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.
To read the previous installments, click here.
Mr. Mom went to Colorado early in the spring of 2010, full of hope that the opportunity to stand in front of a judge and plead our case would finally bring reason and fairness to our dispute with our neighbors, the Unfriendlys. After five years, our start-and-stop attempts to improve the historical road and gain access to our property had ground to a halt, and this injunction hearing was key to getting us back on track.
Unfortunately, when Mr. Mom showed up at the Pueblo County Courthouse for the hearing, it became immediately apparent that we were in for more frustration. To start, the Unfriendlys and their attorney, Dick Slick, showed up more than 20 minutes late for the 9:00 am start. If you know anything about litigation, you know “delay and bury” can be an effective tactic. And our opponent, Mr. Slick, proved himself a master. After he and his clients arrived egregiously tardy, he immediately introduced dozens of pieces of evidence and proceeded to talk at length about each one.
His “evidence” kicked off with a mind-numbing series of photos – all of trees and all of which he said we destroyed during our road improvement efforts. Mr. Mom found it difficult to sit quietly as Mr. Slick pointed to photos of mature trees that were removed at Junior’s request (to route the road around the Unfriendlys meadow) and instead claimed that hundreds of such trees had been destroyed on the Unfriendly’s property at every stage of road improvement.
Unfortunately, the trees were just the beginning of the untrue claims made by the Unfriendlys. Mr. Slick also showed a photo of a random pick-up truck and claimed it belonged to a commercial tree-cutter that Mr. Mom and Jack hired to “steal” trees from their property. He showed a photo of a neighbor’s pond and claimed the road runoff had muddied it. (In fact, a heavy rain after the Unfriendlys dug up our culverts had contributed to the mud in the pond.) He showed a photo of Jack’s trailer loaded with firewood that Jack had cut while clearing his land and claimed Jack had stolen the wood from the Unfriendly’s acreage. And more than once, Mr. Slick reiterated the Unfriendly’s false claims that the road had been widened to a minimum of 60 feet, with parts as wide as 80 feet.
Mr. Slick’s verbose and untrue claims consumed all of the morning and most of the afternoon – or what little of it was left after the Unfriendlys and Mr. Slick returned another 20 minutes late from the lunch break. With about an hour left in our one-day hearing, it became clear Atticus Finch could never present our case in the remaining time. He had barely gotten started when the judge called time and said the remainder of the hearing would have to be scheduled for a future date. Mr. Mom and Jack were furious but Atticus acted like it was par for the course. The hearing adjourned and Mr. Mom drove home more frustrated than ever, with the “temporary” injunction still in place, and with nothing to show for yet another trip to Colorado.
By the time the conclusion to the hearing was scheduled for a month later, I was able to take off work. Mr. Mom and I asked a friend to stay with our children, and we headed out a couple of days early for some much-needed R&R. We spent two beautiful days in early May exploring Vail, Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Although we hadn’t gotten many breaks from the justice system so far, I managed to catch a break from law enforcement while in Glenwood Springs.
On a morning when Mr. Mom wanted to sleep in, I decided to roam Glenwood Springs for a Starbucks. The entire middle of the town was torn up with road construction and, while cruising in search of coffee, I managed to speed through a construction zone. I saw a cop wildly gesturing at me as I merged into a single lane, but I didn’t understand the meaning of his signals. As traffic came to a complete stop, he sprinted over to my window and screamed at me to pull over in the parking lot ahead. I did as I was told, only to encounter a very agitated policeman.
“Do you know you were speeding in a construction zone?!” he screamed at me as I rolled down my window. He was red faced and angry. I’d gotten my fair share of tickets in my day, but I’d never managed to make a cop this mad before. “You just earned yourself a $300 ticket, lady!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, sincerely. “I’m from Oklahoma and I’m just visiting. I didn’t realize.”
“They don’t have construction zones in Oklahoma?!” he shouted sarcastically.
“Of course. I mean, I know it’s a construction zone, but I didn’t know the speed limit. I looked but didn’t see a sign posted. I was coming in from back there on highway 82. The last sign I saw said the speed limit was 45. Then I never saw another sign until I saw you.”
“Well the speed limit is 25 and you were doing nearly 45. Didn’t you see me waving at you?”
“Yes, sir, and that’s when I slowed down,” I said. As he asked for my license and registration – and as I dug through car to find what I needed – I unraveled. My hands were shaking, my eyes started watering, and I kept thinking about how in the middle of our court mess, I had managed to get myself into an expensive snafu. I thought about having to drive back to the hotel and tell Mr. Mom that my carelessness had resulted in a $300 fine. I felt terrible so I just kept telling the policeman over and over again how terrible I felt and how very sorry I was.
Maybe my sincerity was obvious. Or maybe the cop could sense I was a woman in need of a break. Either way, once he ran my license and came back to my window, his tone had changed. “You’re a hard woman to stay mad at,” he said with a smile. “You’re right that the zone is not well marked. I’m going to let you off with a warning and I’ll talk to the city about putting up more signs.” “Oh thank you!” I said, along with two more I’m sorrys before driving away and thinking, finally, something good had happened to us in Colorado.
The feeling didn’t last long, though. A day later when our hearing resumed in Pueblo County, it was the same song, second verse. In a court matter, the plaintiffs are given the advantage of presenting first and last. The defendants (which was our position) only have one opportunity to present – sandwiched in between the plaintiff’s bookend arguments. Atticus Finch did his best to present our case concisely and persuasively. He entered as evidence aerial photos from the National Forestry Service that showed the historic road had been in existence since at least the 1930s. He showed topographical maps that made it clear the historic road was the only feasible route to our property. He showed photographs and a videotape Jack had recorded that showed the state and width of the road. He showed the deeds to our property, the Unfriendly’s property, and the surrounding properties to demonstrate how the easements had passed from one owner to the next.
As soon as Atticus finished stating our case, Dick Slick started pontificating again. It was obvious to us he hoped to talk so long another delay would be inevitable. We now understood what Mrs. Unfriendly meant when she told her housekeeper she intended to make the road cost us as much money as possible (in legal fees and travel expenses!). Finally, the judge interrupted Mr. Slick and asked how much more time he needed. The crafty attorney equivocated, saying he wasn’t sure but he thought another day would be necessary. The judge cut him off and told him that wasn’t going to happen. “Wrap it up,” he warned. “We’re finishing this today and I plan to rule within two weeks.”
We drove home and waited anxiously during the longest two weeks of our lives. When the judge ruled, he said that Jack did not have an easement, the result of which is that he was permanently barred from accessing his property via the road he had worked so hard to restore (and which also meant he had no other way in than to hike straight up a canyon or take a miles-long trek through the national forest). The judge said we had an easement of some sort, but the details would have to be sorted out at trial, which was scheduled for the last week of September 2010. And then, in an odd twist, the judge upheld a partial injunction – meaning our family was allowed to use the road to access our property, but our use was restricted to personal travel only. Mr. Mom’s plans to timber our property to reduce the risk of fire and to improve our forest was put on hold for yet another summer season. The partial injunction also meant all road work would be put on hold indefinitely.
After the ruling, we couldn’t help but feel like things were going downhill fast. Atticus told us the judge was not experienced in real estate law and had “gotten it wrong” on several points. He seemed confident the judge’s mistakes could be cleaned up at trial, but it only served to shake our confidence in the justice system and our ability to extract ourselves from the colossal mess the road had become while retaining any measure of sanity or financial stability. We were depressed and disappointed — so disappointed we decided to cancel our annual vacation on the mountain.
Little did we know at the time, a vacation would be impossible that summer anyway.
To be continued . . .