LSC Updates: Of Restraining Orders and Back Rent Blues

BY KAREN TENENBAUM

Last week Christine Speidel (3L, Family) sought and won a restraining order for a woman in conjunction with the woman’s divorce proceeding.

Speidel picked up the case when it was referred to the LSC by someone from the Boston Probate Court, which will preside over the couple’s divorce. The husband had forced his wife to sign a joint petition for divorce, but once she went to court she made it clear that she was being intimidated. As a result, the judge denied the petition.

Two days before that hearing, the husband had come to his wife’s house and begun bullying her about the upcoming hearing – he insisted that she waive her rights and agree to the divorce on his terms. Apparently, the client had not received notice of the hearing and told her husband as much. At that point, he grabbed her and began shaking her. “Before that he had been manipulative and controlling,” Speidel said, but he had never been violent. The client immediately sought a restraining order.

When Speidel and the wife showed up at the hearing in Roxbury District Court, “he was really surprised to see that she was represented. I think he’d expected her to come in and drop it,” Speidel related. Throughout the hearing the client was “passive and quiet… she didn’t feel comfortable speaking up and asserting herself.” After Speidel made her client’s case, the judge granted the order based on the affidavit. “I thought it was pretty powerful for the client to see that this guy who’s been controlling her life is not all-powerful. I think she really believed everything he’d been telling her.”

But that was not the end of it. Immediately after the restraining order hearings, it is customary for the parties to stagger their visits to the clerk’s office to obtain a copy of the order, for obvious reasons. But a mistake in timing, coupled with the clerk’s office having lost the file (already??), found the parties together in the office. He came boldly into the office and stood there with entitlement, remembered clinical instructor Ruth Diaz. His presence made the client nervous and flustered, and Diaz intervened to chase him away. The husband, Speidel relates, has a varied and prolific matrimonial history. He has had eleven children, four wives, and at least two restraining orders. “Basically, he takes a wife, has a bunch of kids by her, leaves her, takes a new wife, has a bunch of kids by her…. There seems to be a pattern here.” Accordingly, the immediate impetus for the divorce is the husband’s new, much younger girlfriend, whom he met at church. The client discovered the new romance when she saw them holding hands and flirting at services. “Hopefully she doesn’t have any kids by him,” Speidel offered.

Speidel will continue to represent the client at her divorce proceeding. The husband is seeking joint legal custody of their children: “He doesn’t want to keep the children, he just wants control [of them],” she said, apparently over issues like whether they can take a vacation or play sports. The next hearing in the case is on Tuesday, March 7, 2006.

In a stunning episode, Dave Gise (3L, Housing) won a victory for a tenant at trial with just 4.5 days of preparation. The client initially came to the LSC for help in November, but because the semester was winding down, the Center declined to take the case. Five days before the tenant’s trial (and still without representation), the tenant called up clinical instructor Dave Grossman for advice. Grossman looked around: “‘Gise, you’re not doing anything. Why don’t you take it?'” Gise recalled.

The main issue in the case was cross-metering – a condition in which a tenant unwittingly pays for utilities in parts of the building that are not his apartment, such as stairwells, or in this case, the illegal attic apartment. A secondary issue was the fact that the landlord had locked the tenants out of the basement laundry room for alleged “suspicious activity in the basement,” Gise said. Whoa – like drugs? Prostitution? No no – people “were using the laundry machines at all hours.” Also, apparently someone had stolen the landlord’s satin sheets. In response to these and other conditions (mold and leaks), the tenant had withheld four months of rent.

Gise’s first move was to call the landlord to propose settlement. The landlord opened the bidding: “He said, ‘Pay all the back rent and leave,’ ” Gise remembered. Gise responded that he did not think that was very fair, and the landlord countered by hanging up on him.

After a grueling weekend of preparation with clinical instructor Maureen McDonagh, Gise showed up for the trial, where his first impression of the landlord was that “he… was all up in my face.” The mother took the stand (the tenants were a family of three), as did the landlord’s three witnesses. Gise subjected all three to off-the-cuff cross-examinations. At the end of the trial, Gise related, “The judge didn’t want to hear closing arguments, but I misheard him and thought he was asking me to start. So I made a five minute closing argument.” Despite the mishap – or maybe because of it – Gise’s client won possession and a $3,000 reduction in back rent. The tenant ultimately had to pay less than $1,000 of the withheld rent.

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