Nina Jackson was older than shit, piss-poor, and black as coal. All I knew about her was that she owned a house in a blighted neighborhood in Houston, that she defaulted on her mortgage, and when she went to file for bankruptcy pro se she made an error in the pleadings and the judge apathetically kicked her case back for re-filing. This lifted the stay against repossession and automatically imposed a 180-day interim before she’d be allowed to re-file. During that time, the bank took her house.
Texas is a title state, meaning the bank holds title to a borrowers’ house and can repossess upon default without first going to court. So they changed the locks while she was out, and now Nina Jackson is homeless. I know this about Nina Jackson because I was the clerk at a creditor-side firm in Denver who drafted the motion to dismiss her petition to reimpose the stay and allow her back into her house until she could re-file for bankruptcy.
Law school was a woke shit show. I made enemies. Summers, the only internships I could get were with rural prosecutor’s offices because I had three kids and wasn’t about to spend my time outside of class networking with the gilded goblins of the LoDo transactional scene. I just needed the degree. Driving an ambulance didn’t pay, IT sales was soul-crushing, and when I got laid off I found myself waiting tables at Pappadeaux in that humiliating little red bow-tie while my lush spinster sister-in-law harangued my wife about what a louse I am. Law school was the sewer grate at the end of my personal cul-de-sac with the scary clown underneath it. There’s an old bumper sticker that reads, “Jesus Is Coming. Look Busy.” Whoever came up with that never had a wife, and a beater car on the driveway, and credit card bills piling up and kids who need winter clothes and braces and karate lessons. If you can afford to wait for Jesus, you’re doing great.
So there I was in my thirties, on my way to becoming the professional-man scary clown I’d spent my twenties pretentiously running away from. And what I learned is that the court system is a nanny for adult babies, which is the vast majority of people, and that it gives lawyers a license to swindle them on their way to tattle on each other, and that the people who leverage this system the best are the absolute worst kinds of people. The banality of evil is everywhere in this country, because the only real evil the system requires is your assent. After that, it’ll do the rest of the dirty work for you.
I failed the Colorado bar my first time out, and had to take whatever I could get in the way of work while I studied for my second attempt. This meant a clerkship at a pop-up “creditors’ rights” firm filing foreclosure paperwork against line cooks and truckers. It was basically just data entry, with the occasional research assignment.
Now, creditors’ rights sounds horrible. And it is. But the thing about it was, I didn’t have options less cynical, because no one else would hire me. So I told myself that I’d give it six months and see if they’d make me an offer when I passed the bar the second time around. How much could it hurt to pull eighteen months in this place? Experience was experience. But for the whole first month, each day was worse than the last. There I was with my JD, and some walleyed Nurse Ratchet who should’ve been making me photocopies was my direct supervisor.
Her name was Gretchen. She was in her mid-fifties, unmarried, fat and miserable like everyone else on staff, but with the intense competence in granular meniality of one of those office lady kapos whose revenge on the world is to give the system a better blowjob than anyone else, by achieving a mind-meld with a dozen software systems and being snarky with anyone who didn’t know all she knew about filing foreclosure paperwork. After the first few weeks they sat her beside me in my cubicle to train me for a week on scheduling foreclosure sales. She chewed reeking salads and burritos with her mouth open and typed so loud and so fast you thought she’d break the keyboard, to the point I couldn’t hear myself think. She spoke all the time in a foul, impatient tone and issued constant reminders to work faster.
Finally, I snapped.
“Um, Gretchen… I caught an error in this notification and I’m wondering whether….”
“Why do you have an error?”
“Well, I think LawLink just auto-filled the caption wrong when it merged the document, and…”
“No, that doesn’t happen. You have to manually enter an error in your Sale Info XE tab under the Calculations Bracket for that to happen. Why are you still manually entering errors? You don’t get that that’s a write-off for the firm if a filing like that goes to the court? We can’t bill the client for that time. Do you even understand what the setting of sale process is all about?”
“Yeah, so the sale can go through and these evil banks can get their money.” I tried to catch myself by chuckling to indicate sarcasm, but it was too late.
“No. No. No.” She was already intense and condescending; now she was getting ardent, and loud. “These people sign a contract, and then violate the terms. Don’t borrow the money if you can’t pay it back. If I default on my obligations, that’s on me.”
