It’s been a crazy week. I had every intention of updating this blog with the progress of my court preparations, but… I didn’t. However, this is an after the fact review of the whole experience.
My hearing was on Thursday at 10:00am. I woke up at 4:00am to finish writing my script and make some final preparations. I ate a good breakfast and then suited up. At 6:30 I was on the road to Denton, where I haven’t been since a recording session I did in January. The drive was not quite as miserable as I expected. I had prepared to sit in 35-E traffic for two hours, but it only took a mere hour and fifteen minutes. An hour into my commute I suddenly remembered that our apartment is only 15 minutes from the southern-most DART rail station, and that this rail now connects to the Denton station which is two blocks from the courtroom of my destination. I face-palmed as I continued to inch along a congested freeway, wasting fuel. Had I ridden a train, that would have added 90 minutes of study time!
My first stop was my old roommate Travis’s apartment on the UNT Campus. It was strange revisiting the place where I lived, worked, and studied for 5 years. All of the students looked so much younger than I remember them being. After briefly shooting the breeze, Travis and I got down to business. Since he had exams that day, he was unable to be present in my hearing as a witness. As an alternative, we put together a sworn statement in writing that would suffice (I hoped) as his testimony to phone communications he made to the landlord. We also did a “mock-trial” which consisted of me reading my script to Travis, who unfortunately was much less intimidating than the judge, and didn’t do much for my comfort level.
By this point, the clock was ticking and I had to head down to the Joseph A. Carroll Building at Carroll and Hickory in downtown Denton. Upon my arrival, I found the building directory and took the elevator up to the second floor where the Justice of the Peace was supposedly located. After seeking guidance from who I thought were the court clerks, I made my way over to the docket, signed my name, and had a seat on the bench outside the locked courtroom doors. Inevitably my landlord, whom I have never met, seen, or talked to, showed up, signed the docket, and had a seat next to me on the bench. This was far beyond your average awkward moment, and I uncomfortably pretended I had important business to take care of on my cell phone to avoid any eye contact or conversation. After my landlord (hereafter referred to as Mr. X) attempted twice to make small talk, he couldn’t handle the tension and acted like he had something important to do down the hall which was really an excuse to find a different place to sit.
Suddenly, the court doors opened, and the constable, a short, heavyset fellow in a policeman’s uniform, announced our names. My heart was about to escape out of my chest as I had to face my fear of the unknown. Logically, I knew I had absolutely nothing to lose, but I was still nervous to the point of the sweats and shakes. We emptied our pockets for the constable and walked through the metal detector. The court room was smaller than I had envisioned. It had seating for maybe 60 people, a jury box on the left, two tables for Mr. X and myself, and a tall, intimidating bench in the front. We had the pleasant opportunity to sit in awkward silence for 10 minutes before the startling “All Rise for the honorable Judge Holland”.
Judge Holland was a grumpy old man. Not once in the hearing did he lose his scowl, and he stared me down with a look that seemed to pose the question “I got out of bed for this?” After confirming our identities, the judge wasted no time in stating that as the plaintiff the burden of proof was mine alone and to go ahead and present my case.
My brain started firing on all cylinders. I suddenly felt silly reading from a script to a judge that was staring me down from that tall, tall bench, but what choice did I have? I read the summary of my argument word for word, trying to speak at a pace that the judge could follow. Things were going well, so I decided to present my first piece of evidence. Not knowing what the procedure was to do this I awkwardly asked “I’ve got the original envelope here… would you like to see it?” The judge replied in a slightly sarcastic tone “I’ll look at whatever you want to show me,” and then he directed the constable to pick up my evidence, show it to Mr. X, and then bring it to the bench. The credibility of this envelope was the crux upon which my whole tower of evidence hinged. If the judge didn’t buy its authenticity, I was done for, so I confidently stated “This is the original envelope in which the check was mailed, and as you can see it is postmarked August 12th, 2011, has a 76201 (Denton) zip code, and the plastic windows match up with the address placement on the check that Mr. X sent me.” Silence. The judge squinted at the envelope, adjusting his glasses several times. “You mean to tell me you can read this?” Oh no, I thought, he can’t read the incredibly blurred postmark stamp. I stated “Yes sir, it says August 12th, 2011. More Silence, then a “Well, I’m not entirely convinced that’s what it says, but continue.”
