Don’t rent from a private landlord; it was advice I wish I had heeded when, standing before a judge in a Los Angeles courtroom, I was suddenly The Plaintiff in a case I brought against my ex-landlord.
Never having been sued or sued anyone else, my experience of courtrooms in general was limited, and my experience of American courtrooms was limited to what I had learned from television – which, as it happened, turned out to be very far from the reality.
I am not someone who is easily scared by bullies, and compared to the Fleet Street editors I am used to, any landlord is always going to be mincemeat. But the court officials – blimey! They were a different kettle of fish altogether. When I forgot about a small can of hairspray in my handbag as it went through the X-Ray at the courtroom entrance, I thought I was going to be whisked off to Death Row quicker than you could say Judge Alex.
Why hadn’t I left it in my car? I was asked. I explained that I didn’t own a car – a crime in LA even more heinous than carrying an illegal can of hairspray.
When the official picked himself up off the floor, he softened towards me, asking about my accent. Clearly, he had consigned me to the dregs of LA wheel-less nobodies, assuming that anyone who couldn’t afford a car wasn’t going to be a huge risk in the acquisition of bomb-making supplies.
It had been a long journey to the courtroom – almost a year, to be precise. My landlord had returned a portion of my deposit when I left the apartment and retained a portion to cover some stains, which I acknowledged had been left on the carpet. After my paying $600, the stains had allegedly had not come out: the carpet company provided no evidence of this; the landlord provided no evidence of this; and, despite repeated requests over many months, no receipts were forthcoming for any replacement carpet.
Californian law is very clear on this, and to cut a very long story short, a landlord must provide evidence of work carried out. So, I sued.
To make a very boring story interesting, let’s call The Defendants The Addams Family. Morticia ran the company for Lurch, whose contribution to the whole tale is nothing more than a lurking, verbally threatening figure in the background. As Lurch owned the letting company, I had to sue him; I was also advised to sue Morticia, should Lurch prove elusive.
Serving the papers became a comedy in its own right and will provide plenty of material for my future projects. The Addams Family refused access to the sheriff and so, as the plaintiff is not allowed to serve papers, I called upon the services of my friend Howard, who was visiting LA.
Morticia, I knew, attended a yoga class close by and Howard and I went along in the hope of serving Morticia mid-position. Seventy-five sodding minutes we spent, twisting our heads left and right from Downward Facing Dog and whispering every time somebody vaguely resembling Morticia entered the room. The teacher came over to ask if we were new and that we should be careful not to over-exert ourselves – our dogs were obviously already way too over-active in the head department.
If I thought that employing a sheriff was something I would be unlikely ever to find in my life’s repertoire, employing a private detective was way beyond my wildest dreams; but it became clear that if I wanted to play The Addams Family at their own game, that is what I would have to do.
Private detectives aren’t that expensive and they get the job done incredibly efficiently. My own man, let’s call him Superspook, served Morticia with ease, making an appointment to see an apartment and serving her in the elevator. When she realised what was happening, she pretended to be someone else, but Superspook was having none of it.
The next job was to serve Lurch. Superspook suggested getting his mates together and going in as a SWAT team. Whooooah! I said. Lurch was an old guy who might collapse and die at the sight of a SWAT team at his door; then I’d be up on a manslaughter charge and . . . No, I really didn’t want the SWAT team.
Anyway, Lurch was subsequently served and Morticia represented him in court. After trying to intimidate me beforehand – “You’re inept”, “You know nothing about Californian law” etc. – we were finally before the judge.
I put everything I had learned from my favourite TV courtroom show, Judge Alex, into practice. Stick to the facts. Don't argue with the judge. Don't try to be a smart arse. Unluckily, my judge was nothing like the breathtakingly handsome and witty JA - or perhaps luckily, as I would probably have swooned before the words "This court is in session" were out of his mouth.
And guess what. My TV viewing paid off. The judge was incredulous that Morticia had retained monies and failed to provide any receipts. He concluded by saying that he thought we were both “very nice ladies” and “shouldn’t hate each other” (he was wrong on this - she isn't nice and I do hate her). He would take the case under advisement.
The letter arrived the next day: judgment for the plaintiff, and Lurch’s company was required to pay me back half of what they had kept, plus costs. For a supposedly inept person with no knowledge of Californian law, I was rather pleased with myself. I will also earn more money writing about it than The Addams Family could ever have made out of me.
So, what are the morals of this story?
Watch Judge Alex.
Take me on at your peril.
Because I won’t stop.
I’m like a dog with a bone.
And the only time you’ll ever find me Downward Facing is when I’m ripping you to shreds.