An attorney who represents himself, the saying goes, has a fool for a client. Judging from my recent experience in small claims court, I'd say the same holds true for non-attorneys.
It's easy, of course, to announce, "I'll sue." But following through, as I discovered, is less than easy -- even in small claims, designed as the court's quick do-it-yourself arena.
My day in court capped months of haggling with a local health club chain, which last April closed its downtown facility when the building was demolished. I had paid $482 for a "lifetime" membership in December 1978, one month before news stories appeared about the building's impending doom.
I wanted a gym to use on my lunch hour, the club's promise that a new downtown facility would open in August of 1980 did not come true until December and it wasn't convenient for me to use their other facilities.
After repeated attempts to conciliate with their management, I resorted to the one phrase I knew could give me some satisfaction: "I'll see you in court."
Small claims court, I figured, was perfect for someone like me. It is designed so a layperson can plead his or her own case without an attorney in matters where the contested sum is low ($750 is the limit in the District).
At the suggestion of an attorney from the D.C. Office of Consumer Protection, I was asking for $180 -- damages I incurred by the gym's closing, including $140 for a short-term membership (from September to November 1980) in another downtown gym.
Filing suit at D.C. Superior Court was easy. I completed a form, paid $2.40 and had a trial date set for two weeks later. Relieved, I naively assumed the matter would finally -- and shortly -- be resolved.
That was Sept. 30. Four months, 10 hours in court and an inestimable amount of aggravation later, I reached a settlement agreement with the club's attorney. Which means I didn't lose.But I didn't win either.
The first hint that small claims wasn't as easy as it seemed came the day before the trial. The club's attorney called to tell me that his client had been "improperly served," so he wanted to reschedule for a later date.
He said he hadn't received papers until just before the court date, and they had not been served on the company's registered agent. That person's name, he told me, is listed with the recorder of deeds.
I asked him to tell me the name of the company's agent. He said he didn't know. How, I asked, was I supposed to know? He said that's the law, the agent's name is listed, and if I wanted to fight about it, I should meet him in court where he'd try to have the case dismissed for "improper service."
I checked with the Consumer Protection attorney, who said this claim sounded plausible. So I agreed to reschedule for Oct. 29. Several days later, because of a conflict with my job, I called the club's attorney for another rescheduling, this time, Nov. 25.
That morning -- after spending the weekend on my presentation -- I put on my best suit, practiced a few honest-looking "Your Honors" in the mirror and set off for court.
At 9 a.m. the courtroom was packed with a hodge-podge of people. Some were in slick, three-piece suits, others in jeans and workclothes. More than I expected -- perhaps a third -- were accompanied by attorneys. Most carried envelopes, briefcases or folders crammed with their evidence.
The court clerk called roll from a roster of cases. Failure to attend, he noted, could mean an automatic loss. He advised us to make one last attempt to settle. I talked with the club's attorney, but we couldn't reach an agreement.
When the judge entered at 10 a.m. I was ready -- what can I say -- for justice. But the distinguished and rather intimidating-looking man began by delivering a speech, emphasizing the wisdom of compromise.
"Everyone here thinks he's 100 percent right," he said, looking -- I was convinced -- directly at me. "But by this evening, 50 percent of those same people will have left the courthouse disappointed. Then they will be aware that they were 100 percent wrong. Everyone who comes into small claims court doesn't realize that, just because you're dissatisfied and displeased, does not mean there's a legal remedy for it."
I was glad I wasn't first. Sitting through a few tedious fender-benders and a diverting case about lost luggage (a suitcase case?), helped me recover some equilibrium.
When my name was called I took the stand confidently and prepared to read my carefully-typed four-page summary of the facts. But first, the judge wanted to know if we had tried to settle. We said we tried, but were unable to reach an agreement.
The judge then asked me if I'd consulted a lawyer. I told him I was there on the advice of an attorney from the D.C. Office of Consumer Protection. He asked if I'd be willing to talk to a third-year law student, and I said I'd do whatever he thought best.
Why no one else had been advised to consult a law student, I didn't know. But it hardly inspired my confidence. Outside the courtroom, the student listened to my story and reassured me that I had a good case.
And by now, the judge's compromise lecture had taken effect. I dropped a demand for $40 in expenses, reducing my claim to $140, and again tried to talk settlement. No luck.
So we went back to await our turn for trial. By then it was time for lunch break. At 2 p.m. a group of new faces appeared in the courtroom. Any hope that I would be next faded as the afternoon dragged on.
A disgruntled employe sued for back pay. Another fender-bender. At 4:30 we were the only case left. At 4:45, the clerk approached us. The court had to close at 5 p.m. and they'd have to reschedule us. The club's attorney had a full calendar in December. So we rescheduled for Jan. 7.
That morning I put on my second-best suit and readied myself for another full day in court. To my surprise, the courtroom was empty.On what appeared to be a fluke, we were the only case scheduled. A different judge was on the bench, since they preside over small claims court on a rotating basis.
We were sworn in. I took the stand and started reading my statement.When I noted that I was asking for $140, the judge roared, "$140? Is that all this case is for?" I tried to resist feeling humiliated; I had decided by this time that I was fighting for a principle -- not $140.
"Yes," I asserted, "that's it." The judge asked if we'd tried to settle. We said we had. "Well, go outside," he thundered, "and try again."
We trotted into the waiting area, and a club employe disappeared to call someone at their main office.
She returned, offering to cancel my lifetime membership in exchange for $141 plus a substantial credit toward a new membership. I reminded her that under my contract I could sell my membership -- which at that time was going for about three times what she offered.
So we returned to the courtroom. When the judge heard we hadn't reached an agreement, he leaned across the bench and bellowed at the club's employe, "You call whoever it is and tell them that the judge ordered you to settle."
She left and came back, this time offering to waive my yearly maintenance fee of $29 for four years -- $116 worth. I said if they'd give me a check for $116 we had a deal. They said no. I said no.
At that point the judge sighed and removed himself from the case. He said he'd ruled on "a similar" case involving a dancing studio that had sold classes before their building was torn down. He had awarded the plaintiff full damages, so he felt it was only fair to disqualify himself from ruling again. Since he would be small claims judge until late February, we'd have to reschedule the case after that date.
The club's attorney looked as crushed as I felt. Neither of us, it seemed, wanted this to drag on any further. So we slogged back to the waiting area and, finally, reached a settlement -- nearly 100 days after I'd first filed the case.
I didn't get any cash, but I did get my maintenance fee waived until 1988 and a six-month free membership for my sister. Both a victory and a defeat. A notch on the gunbarrel of life that philosophers (and mothers) call "a learning experience."
What did I learn?
About courts: An attorney is advisable; justice is in the eye of the judge; judges are as individual as snowflakes, and everything takes longer than you expect.
About contracts: Be wary of anything a salesperson promises orally (and even, sometimes, in writing). Read a contract completely before signing. Respond to hard-sell tactics with indulgent laughter.
And "lifetime memberships" are for suckers.