What happens when the Court just gets it wrong?
By Stephen Last
“It’s a job, and I enjoy being around the kids.” This is how my client described his job of 12 years working at the public school systems where he is a classroom aide helping teach children about nutrition.
My client has spent virtually his whole life in Montgomery. He was a child when Dr. King led his legendary 54 mile March from Selma to Montgomery. His mother worked various jobs in hotels, and his father worked on the railroad. He has raised a family in the Capital City, and manages to get by on limited earnings.
About a year ago, my client found himself with a legal problem he never saw coming. When his landlord died, an individual he described as a “kind but sickly older man,” the landlord’s daughter suddenly sued my client, claiming that he was behind on his rent. This was a jolt to my client, who had been allowed to pay his monthly rent in cash. He was never given receipts, and there was no evidence that the deceased landlord ever kept a ledger.
We started out in the state District Court in Montgomery County, and as happens so often in the first round of a debt dispute, the lack of proof that a debtor paid is enough to lose, even if the creditor actually can't show any record proving that the debtor has not paid bills on time.
When The District Judge ruled against our client, we appealed to Circuit Court, and filed an Affidavit of Substantial Hardship, asserting that my client was indigent and couldn’t afford the several hundred dollars of fees for bringing an appeal.
While motions based on an Affidavit of Substantial Hardship are often routinely granted, this time the District Judge didn’t see it that way. So I filed a motion asking the Circuit Court Judge to grant the hardship waiver from filing fees.
The attorney for the landlord’s daughter argued in turn that the time had run out: that you have 14 days to file an appeal from District Court and that since the fees had not been paid in that time, the case was officially over with my client owing the money.
We lost a third time: The Circuit Court Judge agreed that since the appeal fee did not end up getting paid in 14 days, the time for filing ended and the Judge didn't even have to hear our motion challenging the denial of the hardship waiver. The district court promptly garnished my client’s wages.
This frustrating turn of events marked a genuine unfairness with the way this case was proceeding. My client was ultimately being kept out of court because he didn’t have the money to pay a fee. He was made to pay a debt when there was no proof he owed it, and the courts were finding every way to avoid hearing our arguments.
We didn’t give up: while it is sometimes ignored in state court, there is case law in Alabama that as long as all proper court documents for an appeal are filed on time, the filing costs for the appeal can be paid later: this is a very important protection for people with a lower income, who often lose in district court. We took our claim to the next highest court, the Court of Civil Appeals. Finally, the right ruling and the right application of the law: the Circuit Court was ordered to hear the appeal of the judgment that my client owed money, and I managed to get the district court to not only stop a garnishment that should not have happened until the appeal was heard, but to return the garnished money to my client, every dime of it.
My client will get his day in Circuit Court and a full jury trial, where he can make his case that he paid his rent and that there is no actual evidence that he owes anything. Since the landlord’s daughter is the one bringing the lawsuit, she is the one who will have the burden to prove her claims: a burden that too many times is ignored in the first go around in district court. And along the way, we won a victory that clarifies that the filing fee for an appeal is actually not meant to close the courtroom door to poor people.
Stephen Last is a consumer and housing attorney in our Montgomery central office. He also happens to be a former forester and timber buyer who picked up law as a second career. This case revealed some routine judicial errors that happen in state court, and the value in a lawyer being persistent enough to overcome them.