Black & White

The judicial system is administered by human beings; human beings work in it and on it, and it is therefore permeated with human error and other less admirable human traits. If you imagine that it is fair and impartial and just, and that you can always get the right result if you go to court, then you are sadly mistaken, possibly misguided, and arguably, a fool.  This is the story of what SHOULD have been a black-and-white result, but it was not.

John Hammond was just 19 years old when he first walked into my office, some twenty years ago. I had opened my law practice only six months before, but I was already 14 years in the profession, both practicing law in a number of various law firms, and, at one point, teaching law full-time as a professor at Stetson University College of Law, in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was a gangly youth, a sandy-haired kid dressed in jeans and a t-shirt despite the chill January outside, his flip flops flapping against his heels as Valerie conducted him down the hallway into the conference room. John had brought his father, a tall silver-haired man dressed in a dark suit and red tie, to the consultation. It was a lawsuit that brought them to see me. They were both upset, but I think the older gentleman was the one who was more perturbed. I suspected that he was worried, when John professed ignorance of what the litigation was about, that his son was lying to him. John was just a sophomore at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, when his car was towed. He emerged from class one day only to find it gone, vanished from the parking slot he had paid for. Fresh-faced and naïve, when he tried to retrieve it from the impound lot, the faceless clerk told him it would cost him $2500, $500 more than he had paid for it the month before. Flabbergasted, when he sputtered a wordless but outraged query, she had informed him, primly, “your car was levied on to satisfy a final judgment entered against you.” She provided him with a copy of the judgment entered by a court in Hillsborough County, where he was from, but two hours south of Gainesville, where he was attending school.

John was stymied so he did what any normal American kid would do; he called his dad for help. He had no idea what the lawsuit was about, nor did his father. They wanted me to find out and then to fix it. The courthouse was six blocks from my office. I marched down there and filled out the slip for the court file. The clerk took the request and returned three minutes later with a slender legal-sized folder. She tendered the file to me and I left, with the file in hand. (Back then, lawyers were allowed to check files out of the courthouse to review them in the comfort of their offices, in much the same way that one still checks books out of the public library.) The case was very short but I reviewed it carefully. It appeared that a complaint had been filed against John in small claims court for damage done to a motor vehicle he had rented. The complaint was brief, just one short count (or claim) for breach of contract. The car rental company, a business called Rent-A-Wreck, had obtained a judgment against him for the damage when he failed to answer their complaint. Why had John not answered the complaint? I made an appointment to discuss this with him. He returned with his father. “John, have you ever heard of a company called Rent-A-Wreck?” He turned towards his dad. ”Isn’t that the company that I rented a car from to get back up to school?” “I don’t know, Son,” his father replied. ”That was your deal.” John turned back towards me. “Yeah, I think that was the name of the company that I rented a car from to get back up to school after Summer Break. I didn’t own a car back then.” “What happened to the rental?” I asked. “It broke down about halfway back to Gainesville,” he explained. “I had to thumb my way back from there.” My first thought was that this poor kid had not had the sense to contact the leasing company to report the problem with the vehicle. Silly me! John had called the Rent-A-Wreck customer service desk as soon as he arrived back at school. (No mobile phones back then, at least not for college kids.) “What did they tell you?” “The lady told me not to worry, she would send somebody to pick up the car right away. I told her exactly where it was, on I-75, headed north, between Mile Markers 331 and 332 on the right side median. She told me to leave the car keys inside, on the passenger side floor board, and to lock the car with the keys inside. I did that.” “Did you get her name?”

