Sewer Service in DC, Process on Trial
October 10, 2020 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Thousands Of D.C. Renters Are Evicted Every Year. Do They All Know To Show Up To Court? (DCist, Josh Kaplan) By 11 a.m., Stephens was standing before Judge William Graves Simmons. He pleaded guilty, making it his second conviction for driving while intoxicated, and was accepting his sentence of community service. Stephens would subsequently claim in an affidavit that at exactly that moment, he was knocking on the door of an apartment at 2714 29th St. SE, more than ten miles away.
In all, he would later swear that he attempted to serve 16 tenants in the District of Columbia while this reporter was staring at the back of his head.
posted by CrystalDave (26 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
On average, Superior Court judges issue roughly a dozen default judgments in landlord-tenant cases each day the courtroom is open. For each, a case that could have taken months or years to resolve is closed out in a couple of seconds. “If everybody showed up,” Higgins says, “the court couldn’t function.”

I don't see how you can square this with any naive notion that the judges aren't in on the scam. Not directly, of course, but how on earth do you handle a case in a matter of seconds or minutes a dozen times each day and never stop to think about the implications of what you're doing?
posted by axiom at 1:22 PM on October 10 [31 favorites]




That is an absolutely crazy article. Thanks for posting.
posted by Gadarene at 2:14 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Wherever he is, I hope that Joseph Gelletich is okay.
posted by scruss at 2:23 PM on October 10 [5 favorites]


So, it's been only five days, but I was hoping to see that the process servers were facing some sort of legal consequences. It looks like they lied to the court hundreds, if not thousands of times - and there's possibly dozens of cases where the lie is provable because they weren't even trying to cover it up.

I don't see how you can square this with any naive notion that the judges aren't in on the scam.

It's not just civil courts - it's also criminal courts. There are simply too many cases for everyone to have their day in court. This is why plea deals (which are by their nature coercive) are so much more common than trials.

I don't want to jump to conclusions about the judges, because I don't really know what they saw or thought, but the whole system is broken.

And I can't imagine they would have gotten away with it for so long if they had been lying to the court on behalf of the tenants.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:28 PM on October 10 [14 favorites]


They have played an outsized role in the city’s eviction system. Reviewing the first 4,500 landlord-tenant cases filed in 2019, DCist found Stephens and Buck served the summonses in about 2,650 of them—almost 60 percent. No other process server came close.
I would be interested to see an article that asks the next question here -- why did Stephen's and Buck's process service command such a huge share of DC's eviction service business?

Was it simply because they priced themselves below competitors? ("Our overheads are low because we don't actually do anything except falsify documents!") or were they a preferred service provider because (wink, wink) they get the job done?

Their customers, especially the large property management companies that would have dealt with them repeatedly, are either additional victims (having paid for service that was not legally provided) -OR- they may be willing accomplices in a scheme to systematically abuse the courts. I think that's a kind of an important question to answer.
DCist analyzed nearly 500 other landlord-tenant cases, chosen at random from a five month period at the beginning of 2019, and found that when other process servers went to tenants’ apartments, they managed to find someone at home more than 40 percent of the time.

By contrast, in the first two months of 2019, Stephens and Buck managed to serve tenants in person just 0.4 percent of the time.
It strains credulity to assume nobody noticed. If you were an attorney representing property managers in landlord-tenant disputes and most companies had a 40% rate of serving someone in person and another company had a 0.4% rate and the tenants served by the second company all said (when they said anything at all) that they had never received service, don't you think you would start to wonder? Additionally, would you wonder if/when they kept finding people not at home during a pandemic?
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:43 PM on October 10 [26 favorites]


I don't see how you can square this with any naive notion that the judges aren't in on the scam. Not directly, of course, but how on earth do you handle a case in a matter of seconds or minutes a dozen times each day and never stop to think about the implications of what you're doing?
It's not unheard of for courts to become plainly willing participants in an abusive process.

From the Wikipedia article on "Rocket Docket":
"Another notable "rocket docket" court involved Lee County, Florida (Fort Myers), home of numerous foreclosure proceedings due to the collapse of the Florida housing market as a result of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, part of the 2010 United States foreclosure crisis. On some days, the court heard up to 1,000 cases per day; assuming an 8-hour day, this equates to less than 30 seconds per case. The entire case frequently consists of two questions: whether the homeowner is behind on payments, and whether they are still in the house. If yes, the judge [allowed] the homeowner 60 days to come to an agreement with the bank for payments or lose the house."
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:48 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


Kept expecting the next paragraph to be detailing how the process servers had been arrested, charged or something.
posted by MattWPBS at 3:42 PM on October 10 [7 favorites]


I don't want to jump to conclusions about the judges, because I don't really know what they saw or thought, but the whole system is broken.

I'm not an expert, but isn't the whole point of a judge to be someone who you can't buffalo or bullshit?

