Author’s note: This story, at its essence, is about a mountain and the people who loved it. It is inspired by our experiences with the legal system, which are a matter of public record. However, I have fictionalized the details of this story and the characters (except for my family), both for narrative convenience and for privacy reasons. Also, I am not an attorney. If you are, and if you read this story and note that I have used the words “district court” when I should have said “appellate court,” well — perhaps, you should read a John Grisham novel instead. My point in telling this fictionalized account is not to discuss the finer points of the law, but to relate some of the life lessons learned by two ordinary people who were trying to achieve a modest dream and found themselves at the mercy of our nation’s legal system.
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Coming home after Matt’s death was one of the longest, hardest drives we ever made. After 12 hours on the road, we stopped at home just long enough to drop off our gear, then we drove the 45 miles to Matt’s house. No one was there and, after a few calls, we learned the visitation was underway at a distant funeral home. We drove another 70 miles and made it just as the family was leaving. We hugged and we cried, but there wasn’t much to say when nothing about the tragedy of our friend’s death made sense.
The funeral the next day, as well as the rest of the summer and fall, was a blur. Matt was still paying Mr. Mom for his business, so between unraveling the financial complications of Matt’s death, grieving with his family, and trying to find anything resembling normalcy in our lives, Colorado and its problems seemed far, far away.
We were jolted back to the reality of our unpleasant situation, however, as autumn dawned and answers seemed harder and harder to obtain from our new attorney, Dave Moore. Though Mr. Moore continued to assure us the injunction barring us from our property would soon be lifted, things seemed stalled. He told us he was seeking expert witnesses to inspect the road and analyze the terrain – and all the while we kept wondering how such a court action could have happened without our knowledge or participation. Finally, winter set in and we realized we had lost practically the entire season of road improvement in 2009. When we first struck our deal with Jack in 2004, we never imagined that five years later, work still wouldn’t be complete.
We also never imagined what happened next. Not long after 2010 began, Jack, Mr. Mom and Mother were served with a large stack of legal documents we didn’t quite understand. When you have no legal training, deciphering legal documents is always daunting. But these papers – something about a summary judgment — seemed especially ominous to our untrained eyes. Call after call to Mr. Moore went unreturned, so after a couple of days Jack drove to the law office and demanded to see him.
Mr. Moore was nowhere to be found. His partner hustled Jack into the conference room and told him Mr. Moore was on an extended leave and could no longer handle our case. Jack was stunned and couldn’t quite make sense of this news. He kept asking questions, none of which the partner was able to answer. Finally, just before walking out, the partner said “You need to a find new attorney.”
Jack called Mr. Mom immediately, who in turn, quickly called me. None of it made sense to us and even though we had no insight into what had happened, it became instantly clear why answers and returned calls had been so hard to come by. Our attorney had gone off the rails, we concluded. I told Mr. Mom to call our friend, Brett, who lived just a few miles away and whose law firm helped us with the sale of Mr. Mom’s business several years ago. “Brett is somebody we trust and who can help us understand our options and the best course of action,” I said. “Call him now.”
After a short conversation, Brett told Mr. Mom to call Mr. Moore’s firm and ask that the “billings and pleadings” be sent to his office. Mr. Mom did as instructed and, within a matter of hours, Brett had the necessary paperwork to make sense of our case. He called Mr. Mom immediately with the grim news: “You’ve been screwed,” he said, using words a bit more colorful.
Mr. Mom didn’t know what he meant, so Brett laid it out for him. “Your attorney hasn’t been showing up for your hearings and he hasn’t responded to any of the motions or the lawsuit filed by the Unfriendly’s attorney. That’s why you received papers last week. Since your attorney hasn’t responded, their attorney has filed a motion seeking a summary judgment for damages. You’ve got three days to file a response. If you don’t, the Unfriendlys will be awarded damages of $1.5 million. You need a Colorado real estate litigator. Right now.”
Mr. Mom called me at the office to tell me what Brett had said. It was around 3:00 pm and Mr. Mom said he couldn’t talk long because he was going to get on the phone and try to find a Colorado attorney before 5:00 pm. I told him he had hired the last two attorneys and look where that had gotten us. I hung up the phone and burst into tears. I put my head on my desk and cried so hard I thought I might vomit into the trash can underneath it. After a few minutes, I dialed the phone with unsteady hands and called my boss. In between long, bitter sobs, I explained that I needed to take a couple of days of vacation.
My boss came right to my office. She listened to my story then sprung into action. She reminded me that we both knew plenty of well-connected attorneys, including the Dean of our local law school, who could make a recommendation. She helped me compose myself and sat with me as I called the Dean and asked for his immediate help. Then she sat with me and told me everything she knew about litigation, which was considerable, and what to expect in the days and months ahead. She told me she had a few dark days of her own related to lawsuits, and that the sun always comes up tomorrow. Then she sent me home and told me not to come back to the office until things were on track.
During my long commute home, the Dean called me on my cell phone. He told me he had tracked down one of the most influential attorneys in the state of Colorado and asked for a referral on my behalf. He said he would email me before the night was over with the name and phone number of a top-notch real estate litigator. Then he closed with these words: “Joan, this is serious. Whatever the attorney charges, pay it and don’t question it. Whatever he says to do, do it. Now is not the time to worry about money. You need the best counsel, and trust me, it’s worth it.”
When I got home, Mr. Mom met me at the door. “I found an attorney!” he said. I was a bundle of nerves and snapped. “You found the last two attorneys and that didn’t exactly work out for us. I’m taking care of it this time!” I told him I was awaiting an email with a referral for a litigator that I was certain would be better than whatever he could find on his own. He started telling me about how he had Googled “Colorado real estate litigator” and had found this attorney in Denver – Atticus Finch – who looked pretty good on the Internet. So Mr. Mom called him, and Mr. Finch just happened to be available to talk.
“Oh, that’s a good a sign!” I said sarcastically. “I cannot believe you want to hire a lawyer you found on the Internet!”
“Really, Joan, Mr. Finch seems on the ball,” Mr. Mom said. “We talked for an hour and I told him everything that has happened. I told him we needed to file a response by Friday and he thought it would be no problem. All I have to do is give him our credit card number for a retainer and he’ll get right on it. I told him I would call him back in the morning after I talked to you.”
I laughed out loud as I poured myself a glass of wine. “We are not giving that attorney our credit card number!” I said, taking an extra large drink in hopes it would calm me. “I’m on this. I’m going to find us the best damn attorney in the entire state of Colorado!”
An hour later, I had consumed enough wine to feel more than a little woozy. So when I logged into my email account and found the referral in my inbox, as promised, I had to blink several times to read the message correctly.
I picked up my laptop and carried it into the study where Mr. Mom was still reading about attorneys on the Internet. “You’re not going to believe this,” I said, as I pointed to the email message on my screen. “The law Dean is referring us to Atticus Finch. You and I seemed to have found the same guy.”
To be continued . . .