Saturday 17 March 2018

L.A. Law: The Computer Game – Case #6: The Stolen House

by Alex

Sadly, an actual house doesn’t get stolen in this case, but how cool would that be? Instead, Brackman drops a matter on Victor that’s similar to the kinds of things that happen to lawyers in real life firms: He is asked to take a case pro bono for a firm employee’s family member. In this case, it’s one of the secretary’s aunts.

Brackman warns Victor not to take too much time on this case, as there probably is no case. But hey, Victor just made partner. He can win anything, right?

The Case

Amanda Hoskins is a nice old lady who was evicted by the City of Cypress Heights and had her house foreclosed on, all for not paying a $40.00 city fee.

This is an injustice, I tell you! And this injustice will not stand, man! Not while Victor Sifuentes draws breath!

“I made partner!”

What’s more, the house had been sold at auction for the price of $85,000, with Mrs. Hoskins getting $84,460 of that. However, Victor’s case file also contains the City’s assessment of the property, which shows the house being worth $212,500.

Hmm . . . doesn’t that auction sale price seem a bit too low?

Trial Prep

First things first, I call the City of Cypress Heights’ Clerk’s Office in order to get their case file. The Clerk agrees to FAX it over. Before you scoff at this outdated piece of equipment, I will have you know that, as of the year 2018 (which is this year, can you believe it?) lawyers and courts still use faxes as a primary means of sending documents, including certain court filings. But what would you expect from one of the world’s two oldest professions?

This being the other one.

According to the file, all this started over the $40.00 bill the city sent to Mrs. Hoskins for the removal of a tree limb that was blocking a stop sign. Mrs. Hoskins didn’t pay, and after three notices, the city filed suit some five months later requesting a lien on Mrs. Hoskins’ house. Mrs. Hoskins didn’t show up to the hearing and lost by default. A default judgment is what they call it when one side doesn’t show up to court on the appointed date—they automatically lose. If service was properly made, which it seems like it was here, if you don’t show up for your hearing, you’re outta luck, pal! So anyway, the house was sold at auction to a company called Park Development of Utica, New York, for the aforementioned $85,000.00. The city took its $40.00, the $500.00 court filing fees were also deducted (that’s right: the loser in civil cases pays court costs), and Mrs. Hoskins got the rest.

$85,000.00 is a nice chunk of change . . . but doesn’t it seem that this Park Development group got the property for a steal?

The file makes a note that the Judge who presided over this matter was one Clint Hughson. That the game names him makes me wonder if he’ll play into things later.

I call Mrs. Hoskins herself next, and she agrees to come down to the office.

Let me tell you, this woman is nuts. In an entertaining way. Let’s just say I kind of wish she was my aunt.

But this doesn’t necessarily make her the best client. I mean, she’s hilarious, don’t get me wrong. But think about putting her on the witness stand and how that would play out. Just think about the cross-examination:
Defendant’s Counsel: “So Mrs. Hoskins, tell me why you refused to pay the City of Cypress Hill the $40.00 you were legally required to reimburse them?”

Mrs. Hoskins: “YOU’RE A COMMIE!”

Comedy? Yes. Credibility? I say no, but your mileage may vary.

Anyway, I am able to extract some information out of her:
  • She was upset that the city cut the tree, because her son (who died in the military) used to have a swing on it.
  • She’s a really big nature aficionado, and likens cutting a tree limb to amputating an animal.
  • She called City Hall and kindly informed them that she’d never pay a penny for the infliction of cruelty to living things.
  • That, uh, communists in helicopters were watching her.
  • After further calls from City Hall, she spoke with someone named Harold Korliss, who was very nice. Korliss told Mrs. Hoskins that there must’ve been a computer error and not to worry about anything.
  • Given what Korliss told her, Mrs. Hoskins did not get anything in writing to that effect. THIS is a common way that the shady and unscrupulous (often overlapping categories) take care of those we in the legal business call, without condescension, “unsophisticated parties.” By this, we mean those that don’t know about the law and legal procedures. Why would they? The vast majority of people, thank God, go through their lives with precious little interaction with the American legal system. I can’t speak for other countries, so fill me out in the comments below.
  • On this point, some policemen in February, three months before her court date, delivered to Mrs. Hoskins a giant sheaf of papers. But a woman from City Hall told her they had been sent in error and to ignore them.
  • Finally, Korliss called Mrs. Hoskins again and told her he was trying to get a hearing for her, and that everything would go in her favor. Months went by without any contact, and then Korliss told her again to ignore any notices she got. Which she did. The next thing Mrs. Hoskins knew, she was being evicted.
  • Oh, and that her late husband lives in the walls of the house and talks to her.
It’s relatively clear that Mrs. Hoskins, in addition to being a legally unsophisticated party, is also kinda nuts.

Pictured: Mrs. Hoskins, age 28

Whew. That’s a lot to sort through, and I apologize for the long recitation. But I want to show how this game actually does a very good job of making the player feel like a lawyer. I do actually feel like I’m at work when I play this game, which makes me sort of not want to play it.

