I’m investigating how to deal with bad neighbors in foreclosed houses, something that I suspect is interesting more and more of us as this housing market continues to get worse.
The situation I’m looking at is a house in pre-foreclosure (meaning the owner hasn’t paid the mortgage for some time) with tenants that are causing problems in the neighborhood.
Here is a Cadillac that one neighbor saw dragging a garbage pile from the problem house out onto the city street, where it blocked traffic.
The next day, the trash pile triggered an accident. Seems like someone should be responsible, doesn’t it?
The problems range from dumping abandoned cars on the street to excessive noise, commercial activities not consistent with the residential character of the neighborhood, etc., etc.
The local authorities (this is in Los Angeles) are sympathetic but don’t seem to be able to take any action. In the meantime, the neighbors (including myself) are getting fed up.
So, what can we do, if anything?
Well, I’m looking at nuisance law as a start. Civil Code section 3479 defines nuisance as anything which is injurious to health, including but not limited to, the illegal sale of controlled substances, or is indecent of offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.
A public nuisance is one which affects the entire community or any considerable number of persons. Every nuisance that isn’t public is a private nuisance. A civil action, meaning a lawsuit by private individuals, is available for either.
Violations of the planning code constitute a public nuisance. City & County of San Francisco v. Padilla (1972) 23 Cal.App.3d 388, 401.
MIT Media Lab Alex “Sandy” Pentland is mentioned in today’s Wall Street Journal for his work on nonverbal communications and there is some potential application of his work in the courtroom.
Prof. Pentland believes that most of the really important communication that takes place in organizations is face-to-face, meaning that the key interactions never make it into the written record or the organizational chart. So, interactions in the hall and around the water cooler have high value yet can’t be measured for management purposes. Prof. Pentland has invented a “sociometer” to try to measure nonverbal aspects of communications to try to get a better grasp on how all this works. His work is discussed in a new book, “Honest Signals,” which I’m adding to my reading list.
Trial lawyers know that nonverbal communication is important, we worry about it constantly in the courtroom. Nonverbal communication also is absent from our written record, the court reporter can’t transcribe information that isn’t spoken.
At the Loyola Advanced Trial Institute seminar, I offered some remarks on how different trial lawyers have differing views on what to wear in the courtroom so as to least offend or distract jurors. The same concept applies to everything about a lawyer’s appearance at trial, those nonverbal messages are playing a role that (so far) we can’t measure and so can impact our cases in unpredictable ways.
I was explaining to my wife the other day how the kind of car a juror sees me driving will impact their perception of who I am and color their decision making process. She told me she didn’t think it was that important (she thinks I’m just angling for new wheels, which is probably partly true). I think the work being done on nonverbal research would bear me out.
Rex Parris is the afternoon speaker for the Second Annual Loyola Advanced Trial Institute program. His talk is focusing on cognitive science and what it teaches us about how people communicate in the courtroom.
What Moscovitz discovered was, by embracing the variability in human beings, we can find true happiness. In other words, people are all different, so there is no single perfect product. Instead, different people are made deliriously happy by different products. It’s called, horizontal segmentation.
So, in court, Rex says what he wants to know from the jury, is about them. Because by listening to jurors and paying attention to them at the start of the case, they understand a jury trial is a common effort to reach an important, just result. The way to understanding the variability in juror perceptions is to listen to them.
He cautions lawyers against trying to impress. Rather, lawyers should share and teach in order to communicate more effectively.
Trial, Rex is teaching, is a search, not a game. The search is for the truth, leading to a just result.
Today I’m at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles for the Second Annual Advance Trial Institute program with David Ball and R. Rex Parris speaking. The program (which I’m happy to say was my idea) is part of Loyola’s Civil Justice Program, which you can learn more about here.
David Ball starts his talk by saying “Welcome to the Revolution!” That should give you an idea of what we’re doing here today. we’re working on revolutionizing the civil justice system so it better serves the American people. What better goal for all of us trial lawyers?
Mr. Ball’s work is in the personal injury field, all for the plaintiff, so he is focused on the problems that tort reform has caused in polluting the jury pools in the U.S. He says in any venue, about a third of the jurors despise attorneys. “You disgust them.” They call us “terrorists in suits” and think we are dangerous to them.
The corporations, he points out, know that they can control the government and they are focused on destroying our civil justice system for ordinary citizens within the next twenty five years.
As I look around the room, I see people from both sides of the aisle, plaintiff lawyers and defense lawyers alike, listening intently. After all, we all have a stake in preserving the civil justice system for the good of the country. Only, as Mr. Ball is pointing out, we have an uphill battle in these troubled times.
“The dynamic we need to change is that the lawyer is a public menace,” Ball says.
So, how is that done?
The thought is, trial lawyers should be giving back to their communities without regard to their own economic interests.
The concept is simple, but it’s powerful. After all, lawyers are Americans, too. If we as a profession can provide better information and assistance regarding matters of safety and social concern, then everyone benefits.
More later . . .
One of the things I’ve seen in my practice is how lawyers in general have a certain disdain for all but the traditional tools of the trade. Words on paper and live argument in court are accepted, some feel comfortable with a flip chart or chalkboard, the cutting edge practitioners may even go in for PowerPoint or electronic evidence presentation and feel they are state of the art.
Yet, perhaps because of a my communications training before law school, or maybe because of my career as a journalist, I’ve always felt that this regimented, almost inflexible way of pursuing advocacy leaves much to be desired.
On one hand, I understand how attorneys are loath to try anything too new, too quickly. After all, our legal training tells us not to stray too far from precedent and our conservative natures argue against risk taking in courtroom technique, lest an experiment fail with disastrous consequences for both client and malpractice insurance carrier.
On the other hand, there’s the judge and the jury.
The judge is likely drowning in paper and buried in cases. In Los Angeles County, where I practice, I’ve listened to more than one presiding judge recite the litany of shortages: not enough resources, not enough judges, not enough money, not enough of anything.
The juries, for there part, don’t come to court to listen to oration. They are sitting there because they must, having been summoned, and as soon as they can will power up their cell phones, blackberries, video players and computers and get back to communicating with the world the way they are used to.
And we lawyers still bow, mutter aged incantations such as “May it please the court,” as if the jurist were glaring down from the bench under a powdered wig.
So, given all this, why are we prejudiced against modern communications in a modern courtroom? I could argue we are bound by tradition. Some might also argue we are chained by laziness. Whatever the reason, doesn’t it make good sense to break free from our traditions and study modern communications techniques with the same intensity that our forefathers (and mothers) studied the written word?
I would argue, it not only makes good sense, but rather, it is critical if our profession is to remain relevant in advocacy. We should be testing the legality of new techniques, prodding the court system into adapting to the communications habits of our current population.
There is no question that this movement is encountering resistance, not just among the bar, but also members of the bench. I had an experience in federal court recently where it was impossible to find out in advance if I would be allowed to present evidence by video, even though what I was offering was clearly within the federal rules and the courtroom had the proper equipment pre-installed and available.
Obviously, the judge must maintain control over the proceedings and rule on the admissibility of evidence. But the court must also have clear guidelines in place so that counsel can plan their case according to modern methods. After all, isn’t this all about orderly administration of justice?