Friday, January 02, 2009

Suing the DoD: How my small claim just became a Federal Case....

In June of 2008, I sued the Department of Defense in small claims court because they promised me a journalism embed in Iraq and then went back on their word, costing me $1,362.15 in airfare and causing me to have to sleep at the Kuwait International Airport Starbucks for two days.

The trial date for Stillwater vs. the Department of Defense was then set for January 9, 2009. All the DoD had to do to settle this case was to send someone over to the Alameda County courthouse and tell the judge either, "Yeah, sure, we owe Jane some money," or else "Nope, no way, we don't owe her a cent." And because it's not legal to have an attorney represent you in small claims court, the DoD wouldn't even have to pay an attorney to say yes or no. They could just send over a major, a colonel or even a buck-private to either nod his/her head yes or shake his/her head no. And then the DoD would only have to pay for carfare -- and that would be that. End of story, right?


Apparently the Department of Defense has just decided to make things a little bit more complex regarding this matter -- and a LOT more expensive. The U.S. Attorney General's office has just served me with approximately 37 pages of legal documents and briefs -- stating that they are going to move my case over to federal court.

The documents they just served on me include a Notice of Removal, a Proof of Service, an Order Setting Initial Case Management Conference and ADR Deadlines, a copy of the U.S. District Court Local Rules Guidelines, a Notice of Assignment of Case to a United States Magistrate Judge for Trial, an EFC Registration Information Handout and a pamphlet entitled "Consenting to A Magistrate Judge's Jurisdiction in the Northern District of California".

I estimate that the production of all these various documents has cost the American taxpayer approximately 25 billable hours in attorneys' fees -- which means that, assuming that a Federal attorney bills at approximately $150 an hour, the U.S. Attorney General's office has just spent an estimated $3,750 in taxpayers' money on this one little case alone -- so far.

But wait, things are about to get worse. Once my tiny little small claims court case has been handed over to federal court, it is now gonna blossom into a Very Big Deal.

Before the case can even have a chance to go to trial, me and a bunch of U.S. attorneys -- there are already three of them listed on Proof of Service -- are going to have to hold some alternative dispute resolution meetings. According to the Federal court guidelines they sent me, me and all those U.S. attorneys must now sit down together and discuss "Prospects for settlement, ADR efforts to date, and a specific ADR plan for the case, including compliance with ADR L.R. 3-5 and a description of key discovery or motions necessary to position the parties to negotiate a resolution."

Then, after our various discussions -- hopefully over tea and cookies -- we will also be required to hold a Case Management Conference. According to the Order just sent to me by the Department of Justice/Department of Defense, here is the procedure: "April 1, 2009: Last day to file Rule 26(f) report, complete initial disclosures or state objection in Rule 26(f) report and file Case Management Statement." Good grief! Now we've already extended this case into April -- and added on even more billable hours.

And then of course there's all that discovery that's going to be required, wherein we'll need to take a bunch of depositions and I'll have to name as witnesses approximately 15 members of the U.S. Army who were stationed at the Pentagon, Iraq and Kuwait at the time of the incident -- not to mention the barristas at the Kuwait International Airport Starbucks. All these people will have to be tracked down and deposed -- at government expense.

Then after discovery has been completed, the filing of pre-trial motions comes next. "Pretrial motion papers, including discovery motions, shall be filed in accordance with Civil Local Rule 7.2," according to Chief Magistrate Judge James Larson who apparently has already been assigned this case.

Then comes the "Motions for Summary Judgment".

Then, finally, comes the trial itself. According to Judge Larson, Defendants and Plaintiffs are required to meet and confer in order to estimate "whether the case will be tried to a jury or to the court, and the expected length of the trial". Now we are going to have a jury trial? This case could drag on for years! More billable hours. We're talking approximately $100,000 worth of attorneys fees here for a $1,780 case. That's crazy.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, "Why doesn't the DoD just freaking go to small claims court, settle the case and cut out all that needless expense?" It is my opinion that there's a very good reason why they won't -- it would be setting a precedence. If this case was ever allowed to come to trial in a local small claims venue, then from this point on every citizen who has ever been done wrong by the Feds could simply and easily find redress in small claims court.

But as things stand now, ordinary citizens like you and me can't afford to take the government to Federal court over matters that are important to us but which we cannot afford to pursue -- and thus we are forced to drop them.

One further objection I have regarding Stillwater vs. the Department of Defense having become a Federal case is that when I filed my lawsuit last June, the clerk of the Alameda County Superior Court accepted my filing papers, thus giving me "standing" to have this case tried in a county courtroom. However, when the U.S. Attorney General's office filed and served their "Notice of Removal," they basically ran roughshod over our local courts, in effect ordering them to make the venue change whether they wanted to or not.

According to the U.S. Attorney General's office, "A copy of this Notice is being filed will [sic] the Clerk of the Alameda County Superior Court, Berkeley Courthouse. That filing will automatically effect the removal of the action in its entirety to this Court for all future proceedings."

Conservatives are always yammering on and on about how the Federal government abuses its power (except of course when the Supreme Court let GWB steal the 2000 election or when corporations are granted the status of real people and get to move their profits to secret tax-free accounts in the Caymans or when GWB decides to illegally go to war) -- but this is one time that I actually do agree with the Right Wing. The Federal government should NOT BE GRANTED EXEMPTION from the jurisdiction of America's small claims courts. Why? Because We are the people -- and small claims courts are the people's courts.

Bottom line: I don't know if the Department of Defense or the Department of Justice will show up at my small claims court trial on January 9, but I myself will definitely be there. But if Stillwater vs. the Department of Defense is not successfully settled at this time, then I will be ready, willing and (hopefully) able to take this case on up to Federal court!

And if there are any attorneys out there who would like to volunteer their time to help me take these guys on in Federal court, just say the word. I didn't become a war correspondent for nothing. The Marines themselves have taught me how to be "First to Fight". The gloves are off!