Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My day in court against the DoD: Everyone was wearing black suits but me....

(Photos are of me in my tweed jacket and my granddaughter Mena judging my son Joe's coffee at Rudy's "Can't Fail" Cafe in Emeryville)

I was all excited this morning because I was finally going to get my day in court regarding my case against the Department of Defense. Were they finally going to pay me the $1,780 they owed me -- or not?

Eagerly I watched as the two cases appearing on the docket before mine were heard so that I could get some idea of what to expect when the judge got around to hearing Stillwater vs. Department of Defense. The first case apparently involved some rich dude who was hiding money from his creditors. The judge asked some questions and the attorney representing the rich dude answered them. Could I do that too? Just stand there and answer questions? Yikes! I should never have eaten all those chocolate chip cookies before bedtime last night. I was a nervous wreck.

"Did your client receive any monies from the trust?" asked the judge
with regard to the first case on the docket.

"No, he did not. And my client has no property in trust either. We have been paid fees but no money has been held by us. This allegation has no merit whatsoever." Yeah, right. "There is not one scintilla of evidence here."

"The scintillas in this case seem to be few and far between," commented the judge. "The plaintiff has been trying to find out where his money went to."

"Those monies have disappeared," agreed the plaintiff's counsel, "and we are entitled to know who -- what -- where -- when!"

"There was never any money in the trust ever," stated the defendant's attorney. Money has mysteriously disappeared? This case is HOT! "We request that this order to testify be quashed." But then I went off into day-dreaming about my case and missed what the judge answered to that.

"You filed a paper yesterday that I haven't had a chance to read," the judge then admonished the plaintiff. Oops, I too just filed a paper with the judge's clerk, just this morning. I'm screwed.

"Next case!"

When the next case was called, no less than five lawyers stood up. This issue was about a bank. President Obama sez that while banks are sometimes the bad guys, we can't live without them. No money stuffed under the mattress for us.

"We have resolved the electronic information issue," said the plaintiffs' attorney. This apparently is a motion hearing regarding discovery issues. "However, we need the bank's information back as far as 2002." Apparently this hearing is for a class-action suit involving home mortgage loans, and the plaintiffs want the bank to give them information on how to get in touch with possible further plaintiffs. In a few minutes, I too am going to be up there testifying like I too am an attorney or something and actually know what I'm doing. Too late to go to law school now! My knees started to shake.

"We have a protective order in place to keep plaintiffs from accessing confidential loan information." Aha. I bet that people who have been foreclosed on by the bank want to get data proving that they was robbed. Interesting.

"Prejudiced policy.... Lack of information...." This case droned on and on. Just give them the freaking data! And
what if the judge throws out my case because I couldn't find any lipstick this morning and my pant-legs are too short?

Everyone else in the courtroom is wearing black suits but I'm wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow-patches that I got out of the People's Park free box back before it was torn down by the University of California. Maybe that will work in my favor? And if I were a judge, I'd make sure that there were full-spectrum fluorescent light bulbs in his courtroom or else he would never get any sunlight at all except for on weekends.

"Mortgage loan pricing.... Credit characteristics.... Category of production that need not be compelled...." But the judge didn't agree.

Then I realized that I needed to pee. And it was a good thing that I did because when I looked in the restroom mirror, I discovered that I had this morning's french toast stuck in my teeth. Then I raced back to the courtroom and my case was up! And a good thing that it was too. 15 more minutes of waiting around here while watching attorneys using Big Words and I woulda chickened out and gone back to Iraq where it's safe.

But then I actually got up before the judge and actually pleaded my case. "The merits of my case itself seem to have disappeared completely as this case sinks into the swamp of procedural issues," I think I told the judge. It was all going by in a blur. "Defendant claims that I should have filed a Form 95 but a Form 95 doesn't apply if a tort happens on foreign soil -- plus the Military Claims Act says that if I file the Form 95 I won't be allowed back into court if my claim is denied and I won't get a jury trial! President James Monroe says that in order to protect our liberties, every citizen should be given a right to a jury trial!" Did I actually say that? Hey, at least I wasn't up here chanting "Attica! Attica!" or railing against medieval torture techniques in Guantanamo.

"And I even offered to settle this case for peanuts and my offer was refused!" I continued. "And I think that you should set a precedence and force the feds to establish a small claims court instead of having those of us seeking justice to be forced to use some form and...and...why just keep dragging it out when you could settle this case today!"

The judge listened sympathetically and, to his credit, didn't actually just throw my case out. However he did add that, "This is the right jurisdiction for hearing this case." No state court for me? "And what I am going to propose is that you take this case to mediation."

"Will it cost anything?" I asked.

"No, it's free."

"Then let's do it!" The judge also said that if the mediation failed, he would then re-hear my motion. Well, okay. But I don't have any other tweed jackets so the mediation had better work. And while we were waiting for the elevator together, the Department of Defense's attorney and I met and conferred so now we're all good to go.

And that is the story of how, even though nothing was really resolved, I survived my first big day in court -- but just barely.


Here's a Daily Californian article about my case:
Local Blogger to Request Transfer of Case Against Defense Department, by Keena Batti: A Berkeley blogger will appear at a federal court today to ask that her lawsuit against the Defense Department for a canceled military embed last year be moved from a federal to a small claims court. Jane Stillwater, 66, sued the department in June after they canceled her embed mission with a military unit in Iraq in February 2008. She spent two days at a Starbucks in an airport in Kuwait while the U.S. Embassy organized her flight home. On Dec. 31, Stillwater's case was sent from a small claims to a federal court because the U.S. attorney's office, which is representing the department, said federal agencies cannot be tried in a small claims court.

Stillwater said that Edward Olsen, a lawyer from the U.S. attorney's office, told her on Feb. 13 that because she had not exhausted all administrative remedies, she was required to first file a Standard Form 95-a claim for damages, injury or death. Olsen refused to comment on the case due to department policy, which bars him from speaking about ongoing cases.

Although Stillwater said she would be able to re-file the lawsuit if the form requesting reimbursement were to be denied, she said she cannot afford the filing fee. "All I have to do is pay $350 to re-file the lawsuit," she said. "But why should I pay $350 to get back into a court that I'm already in? That's one-fifth of what I originally asked for, it's ludicrous."

Richard Edgar, a librarian at the Humboldt County Law Library, said that filing the form may be necessary for a continuation of the case. "All governments have an administrative claim procedure, which they almost always deny," he said. "But that gives you access to the courts. You have to have exhausted all administrative remedies."

Stillwater said she has suggested a $3,000 settlement out of the court, but that Olsen refused. Stillwater added that she will not drop the lawsuit. "I can't let these guys bully me with the threat that they're going to take away what little money I have if I don't behave myself," she said.

Stillwater says the cost of damages-alleged malicious persecution, a non-refundable plane ticket, 15 mocha lattes and pain and inconvenience-amount to $7,500. Stillwater will appear at 9:30 a.m. at a federal court in San Francisco, where she plans to request that her case be moved back to a small claims court and to discuss Standard Form 95.