So I continued. I stated my case from start to finish with only one interruption from the judge to say “That’s Irrelevant”. All documents that I presented, I did so awkwardly. However, the judge took up most of them for consideration. When I got to the point in my story where I was going to present Travis’s written statement, the judge said “I’m not sure that I want to see that.” so I did my best to paraphrase his testimony. With my evidence concluded, and my points summarized at the end, my speech came to an end. Upon finishing, the judge asked “Anything else you’d like to say, Mr. Powell?” After answering in the negative, the ball was now in Mr. X’s court. I dared him to do his worst.
And he certainly managed to do his worst: meaning he was a stammering, disorganized, contradicting mess. First of all, it’s court. You need to dress well. Here I was in my nicest suit, the judge was wearing his fancy-pants robe, and Mr. X strolls in jeans and a red polo shirt. First impressions, Mr. X. First Impressions. He started off not by countering any of my claims, but by presenting our lease agreement and pictures of the property as evidence. The judge accurately informed Mr. X that the crux of my argument had nothing to do with the condition of the property, and therefore the pictures were not important.
He next tried to say that the reason he didn’t mail the check on time was because in Travis’s second email, he offered to pick it up in person. A decent counter-attack if I say so myself. But then Judge Holland asks him, “So did you respond to the email saying they could come pick it up?” Mr. X is sweating now. “Well, no… but I don’t really respond to emails.” I can see how the direction of this conversation is not going to bode well for Mr. X’s favor with the judge. With a hint of shock and disbelief Judge Holland replied, “What do you mean you don’t respond to emails?” Mr. X blubbered out something about how his job has him always out and about and he doesn’t really have time. This is not a good move for Mr. X, because anyone listening could have reasoned that someone who has the time to read Travis’s two-sentence email, has the time to fire off a one sentence response to it. He went on to say that he called Travis to let him know that picking up the check would be fine. A logical proposition that might have threatened my upper hand, if it weren’t for the fact that my ace-in-the-hole was Travis’s cell phone bill from the months of July and August. I wanted to burst out “OBJECTION!” like they do on TV, but I don’t know anything about the legal process so I impatiently waited my turn to retort while Mr. X finished his piece.
Mr. X then went on to say that he did mail the check on time but it got returned to sender and so he had to mail it out a second time. Never mind the contradiction that Mr. X had just finished giving a reason for why the check was mailed late. I was on the edge of my seat, because If Mr. X produced proof of this I was done for. The inevitable question was asked, “Well Mr. X, do you have the returned envelope.” His response could make or break my case. “No, but I sent a letter the second time informing the tenants that it got returned to sender” What a bunch of baloney. This “returned to sender” bit was the first time I had heard of it. Heck, if Mr. X really DID mail the check on time, and I knew about it in AUGUST, I never would have wasted my time with an un-winnable lawsuit. Mr. X had no further proof of this claim, and he had nothing else to say.
Judge Holland asked if I had any concluding words. Of course I did, so I unleashed the final blow. “Your honor, I am holding Mr. Hernandez’s cell phone record, and Mr. X did not call him at anytime in July. You can take a look if you want.” He didn’t need to, his mind was already made up. Mr. X had zero evidence, contradicted himself several times, spent his whole speech fumbling over his words, claimed to make a phone call he didn’t actually make, and came to court in a freakin’ polo shirt. Even so, I could detect a slight unwillingness in Judge Holland to declare the judgement. “Mr. X, you make claim to have mailed the check on time, but you have no proof. All I have here is an envelope from the Plaintiff that may or may not say August 12th. Mr. X, this is harsh, but it’s the law. I find in favor of the plaintiff an amount of $3,431 plus $91 in court fees.”
Case closed. On my way out the door the constable told me I should be a lawyer. I guess he’s not used to seeing 24-year-old kids wreck shop against their landlords. Now I get to wait and see if Mr. X files for an appeal or a new trial in the next 10 days. If he does, you better believe I’ll be driving up to Denton again and arrive even more prepared than the first time.