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The purpose of the scam was to use the U.S. mails and court process to cheat my wife in a pending employment lawsuit. My use of the word "scam" probably is too mild to describe what happened; a strong case could be made that we unearthed a criminal conspiracy for obstruction of justice.
The infuriating part of the experience was that we drove about 40 miles round-trip for a court proceeding that did not occur--and, in fact, never was intended to take place. The exhilarating part is that we foiled a plot for now, and we are going to unmask the culprits on this blog. What happens next? We don't know, but you will be reading about any and all developments here at Legal Schnauzer.
Regular readers probably recall that Mrs. Schnauzer (MS) was unlawfully terminated from her job at Birmingham-based Infinity Insurance in October 2009, during the course of our lawsuit against various debt collectors and lawyers under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).
As the FDCPA case was reaching a critical juncture, with discovery about to commence, my wife's supervisor at Infinity told her to change her start time from 9 a.m. (central time) to 9:30, in order to assist with the company's large customer base in California, which has a two-hour time difference from Alabama. MS did as she was told and started arriving at work around 9:20 each day, only to have her supervisor allege she had been chronically tardy and fire her. When MS pointed out the directive to start her workday at 9:30, the supervisor acted as if it had never happened, even though it was given in front of about a dozen coworkers.
In a case styled Carol Shuler v. Infinity Property & Casualty et al, my wife alleges that various entities and individuals conspired to interfere with her employment because of our aggressive pursuit of the FDCPA action. Evidence also suggests that the same political/legal forces who cheated me out of my job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) were involved in my wife's case.
The handling of MS's case has been emitting an unpleasant smell for several months, but we weren't certain about its origins--or the machinations that caused it to drift our way. The events of yesterday morning erased any doubts that we had.
Here is the issue at the heart of yesterday's attempted screw job: As a pro se litigant, MS must rely on the U.S. mail to receive court documents about her case. Electronic filing has become commonplace in American courts, but that only applies to members of the bar. If you are representing yourself--and given our experiences with lawyers, MS is not about to hire one--you must rely on snail mail.
My wife's case has proceeded at a curious pace from the outset. Her complaint was filed on September 22, 2011, and assigned to U.S. Magistrate T. Michael Putnam. Defendants filed motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), and over about a nine-month period, Putnam issued a number of orders, mostly related to those motions.
Putnam seemed to be handling matters in a relatively prompt fashion, by federal-court standards, but the case came to a screeching halt last summer. Putnam issued an order on July 11, 2012, and for the next five months, the case went dark. When MS or I were downtown, we usually would stop by the courthouse to check the file on public computers--only to find that nothing was happening. As the new year approached, my wife considered filing a motion to see if the case had somehow slipped through the cracks and been forgotten.
In early February of this year, Carol Shuler v. Infinity Insurance suddenly sprang back to life. We received a copy of an order regarding a review of Putnam's report and recommendation on the various motions to dismiss. When my wife read the order, she quickly realized that it referenced other orders Putnam had issued on December 11 and December 26, 2012.
These orders dealt with critical issues, recommending that some defendants be dismissed while others remained in the case. The December orders gave MS 15 days to file any objections to the magistrate's report, and she had a number of objections. But she never received those orders in the mail, and the deadline for filing objections had passed. (Curious note about federal courts: A judge can sit on his hands for five months, doing nothing on a case, but then give you 15 days to respond to one of his orders.)
Our noses started picking up foul odors at this point. Mail delivery to our home might not be flawless, but the possibility of us failing to receive two court orders in the span of roughly two weeks . . . well, it is extremely unlikely. In the almost 23 years we've lived at our current address, we've never had any legal or financial difficulties that were caused by failure to receive important documents in the mail.
On February 27, 2013, MS filed a motion to stay the proceedings, noting that she had not received the December documents via U.S. mail and asking for a time extension so that she could file objections to Putnam's report. (See motion at the end of this post.)
At a hearing on March 8, Putnam gave MS 15 days to file objections. He also questioned her about the mail problems, asking if the court had her correct address on file. When she replied that it did, Putnam said records showed the clerk's office had mailed the documents, so he could not understand why they were not received. He then stated that it was the plaintiff's responsibility to keep up with her case, and if she experienced future problems with mail delivery . . . well, that would just be tough.
The gist of the the judge's message seemed to be this: "I'm cutting you a break for now, but if you miss deadlines in the future because you didn't receive mail from the court, I will dismiss your case."
Putnam filed an order, giving MS until March 25 to file objections and citing several cases that supposedly backed his claim that she would be SOL (shit out of luck) if mail did not reach her going forward. (See order at the end of this post.)
A quick review of the cited cases showed that they do not say what Putnam claimed they say. They generally deal with lawyers who fail to keep up with client cases and said little or nothing about pro se litigants. They certainly offer no support for Putnam's apparent contention that he could lawfully dismiss a case because a pro se litigant failed to receive documents via U.S. mail.
At this point, the smell surrounding MS's case officially became a stench. We began to strongly suspect that the court intentionally was not sending documents to our address, for the purpose of concocting grounds to dismiss my wife's case.
It turns out, we were right.
(To be continued)