Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Wedding Photo Story

Yes, the Albany Lawyer has a wedding photo story. This has been one of my favorite stories for the past six years, and I finally get to tell it. Some details have been changed to protect the innocent and perhaps the guilty too.

Back in 2003 there was a wedding. A friend of mine was starting his photography business. The bride was an acquaintance and asked him to help. New to the business, he offered to do it for a ridiculously low price (under $500) with only $200 up front. If you've heard the phrase "you get what you pay for", you've got some idea where this story is going.

My buddy did a pretty good job. But he was new to the business remember, and he did make one significant mistake. Not only did his camera battery die, but he had no backup. He got almost everything and took some great photos, but he did miss some bits at the very end of the reception.

The happy couple wasn't happy about that. The groom decided to take an aggressive approach to the situation, using harsh language, and maybe some threats and other kinds of intimidation. Perhaps this was genuine anger, or perhaps it was an attempt to extract a better bargain from my hapless amigo. He also stopped the check for the balance that was owed (or not owed if you take his side).

Well that didn't work. Turns out my friend has some gumption. Having failed at straight-up crass behavior, the groom turned to one of his wedding guests who also happens to be ... a lawyer. We'll call the lawyer Junior.

So Junior disregards Lincoln's famous advice that lawyers should discourage litigation. He sues my buddy on behalf of the bride and groom for $15,000.

$15,000? But they only lost $200. Over the course of the case Junior was never able to explain how he could possibly get any more than $200. Not to me, not to the judge in a conference, etc.

Before I get to the rest of the story, I have to ask (and answer): Why would Junior sue for $15K when the law says $200?

I see two possibilities. First, maybe Junior's not very bright. This is plausible. I'm pretty sure he had little experience with contract disputes. I didn't see much to disprove this theory, but on the other hand I didn't see enough to be sure.

Second, maybe it was deliberate, with the purpose of scaring my friend the wedding photographer. It was working until my friend came to me with the lawsuit shortly after I'd opened my own practice. And so I had my first pro bono case.

I quickly concocted a strategy, reviewed it with my client, and faithfully followed it to the very end. The strategy: Do as little as possible. The rationale was simple - any amount of work done would cost more (in terms of filing fees and attorney time) than the $200 my client might have owed the blissful twosome. Keep in mind that when you take an outside-the-box approach like this, you have to make sure your client's on board.

I prepared and served a short Answer. For non-lawyers, that's the response to the lawsuit. Then, I did nothing and waited.

Apparently Junior had more important things on his plate than a $200 civil case, so he didn't do much of anything either for some time. Eventually he got around to serving discovery demands. This is when one side asks the other to provide documents, evidence, and more.

I put the demands in the file, and waited ... and waited some more. Junior probably sent me a letter somewhere in there and I put that in the file too. And waited.

If I remember correctly, at some point the Court scheduled a conference. I told the judge the case was a waste of time but didn't say much else. Junior didn't have much to say either, other than his dissatisfaction with my non-response. So the judge told Junior to make a motion.

It took him a little while, but he did make a motion for an order of preclusion. I did not oppose the motion. The judge signed the order.

If you're wondering why I didn't respond to his demands, it's because an order of preclusion is the standard remedy - it precludes us from offering evidence regarding the things demanded. We didn't have any particular evidence and didn't intend to prove anything anyway - it's Junior's job to prove his case.

In other words, a few years have gone by and Junior has managed to win a meaningless motion. And what does he do now that he's won the motion? Nothing. For a year and a half, nothing happens.

Then that there judge schedules another darn conference. I made an oral motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute. The motion was denied, conditional on them filing a "Note of Issue" by X date, when we'd have another appearance. A note of issue is required before the Court will schedule a trial, and there's a filing fee of $70 or so. Junior wasn't sure if his client would pay the fee.

I called the Court the day before X to check and the note of issue hadn't been filed yet. So I go to Court ready to ask the Judge to dismiss. Oops ... Junior had filed it that morning, rendering the appearance unnecessary - without letting me know. So I wasted a trip to Court. Thanks Junior. I'm going to remember that one.

Now the judge schedules another conference so we can set a trial date and/or see if we can settle this thing. At the conference the judge finally asks Junior how he can get more than $200 on a case like this. The answer was less than compelling, though I think he mentioned the Rocanova case which has to do with punitive damages between an insurance company and a customer. Not even close Junior.

Meanwhile, I demonstrated a bit of pique and the judge told me not to make this a pissing contest. I told him it already was a pissing contest. Fortunately the judge has known me for a while and tolerated my attitude.

As for settlement, they wanted not only their $200, but also all the negatives. The judge seemed to agree with me that they couldn't win the negatives at trial, but he asked me to check with my client anyway. The client rejected it. So we finally had a trial date ...

It was nearly six years after the suit was filed. In the meantime my client had moved to a distant state. He's not coming for the trial. If they did actually win at trial and get a decision for $200, they'd have a heck of a time collecting. That's one reason delaying a case is not good for the plaintiff.

So I showed up for trial. My client also found a friend who had been at the wedding. She showed up as a witness ready to testify about what a good job he'd done, and how minimal the problem was. Junior showed up too.

Fortunately for us, the bride and groom did not show up. Junior had to explain the efforts he'd made to get them there, in the process revealing that he'd never talked with the bride. Um ... that's one of your clients there buddy boy. It's also possible, per the witness, that the bride is no longer with the groom. Six years is a long time.

The judge finally dismisses the case.

I'm quite pleased with the strategy. Aside from a few trips to Court there was very little work involved. The paper file is smaller than some of our traffic cases. And, of course, the case is resolved. A happy client means a happy lawyer. Plus I've got this wedding photo story I can tell.

As for Junior, well, I hope he learned something from all this.
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