“Okay, okay, sorry. It was a joke. Jeezus.”
“You need to get back to work and stop wasting my time.”
“Um, why are you talking to me like that?”
“Because I have to get you trained and you’re being rude and not making an effort.”
“Gretchen, you’re the rudest person here. You’re the only rude person here, everyone else is minimally pleasant and sociable. You’re the only consistently unpleasant person I’ve encountered, and you need to dial it back and stop talking to me like you’ve been doing. It’s counter-productive.”
She gasped, stood up affectedly, shoved her wheeled ergonomic chair across the hallway, and stormed off. That was when my Outlook pinged: an email from the senior litigation attorney, urgently requesting a research memo on Fifth Circuit bankruptcy cases, under what circumstances a bankruptcy defendant may not refile, and whether a client can ever repossess within the 180-day window for refiling, along with a draft answer to the borrower’s motion. The email contained no please, no thank you, not even a salutation from this person I had never met. She said she needed the information by five o’clock Friday. It was Thursday at three forty-five.
I opened the attachment. The house was already repossessed, but the borrower had engaged some do-gooder non-prof to file an appeal in federal district court, on the grounds that Ms. Jackson’s petition for bankruptcy had been improperly tossed. There were some technicalities to the case that made this plausible, and a response was due to the court by Monday morning; thus the urgent email from the litigation team.
As I read through the borrower’s motion I felt worse and worse for her. This prompted me to suck it up and start taking her argument with a grain of salt—these were attorneys after all, doing their thing. The shrewd and shaded wording was all there; the burden was misstated, several of the cases they cited clearly didn’t support their arguments well, and one was a very surreptitiously added bit of state law that had no bearing on the issues in a federal case. I was going to tear this thing to shreds.
Then I reached the paragraph where opposing counsel had cut-and-pasted the borrower’s letter to the bankruptcy court, begging the judge to allow her to amend her petition, rather than outright dismissing it.
“Dear Judge Lindman,
“I have done all I can as a pro se petitioner. I have utilized the courts’ websites, read the bankruptcy code, and Googled everything I can. It is apparent to me now that I must hire an attorney. I tried not to do this before because I do not have the money. I have reached out to several law firms in the area and am awaiting responses. I am begging this honorable court not to dismiss my case. If the stay is lifted and I lose my house, I will have nowhere else to go.
“Yours Very Sincerely,
Ms. Nina Jackson”
All of a sudden I had a hard time getting a breath. It felt like my soul had flown away from me. I put my blue blockers on the desk and looked around the building. Every square inch of this banal space now was hiding an unutterable evil. “These people sign a contract, and then violate the terms.” Yeah.
All through law school, as it became more and more apparent that this profession was not for me, I kept telling myself that I would take my degree and just do whatever was necessary to provide for my family. That it didn’t matter where to work. That work life is miserable anyway, that we have an adversarial system where no party is purely in the right and somebody’s going to get fucked whether I participate or not, and no matter how. As I ran through that script again, I knew it was wrong. It felt despicable. I had given in, to exactly what it was I hated. I was giving the system my squeamish, rationalized blowjob.
But for now, I needed the paycheck, badly, and if they weren’t going to fire me for standing up to Gretchen I was going to have to stay until I could find something else. So I came in Friday morning and got to work. By about 1:30 I had everything prepared. Then the office manager, Betsy, appeared behind me at my cubicle along the hallway. Gretchen was with her.
“Sam, could you come see me in my office?” I knew I was being fired.
They frog-marched me down the hall. “Have a seat.”
“Sam, you’ve been here a month, and after reviewing your work, we feel you’re not a good fit for this office.”
“Sure, Betsy. Do you need anything from me at this time?”
“No. Just please log into TimeBank and clock out. Then you’re free to take your things and leave.”
“No problem Betsy. Thank you for the opportunity.”
I walked back to my desk and began opening the app to clock out. Then I remembered: there it was, on my Microsoft desktop. The Word document I’d spent all day on. “Appellee’s Answer to Appellant’s Motion to Set Aside the Bankruptcy Court’s Dismissal.” The litigation team needed it urgently. I right-clicked, and selected “Delete.” Then I went into the Recycle Bin and nuked it for good.
Good luck, Nina Jackson.