was a court employee, many tenants saw her as an authority figure and gave in to her. On the occasions when she was met with resistance, she was known to employ dirty tactics, like misrepresenting the law in order to make tenants think that they were going to lose at trial if they didn’t accept what she was putting on the table. More than once she and I had clashed during mediation when I thought she had pushed too hard against me and my client in favor of the landlord. The result was that neither of us were big fans of the other. It didn’t take me long after starting work at legal services to learn that, in the world inhabited by the poor, justice is often in the hands of low-level bureaucrats.
As I walked past Carol and into the clerk’s office, I smiled and said good morning to her in a pleasant tone. I generally had to be nice to her, as she was a court employee and one who reportedly got along well with Judge McCarthy. She returned my greeting with what appeared to be a forced smile.
Glancing to the side as I went through the door, I caught a glimpse of one of my clients, Maria Roman, and quickly moved ahead, hoping she didn’t see me. I needed to file the pleadings before doing anything else, and I knew that if she got hold of me she wouldn’t let go, as she was one of my most demanding clients. Working at the front desk of the clerk’s office was Penny, a middle-aged woman with short hair and silver wire-framed glasses who had always been friendly to me.
“How are you doing today, Mark?”
“Okay.” I handed her my pleadings. “I think I had too much coffee, though. I feel a little tense.”
I realized that my response might have come off as a little odd. “So how are you?” I asked, hoping to rehabilitate our conversation.
“Oh, just the same as every Thursday morning.
You know how it is here, always a zoo. Do you have a lot of cases today?”
I stuck up two fingers. “Two.”
“That’s less than usual. Well, good luck.”
As I turned around to head back into the lobby, Penny said, “Oh Mark, one other thing.”
I spun around on my heels. “Yes?”
“There’s a woman outside who needs some help. I told her that you’d talk to her, if that’s all right.”
“Certainly,” I replied. “Who is she?”
“She’s Hispanic, thin, probably in her late-thirties. Oh geez, I forget what she’s wearing. You know, I just saw John go out into the lobby. He’ll know who she is.”
John was the court officer. He was a heavyset guy with a goatee and light brown hair that was thinning at the top. Although we were both in our early thirties, he looked a good deal older than me. I looked young for my age and still got carded half the time when I went to bars and liquor stores. I was six-one and one hundred eighty pounds; due to jogging three or four times a week, I had pretty much the same build as in my college years. When I located John, he directed me to a thin woman dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a puffy black winter jacket. Just as I began to approach her, I noticed Maria Roman lock onto me with a piercing and intense gaze, and she began to walk in my direction. Reflexively, I raised my index finger in the air to signal that I needed a minute, and to my relief, she backed off.
The woman John had pointed out was somewhat attractive with full lips and almond-shaped eyes, but she had the tired look of someone who had lived a hard life. Her hands were clasped together in front of her holding onto a piece of paper that I could tell from its small print was an eviction complaint. I introduced myself to her as a legal services lawyer and told her that one of the court employees had said that she needed help.
“Yeah, I need a lawyer. I’m being evicted.”
I pointed to the paper in her hands. “Can I see the complaint?”
She handed it to me, a little surprised that I knew what it was, and I quickly read it over. “So you live at George Washington and you’re being evicted for the drug arrest of a household member?” I asked. George Washington was the largest and most dangerous public housing complex in Worcester. It seemed as if I was always hearing or reading about someone getting shot there or a massive drug raid taking place.
“Who’s the household member?”
live with me and he
done nothing wrong. You see—”
“Just one second.” I took another look at the complaint. “You’re not getting evicted today. Your trial date is one week from today.”
“I know that. It’s on that paper.”
“I’m just mentioning it because you just told me that you’re being evicted.”
“I know, but not today, not right now,”
She gave me a look as though I were from another planet. “Listen, you’re the lawyer. I’m the tenant. I told you I was being evicted.” Her tone was like that of a scolding mother. Most lawyers probably would have found it offensive, but it actually kind of amused me.
“Okay, okay,” I replied. I looked at the complaint to get her first name. “It’s Anna, right?”
“All right, let’s take this one step at a time. What was it you were about to say to me before?”
live with me and he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. It was his
who was dealing the drugs, and my son didn’t have nothing to do with it, but since he was there in the car, the cops arrested him.”
“Is he on your lease?”
That wasn’t good for her case.
“How long have you lived at Washington?”
“Fifteen years. My rent is only one hundred fifty dollars and I can’t afford to lose that apartment.”
I took out my wallet and handed her one of my business cards. “I’m busy with cases right now, but you can come to my office tomorrow, say at two, and we’ll go over everything. Can you come then?”
She nodded eagerly.
“Make sure to bring all of your eviction papers. You should have received a notice before this eviction complaint called a notice to quit.”
She put a finger to her lips and scrunched up her eyes. “I think I got that at home.”
“Bring it with you. Also, could you bring your son with you?”
“Why does he need to come?”
“Because he’s the reason you’re being evicted. His version of what happened is important.”
“I’ll try, but I don’t always know where he’s at.”
Just then someone bumped into me, and I turned to see a middle-aged man walk past. It irked me that he didn’t say excuse me. I hated the close quarters of the housing court lobby on Thursday mornings.
“Also, if you have any other documents, like your lease, for instance, bring them with you, too.”
“Okay. I know I got my lease.”