Their customers, especially the large property management companies that would have dealt with them repeatedly, are either additional victims

I've been defrauded by property management companies enough times to know what I think, albeit not in this jurisdiction.
posted by ambrosen at 3:47 PM on October 10 [4 favorites]


One of the things that I hate about the justice system is the normalization of deviancy when it comes to the norms of honor that underpin said justice system. If the justice system has any sort of priority in how offenses are prosecuted, breaching the public trust should be at the very top of that list with the highest being agents of the state breaching the public trust.

Every perjury count, to the maximum extent of the law, and consecutive not concurrent. This shit is 110% not OK.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 4:15 PM on October 10 [20 favorites]


Affidavits of service are crazy.

I remember when I first became a public defender, I was in an office that was just around the corner from the district attorney's office. So when we'd file a document in court, we'd take two more copies to the DA's office, and they'd stamp one of the copies "received.". It was a great system and we never had any disputes about service. Then I was transferred to another part of the county, and was told that they didn't get stamped copies; they just filled out a "proof of service." I couldn't believe it. I never ran into a dispute over proofs of service there, but on the civil side in the years since, I have seen more than one provably fraudulent proof of service.

It seems like the fraud is almost inevitable in a context where judges can't handle their full dockets (evictions, foreclosures) and where a fraudulent proof of service is more effective in getting the result you want than a truthful one (because eviction proceedings are usually on a shortened timeline compared to other civil suits). "Inevitable" not in the sense that we should throw up our hands, but in the sense that we have no excuse for failing to expect, detect, and prevent the fraud that will almost certainly be tried.
posted by mabelstreet at 4:33 PM on October 10 [20 favorites]


It seems like the fraud is almost inevitable in a context where judges can't handle their full dockets (evictions, foreclosures) and where a fraudulent proof of service is more effective in getting the result you want than a truthful one (because eviction proceedings are usually on a shortened timeline compared to other civil suits). "Inevitable" not in the sense that we should throw up our hands, but in the sense that we have no excuse for failing to expect, detect, and prevent the fraud that will almost certainly be tried.
Yep. And while no system of safeguards is perfect, it would certainly be easy to design measures, technological and procedural, that would greatly shift the incentive to engage in such fraud.

What, then, should we feel entitled to conclude from the absence of such safeguards?
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:08 PM on October 10 [6 favorites]


Innocence has become luxury good and you can’t afford it, so you’ll take the plea bargain.
posted by interogative mood at 6:23 PM on October 10 [11 favorites]


It seems like the fraud is almost inevitable in a context where judges can't handle their full dockets (evictions, foreclosures) and where a fraudulent proof of service is more effective in getting the result you want than a truthful one (because eviction proceedings are usually on a shortened timeline compared to other civil suits). "Inevitable" not in the sense that we should throw up our hands, but in the sense that we have no excuse for failing to expect, detect, and prevent the fraud that will almost certainly be tried.

So many problems are structural and require structural solutions.
posted by Gadarene at 7:57 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


I don't even know if it's a structural problem so much as judges are very human still and flawed like the rest of us. From reading popehat stories, this, and other "wow, what a shitter" tales, I'd rather bet my freedom on a 9 at a craps table then take a turn before a judge for a crime I didn't commit.
posted by Slackermagee at 6:25 AM on October 11


I don't even know if it's a structural problem so much as judges are very human still and flawed like the rest of us.

The lack of systems that promote better decision-making from human judges and contain checks and balances against known common biases and human error (a la pre-flight checklists in the airline industry or similar systems in other contexts such as in hospital surgeries, etc.) is a structural problem, yes.
posted by eviemath at 6:31 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]


See, eg., mabelstreet's story.
posted by eviemath at 6:32 AM on October 11


mabelstreet’s experience underscores that this is structural and how easy this is to fix: the second place could spend, what, $10 on a stamp and eliminate a category of error? In this case, imagine if DC would simply start requiring the process server to send a photo from their phone — not perfect, of course, but also not something which would require major changes to the system or significant expenses.
posted by adamsc at 6:53 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]


Thank you for the great if depressing post. That was some kick-ass reporting right there. I can only hope the two men covered in the article are in serious trouble or will be soon. Their clients didn’t give a shit because the company was giving them the service they wanted, which is to say no opportunity for poor people to make a fuss or get in the way. In fact, their clients were probably enthusiastic as clients because those dudes were cutting corners. It was unbelievable that a reporter was staring at the back of the head of that one guy during his court hearing, the guy who went back later and lied about having served all kinds of notices. Every part of this story is both unsurprising and enraging. There are reasons a bunch of people don’t vote, and this would be one of them.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:57 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]


and the tenants served by the second company all said (when they said anything at all) that they had never received service,

Well everyone says that. It's very easy to get jaded and believe they're just saying that. Also a vicious spiral where even in the cases where you believe them, investigate, and correct the error, they still get evicted. Maybe a little later. Makes you ready (wrongly, but human nature) to skip the drill and just get to the answer part.

