After a two year long battle, my mom’s divorce ended with scattered pieces of a 17-year married life, possessions divided unfairly, and a large debt as always to an attorney – the only victor. Her antique store had been liquidated and the attorney paid $10,000 and the case was closed, or so we thought.
A year later, around Christmastime we went to clear up a property matter and found a lien for $342 on our house put on by the attorney as suppossed late fees paid on the $10,000. Wanting to be rid of this matter once and for all I called up the attorney in my moms behalf and said I wanted to clear up the check for $342 and the lien taken off. I was strongly advised to come into the office and hand the check over and the matter would be taken care of promptly. Little did I know that the trap was set.
My mom and I walked into Mr. Goldfinger’s (fictious name of course) office. As we were ready to present the check to Gloria the secretary, a women we had shed many tears in front of, a strange painful look came over her face as she said, “Sorry”, and handed us a summons and complaint in the sum of $22,000 for outstanding legal fees. I stared at the paper in disbelief. Mr. Goldfinger claimed the entire legal bill was a total of $32,000! I demanded to speak to Mr. Goldfinger, who was conveniently out of the office. I told Gloria that we would not leave until I spoke directly to him. At that moment the phone rang, and I could tell the weasel was on the line. “No, they are still here. No, they won’t leave. Okay, I’ll tell them.”
She quietly placed the receiver on the hook and painfully said, “Mr. Goldfinger said if you don’t leave, I am to call the police.”
I was enraged. “Call the police? Why, because I want to speak to him about the bill? I will not leave till I speak to him. Call the police if you have to.” My mom and I sat down and began to wait. We waited for 45 minutes. In which time, Mr. Goldfinger called several times.
Finally, he came up and ran past me. Yes, ran past me into his office and closed the door. I yelled, “Stop hiding behind your secretary’s skirt and come out here like a man and explain this bill.” His female law partner, Stella, guarded the door. This was almost too comical to be real. “A prestigious lawyer afraid of what?” I yelled and finally sick of wasting enough time, left.
Now the battle began. My mom was being sued for $22,000 in legal fees. Since she was handed the papers personally she had to answer the summons in 20 days if she wanted to offer a counter defense.
We didn’t have that kind of money to pay him much less hire another attorney to fight him. But what was the choice? Succumb to a ridiculous fee or fight? I braced myself and sat down with the papers and began to fight this summons pro se (for self). For the next 15 days, I poured over the CPLR (the civil practices and law & Rules handbook) that attorneys use.
I checked his itemized bill and found discrepancies against an accurate calendar of events and phone calls we had kept during the divorce trial.
I returned an answer to him. The lines were drawn.
At no point during this case did Mr. Goldfinger talk to me. Never. All his talking was done for him through his colleague or secretary. How could he not face me? The scary thing was everyone told me not to fight a lawyer. That I was in above my head. That I could never win. That I was fighting a losing battle. But the way I saw it, there was no choice, and at least I had to give it a try.
I checked all the proper procedures of law, like filing affidavits of service, proper times in which to answer the cross motions etc. At one point I misunderstood and was told there was a final date to appear in court. But I wasn’t ready. So I once again looked into the CPLR and found a way to put a motion in to open up the case and get an extended date.
This went on for months. It was emotionally draining, but I refused to give up. Finally, Stella, Mr. Goldfinger’s college called me. “Fran, I’m sure you rather be doing something more important with your time like telling jokes onstage. ” To which I replied, “Stella, I’m sure you rather be billing a client $285 an hour instead of fighting with me.”
We bantered back and forth. Finally she said, “Mr. Goldfinger is willing to give you a generous offer. He’s willing to half the bill and charge your mother only, $12,000.” First, her math was wrong. Second my mom already paid $10,000. That’s a total of $22,000, not quite half of $32,000.
I told her no. “My mom can only pay $5000 over a period of 5 years which in turn you agreed to take the lien off the house and never sue my mom again.” She told me I was ridiculous and being silly. So the fight continued.
I now brought in politicians, and wrote to the grievance committee. I also found a way to ask for a motion to get a jury. I remember the judge looking down at me and saying, “Young lady, have you ever dealt with a jury before?” “No, your honor”, I replied “but it’s my legal right and I am willing to learn.” He granted my motion.
Now the stakes were higher. Again Stella called. This time with an offer of $7,000. I refused. A few days later, she called again. This time she said. “Look, we don’t have the time for this. We will take your offer of $5,000. Now let’s drop this.” I smiled inside, knowing at this point my persistence, determination, and willingness to uncover the truth paid off. “Well, Stella” I said, “that was then, this is now. The offer is no longer $5,000. (pause) My mother will pay you $1,000, take it or leave it. Tomorrow jury selection begins.” She called back in ten minutes and took the offer.
We went to court the next day and the case was withdrawn. I made her sign a paper that said Goldfinger would never sue my mom, she made me sign to drop the complaint with the grievance committee. I got my mom’s legal fee down from $22,000 to $1,000. We both parted, shook hands and were happy to never see each other again.
Despite what everyone told me, I fought all the kings horses, the court system, the lawyers, and the motions themselves. Proving that even if you fear a big battle, even if you are scared and frustrated, even if no one believes you have a chance, if you stick with the truth and keep battling on you can win even against the greatest odds. Let the battle begin.