Sunday, November 09, 2008

No Proof of Service: No proof of service: Taking the DoD to small claims court, continued....

(Photos are of the Frankfurt airport, one of ten inflight movies I watched on the way back from Kuwait, me dressed up for Halloween as "Baby Spice -- 40 years later,"and a fire truck parked in front of an Oakland movie theater that is showing the movie "Burn After Reading")

As you may or may not remember, last February I flew to Kuwait and spent a harrowing few days living at the Kuwait International Airport Starbucks while I waited for permission from the US military to embed as a journalist in Iraq. That was just one adventure after another that I definitely could have lived without.

Tired, broke, hungry and stranded in Kuwait City, I ended up throwing myself on the mercy of the International Islamic Charitable Organization, the US embassy and a local high school for girls.

"We can put you up in Kuwait until your return flight date comes up," said a mathematics teacher at the girls' school, who then drove me to the IICO where I spent fifteen minutes in the waiting room looking at photos of starving African babies that the organization was trying to help -- and feeling stupid. Why should the IICO spend funds on a stranded American journalist when they could be sponsoring breakfasts in Darfur or somewhere instead?

"Are you an American citizen?" asked an IICO social worker. I nodded yes. "Then as much as we would like to help you out here and find you a place to stay in Kuwait, we are obligated by law to take you to the US embassy first." And they did.

"What is your goal?" asked the embassy person in charge of stranded travelers.

"To embed in Iraq. The Army freaking PROMISED me an embed, and then rescinded their offer after I'd already purchased my airline ticket and now I'm stranded here at the Kuwait airport Starbucks for three weeks, waiting around for my return flight."

"We can't get the Army to embed you," said my ambassadorial person, "but we can get the airline to send you home early." And they did. And when I finally got home, I tried to get the Department of Defense to reimburse me for my plane fare. "Your claim is not cognizable, Ms. Stillwater," they replied.

Then, on November 7, 2008, after having exhausted all other legal channels, I took the Department of Defense to small claims court in order to get my airline ticket money back -- plus pain and suffering and the cost of approximately 15 mocha lattes.

"How did your trial go?" asked my daughter Ashley after I got back home.

"Not so good. When I got to court this morning, the bailiff informed me that I hadn't properly served my "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" on the DoD.

"The trial has been called off," said the bailiff, "because you didn't file a Proof of Service with the court in order to prove that you actually served the defendants."

"But the COURT was supposed to serve the DoD -- not me. Way last June I paid the clerk of the court ten whole dollars to serve the defendants by certified mail."

"Yeah but when you got that green certified mail return receipt postcard back in the mail, you were then supposed to file a Proof of Service form with us."

"But I never got the card back. Honest!" Boy did I feel stupid. Again.

"Then you need to go downstairs, talk to the clerk and set up a continuance," said the bailiff.

Downstairs, the clerk informed me that, actually, it was the court that had been supposed to file the POS. "We are the ones that the defendant sends the return receipt back to," she said, "and we never got it back from the DoD so they have not been properly served and hence there can't be a trial."


Let me get this straight.

The court didn't get the green postcard thingie back from the DoD and they had FIVE FREAKING MONTHS from when they mailed it to let me know that service on the Department of Defense hadn't been completed -- and they are just getting around to letting me know NOW? My heart sank. I've waited five freaking months for my day in court and now it was slipping through my fingers before my very eyes.

"What happens next?" I asked the clerk.

"We continue your trial to January 9, 2009," the clerk replied. Rats. Now I gotta plan out all my evidence, practice my opening statement, get anxious butterflies in my stomach and put on a skirt and high heels AGAIN? Rats and double-rats. But justice needs to be done. I had no other choice.

"Well, okay," I told the court clerk, "except that this time you serve them by mail again -- plus I'll serve them too." This time the Department of Defense isn't going to be able to wiggle out of appearing in court again due to some vague legal technicalities. "Let's double-team the DoD."

"So," asked Ashley, "where are you going to have to go to serve the DoD? Washington DC? Kuwait? Iraq?" No.

"Someone at the Pentagon informed me that the military claims office nearest to me was at the Presidio of Monterrey and that I needed to serve my claim there."

"Wait a minute," said Ashley. "That's down by Carmel, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Big Sur and...."

I looked at her and she looked at me.

"Road trip!"