He had not, but that wasn’t really the problem. The file demonstrated what the real problem was, at least initially. Although John had never been notified that a lawsuit had been filed against him, a process server had filed an affidavit in the court file, attesting to the fact that he had served John with the complaint for damages to the vehicle. Because John had never filed an answer, the court had entered a default judgment against him. I pulled out the service of process form completed by the process server, whose name I did not recognize, and handed it to John. “Do you know the address where you were supposedly served?” He was quick to respond. ”Of course I do. I worked there last summer. It’s the Macaroni Grill on North Dale Mabry Highway.” “And you’re telling me that you were never served with this complaint?” I pointed to the copy still sitting on the edge of my desk in front of him. “No!” he exclaimed, examining it closely. “I’ve never seen this before.” I moved the court to set the final judgment against John Hammond aside. The reason I gave was that he had never been served with the complaint, but filing the motion was just the beginning of my work. I had to find out what had really happened. As it turned out, John had allegedly been served while working as a waiter at the local restaurant. But that was just a summer job for him; he was no longer working there by the time the complaint had been served. He had already returned to Gainesville for the fall semester. (In fact, he had rented the car to get him back to school for that semester.) I went to lunch. There was a Macaroni Grill just down the street from my office, but I wasn’t interested in the food. I drove to the restaurant where my client had spent the summer and asked for the manager. He soon appeared and I invited him to join me at my table. He sat. I interviewed him. He was new there, but had been there on the date the complaint was served and already knew the story; he clarified that it had been another employee who had actually been served, another waiter whose first name was also ”John.”

Thankfully, John Adams happened to be on shift while I was meeting with his boss. The manager called him over. Adams informed me that, at the end of September the year before, he had been called to the front of the restaurant by the hostess. The hostess, a pretty young thing, had gestured to an unremarkable middle-aged guy who stood there with a sheaf of papers in his hand. “He wants to talk to you,” she had remarked. ”Can I help you?” John had asked. ”Are you John?” the man abruptly replied, without bothering to introduce himself. “Yes, I am. How can I help you?” Instead of responding, the stranger handed him the sheaf of papers and announced, without further explanation, “you are served.” Of course, he immediately inspected the documents and quickly realized that the man being sued was a different “John.” He had called the attorney who had signed the complaint, as the subpoena suggested, using the phone in the manager’s office, and had notified him that he was not the John Hammond who was being sued. According to him, the attorney had callously replied, “too bad.” At that point, the young man, who was no more than 18 years old himself, having done all he could, had hung up the phone and, understandably, dismissed the matter from his mind. He didn’t know John Hammond and he was not the one in trouble. In fact, he had never met my client, having been hired after John had returned to Gainesville. Apparently, the attorney then went ahead and obtained a judgment against my client, who only discovered this fact when his car was seized to satisfy the judgment. The judge granted my request for an evidentiary hearing on our motion to set the judgment aside because of the mistake. At the hearing, I introduced four witnesses: my client, who testified that he had never been served; John Adams, who testified that he HAD been served and had called the lawyer serving him to put him on notice that he was not the person named in the complaint; the prior manager of the Macaroni Grill, who had been the manager during the summer that John Hammond was employed; and the current manager, who had taken over at the end of the summer, had employed John Adams, and had suggested that Adams call the attorney to explain the situation when he was mistakenly served with the complaint. Of course, the attorney for Rent-A-Wreck put the process server on the stand, but he only testified that he served the papers on the person who responded when he went to the place of employment and asked for “John.”  He explained that he serves dozens of people every day and can’t be expected to remember them all. Nor did we; that’s why the affidavit. If there was ever a slam-dunk, this was it; the judge would HAVE to grant the motion to set aside and permit my client to defend the suit against him for breach of contract, to explain that the car he had rented had broken down before he was even able to return to school.

At the end of the hearing, the judge addressed the bailiff. “Please bring the witnesses back into the court room.” The bailiff shepherded my three witnesses back into the room, as well as the process server who had signed, and sworn to, the original affidavit of service. Or course, my client was seated next to me at the defense table. The judge then announced her ruling; “I deny the motion,” and concluded with the following admonition to my witnesses and my client: “I find that you people are mistaken, and that John Hammond was, in fact, served with process.” John’s father, who had witnessed the entire hearing, joined us as we filed out of the courtroom, our mouths hanging open. Thank goodness he had seen it for himself. I was unable to explain what had happened to John Hammond, or to his dad. They were both of them aware that, if there was ever a slam-dunk case, this was it. But we had still lost. It was years later that I discovered that the judge, the lawyer for Rent-A-Wreck, and the process server were all good friends, that the lawyer and the process server appeared regularly in the judge’s courtroom. And that, as Paul Harvey used to say, is “the rest of the story.” Except that it’s not. John Hammond was a white kid; John Adams was a young black man. I don’t know where they are today or what they do for a living, but I can tell you that they both learned that day, firsthand, that the justice system simply does not work.

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