I'm trying to do away with the "adversarial system" where I work. Production is incentivized to go go go, regardless of the risk. The safety people are incentivized to stop stop stop, regardless of cost. Hopefully each makes their best case, and the smart people listen to the right one? What if instead we held production as responsible for accidents as we do for not meeting cost and schedule goals? In this case sure, obviously the process server should go to jail. But where are the DA and judges' responsibility for not just picking the best presented case, but the larger outcome of justice? Should either be penalized for getting it wrong? I've never heard of such a thing.
posted by ctmf at 11:43 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


I thought "sewer service" in the post's title was a typo, or perhaps a strained pun. But from the link:
When process servers don’t serve papers they say they did, it’s often called “sewer service,” referring to a perhaps apocryphal episode where process servers were caught throwing summonses into storm drains. Reports of sewer service in the District of Columbia stretch back for decades.
Also noticed there is a 'sewerservice' tag.
posted by rochrobbb at 2:11 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


"I'm not an expert, but isn't the whole point of a judge to be someone who you can't buffalo or bullshit?"

One of the most startling and disappointing facts about the American legal system is that a lot of trial judges are straight-up idiots who know nothing about the law. In Illinois we elect judges at the trial level, which means a lot of former prosecutors who run on "law-and-order" and guys who practiced law for one year 20 years ago and then made money in banking or something and then get bored and run for judge. It means a lot of men, a lot of white men, and a lot of people with surnames coming from particular ethnicities. (In Chicago within the last five years some judge candidate legally changed his name to "Mahoney" or "O'Malley" or something, because having an Irish name on the judicial ballot still to this day apparently provides a boost in Chicago.)

You can literally pull the statute book out RIGHT THERE and point out the ACTUAL LAW to a judge and he'll still rule against you as a matter of law (not fact), because so many of them don't know the law.

It took me two years to have a guy declared dead because the judge had never done a judicial declaration of death before and every time I came to court for the final hearing, he sent me back to gather affidavits or to brief him YET AGAIN. I went to court something like ten times for an issue that should have taken two. Basically, the judge didn't know what to do, so he refused to deal with it rather than, I don't know, reading any of the fucking briefs he repeatedly made me file? Anyway, we went on like this for two years until judicial assignments were shuffled and this guy went off to traffic court. The new judge gave me the declaration the first time I appeared. It was an absolutely enormous waste of resources.

Plenty of trial judges are great! But you should never walk into a trial court assuming the judge knows what he's doing, unless you've appeared before that judge before, because you are very frequently going to be disappointed to discover that he doesn't know the law and isn't going to read it. It's absolutely maddening.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:10 PM on October 11 [6 favorites]


(In Chicago within the last five years some judge candidate legally changed his name to "Mahoney" or "O'Malley" or something, because having an Irish name on the judicial ballot still to this day apparently provides a boost in Chicago.)

It was better than that. Phillip Spiwak changed his name to Shannon O'Malley. He was hoping to benefit from sounding both Irish and female.
posted by srboisvert at 4:45 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]


The Honorable Shannon P. O'Malley (né Phillip Spiwak) won that election and now serves on the Cook County Circuit Court.

But while that's an entertaining anecdote, I'm not sure that the election or appointment of trial judges is likely to have much effect on the kind of malfeasance on display in the OP.
posted by Not A Thing at 7:31 AM on October 12


I'm not sure that the election or appointment of trial judges is likely to have much effect on the kind of malfeasance on display in the OP.

Well, it certainly seems unlikely to make the system better. At least as outlined by Eyebrows McGee, it sounds like a maddening and not especially just system. Not to single out Illinois; it's got to be a common problem.
posted by Bella Donna at 9:25 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


Not a Thing, in this city (which is not Washington DC), we elect Justices of the Peace.

The first time I got a jury summons here, everyone said 'oh, Downtown Courthouse?' and I said 'no, this is a JP summons. Apparently they handle traffic tickets?'

The other major thing JPs handle is housing evictions - which is what the summons ended up being about in my experience. I can say that this was a case where the tenant was there and so was the landlord (no lawyers on either side) so it was much closer to equal ground than DC. The judge was caring, took time to explain the process, and tried to make it a fair go. The tenant was still evicted.

In the case of my city, these poorly known courts have judges who are elected as one of literally dozens of judges on the ballot. No one is paying enough attention to what happens after the election. These judges are absolutely part of the issue with housing evictions in some areas.

In the case of Gelletich in the article, the judge was clearly at fault for not even letting him speak.

So yes, it's a systemic and structural thing. The lawyers, the judges, the process servers, and the public - we all let it happen or, worse, actively make it happen.
posted by librarylis at 3:51 PM on October 14


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