Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Get a lawyer? Okay, I will!

If you're renting a storage locker and you get into a dispute with the owners, do you need a lawyer?


Yes, you do.

In general, when you have a dispute, you need to consult a lawyer. And I don't just say that because I'm a lawyer. I say that because lawyers, so unnecessary to human society in general, are necessary to litigation because we've made it be that way.

If you eliminated all the lawyers in the world, what do you think would happen? Probably nothing, to be honest. I would have to go get a different job -- probably something in show business, I'm thinking -- but people would still have to settle their disputes and would still find ways to do so.

But we can't eliminate all the lawyers in the world, not yet, anyway, and since there are lawyers in the world, you need to have a lawyer if you have a legal problem. I tell people that all the time. I say these exact words to them:

If you have a medical problem, you go to a doctor. If you have a car problem, you go to a mechanic. If your tooth hurts, you go to a dentist, and if you have a legal problem, call a lawyer.

Law is one of those professional areas where people feel as though they can handle it themselves, and mostly, they can't. Especially if there are lawyers on the other side. Our society has evolved into a complex one with more rules than most people are even aware exist -- even rules lawyers don't know exist.

So when the question of whether you need a lawyer arises, the answer is yes. If you consult a lawyer and the problem is a simple one, well, it won't cost you too much money. If you consult a lawyer and the problem is more complicated, well, it might cost you more money -- but if you've got a complicated legal problem, you definitely want a lawyer.

But don't just take it from me that you need a lawyer. There's a good case that shows why:

Cook v. Public Storage, Inc.

Zachary Luckett, in 2004, rented a storage locker. The contract listed him as the lessee and also noted that he was letting other people, notably his parents, have access to the locker. After signing the contract, Zachary let his parents use the storage locker for their own items.

For most of a year, the rent on the storage locker was paid, albeit late. In July, 2005, though, the rent was not paid and Public Storage sent out first a notice of default and then a "notice of lien and sale."

Many people don't know that landlords -- including storage locker landlords-- can hold your stuff, charge you money for holding your stuff, and then sell it to pay for the money they charged you to hold your stuff. And that's what Public Storage was doing to Zachary: charging him money for selling his stuff, because when a landlord holds your stuff like that, they get a "lien" on the property.

When the rent remained unpaid, Public Storage held a "blind auction:" they sold the goods in the locker, sight unseen, and netted all of $600. They took the $600 and applied it to Zachary's account, and paid all the charges he'd incurred...

... leaving $407 behind. That's right: all of Zachary's (and his parent's) stuff was sold -- blindly-- because he owed less than $200.

Public Storage then listed the $407 as "pre-paid rent" on their ledgers, even though Zachary's stuff had been sold and he was no longer renting a storage locker, so far as Public Storage was concerned.

That's when the fun begins, and the complications. (For lawyers, complications = fun. For laypeople/clients, complications = expensive.)

Zachary had not actually read through the contract, it seems -- particularly the provisions that said that only he could store property in the locker, and that if Public Storage was sued it would probably not owe him anything, but at most might owe him only $5,000. Zachary also hadn't paid attention to the fact that public storage had an incorrect address for him on the contract.

But that address might be important, if, for example, Zachary wanted to receive letters from Public Storage letting him know that his stuff was going to be sold for $600.

Public Storage ignored a lot of things, too. Like the fact that the notices they sent Zachary were returned as undeliverable. Public Storage ignored that. Public Storage ignored, too, that they had phone numbers and a correct address in their own files, an address they didn't bother sending notices to.

This all came to a head when, unaware that their stuff had been sold for $600, Zachary's parents tried to come to pay rent in August, 2005 on the storage locker. They were told, then, that the property had been sold -- but given no more information. They weren't told how much the property had been sold for and were not told that $407 of the proceeds of the sale were being held by Public Storage for no good reason.

When Zachary's parents tried to get more information, Public Storage told them:

"Get a lawyer."

That turned out to be amazingly good advice. They did get a lawyer, and their lawyer wrote to Public Storage and got them their $407 back. But that's not all their lawyer did. Their lawyer did what lawyers do best: he sued the pants off them, almost literally. Zachary and his parents (the Cooks of the caption) sued Public Storage for, among other things, "conversion."

"Conversion," as I tell my clients a lot, is a fancy lawyer word for "theft." (If we called it theft, or the even more simple stealing people's stuff, then you'd start thinking you don't need a lawyer.)

In Wisconsin, under some circumstances, "conversion" can lead to triple damages. If you steal people's stuff, in Wisconsin, you can be sued for triple the losses. (It gets worse than that, too. I'm foreshadowing.)

So the Cooks sued for conversion of their $407, because Public Storage had no right to keep that, and for conversion of their stuff, because Public Storage, they said, had no right to sell their stuff without notifying them.

And they won (mostly; things are always complicated.) The jury ruled that the Cooks' stuff was worth $5,000, not $600, and awarded the Cooks...


The jury gave the Cooks $19,000 in compensatory damages -- money to compensate the Cooks for their losses, and $100,000 in punitive damages.

The case wasn't over yet. Under the law, the Cooks were entitled to an award of attorney's fees. The judge considered the case and made an initial ruling that the Cooks' lawyers were to be paid...


Here's where it gets even more fun. And complicated. And expensive. Public Storage appealed. And they won, on two of their claims. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals decided that Public Storage was right about two claims. It then ruled that even though Public Storage was right about those two, and the Circuit Court was wrong, it didn't matter -- the errors were deemed harmless.

The Court should have stolen a line from Douglas Adams, though, and deemed the errors "mostly harmless," because the errors did require that the trial judge reconsider the award of attorney's fees. Which the judge did.

She awarded the Cook's $282,154.02 in attorney's fees.

Do you need a lawyer?

You sure do. Public Storage can give you $282,154.02 reasons why.


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