I call the redoubtable Joe Spanozi and ask him to look into Korliss, Judge Hughson, and Mrs. Hoskins. Shortly after hanging up, Victor’s secretary calls and informs him that attorney Brackman wants Victor in his office RIGHT AWAY (that’s the game’s capitalization, not mine).

Brackman is not happy with all the time Victor’s been taking on this case, and wants him to convince Mrs. Hoskins to drop the matter so Victor can work on to some stuff that the firm will actually get paid for.

“But what about American Bar Association Model Rule 6.1 which recommends that lawyers perform fifty hours of pro bono work every year?!” you’re probably not asking, because normal people don’t care about any of this. I’ll tell you what about Model Rule 6.1: It’s completely voluntary. That’s the great thing about lawyers writing the rules that govern themselves, isn’t it?

But Victor Sifuentes—the Victor Sifuentes!—he’s having none of that. No siree. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere! Justice delayed is justice denied! And the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice! And justice for all!

*Headbanging intensifies*

But, like a dutiful employee, partner or not, Victor calls Mrs. Hoskins into his office and tries to convince her to drop the case. The game gives several options to this effect, none of which have any effect on Mrs. Hoskins.

“It’s just a house.” Man, what a cold-hearted thing to say to a crazy old lady who is a widower and lost her only child to war. Wow. In other words, he’s a perfect lawyer. No wonder he made partner!

The conversation is going nowhere, but in the middle of it Victor’s secretary relays a message from Jenny—Mrs. Hoskins’ niece—calls Victor to tell him that the house has been torn down.

Mrs. Hoskins is rightly upset, but this news only strengthens her resolve to win this case. She urges Victor to see if they can “get” the city on the “ridiculous payment” she got, considering that her house was worth $250,000.00 last fall. When pressed, Mrs. Hoskins states that at that time a man named Jeremy Wells from Park Development offered her $250,000.00 for the house, but she told him to pound sand.

Park Development . . . the people who bought the house at auction for $85,000.00. This is going deeper than just an unpaid $40.00 bill. And now I have a lead: Jeremy Wells. I know who I’m calling!

. . . after chatting with Joe Spanozi, that is! Here’s a quick rundown of what he found out.
  • Mrs. Hoskins: A nut well known in Cypress Heights for fighting with neighbors, being a conspiracy theorist, and complaining about these conspiracies to City Hall.
  • Harold Korliss: A boring, non-descript pencil-pushing family man who’s been working for City Hall since 1984 which, in this game’s timeline, is maybe a decade.
  • Judge Hughson: Former attorney turned judge. He has an impressive resume, but Joe didn’t find any red flags.
With Joe on the line, I ask him to look into Jeremy Wells. While waiting, I call Wells myself and ask him about the property.

Wells doesn’t want to talk about it, which could be a sign that he’s hiding something, or just that maybe people don’t like discussing their business with unknown lawyers. Beats me. I’d love to hear your take on discussing business dealings with unknown lawyers in the comments below!

While waiting for Joe to call back with the dirt on Wells, I hit the law library and find some information that’s interesting, but not necessarily helpful.

From the timeline given, I think service was properly and timely made on Mrs. Hoskins. Regarding the minimum starting auction bid of 40% of the property’s most recently assessed value, $85,000.00 is 40% of $212,500.00. Still, it is a bit, shall we say, convenient, that the bidding went no higher, especially for a property that a developer from upstate New York seem so hot to buy. And if the property was actually worth $250,000.00, and that’s not just what Wells offered but the real assessed value, 40% would be $100,000.00. So the starting bid and eventual sale price would be in clear violation of this law.

But, as with many things in this game, I have no way of finding out this vital piece of information. C’est la vie.

I figure now, with only a few hours until trial, is as good a time as any to bounce some ideas off of my colleagues and see if anyone knows anything about Park Development. I start with Tom Mullaney, of course, who tells me to check with Stuart Berkowitz, as these sort of cases are up his alley.

Stuart’s a bit cranky, but he has the useful suggestion to call the Southern California Business Journal to see if they can give me some information about Park Development.

Back in the office, I get a call from Joe. He has some interesting information about our Mr. Jeremy Wells from Park Development: Harold Korliss, clerk at the City of Cypress Heights’ City Hall is Wells’ uncle!

Everything appears above-board, but it’s interesting that Wells has been buying up tons of properties in Cypress Heights.

I call the Business Journal next. A man named Phil Taylor has a lot of info about Park Development:
  • They’re a big company from “back east” with a lot of foreign money.
  • They deal mostly in real estate, starting in the Midwest where they bought abandoned properties and built condo complexes.
  • They have been moving into media, and recently bought the Valley Star. 
  • Park Development’s manager is named Steinholtz, who is a “standard yuppie.” Wells is their west coast manager. 
  • Their future plans are pretty secretive, but there are rumors about them wanting to build a huge mall/amusement park in Cypress Heights. 
The Valley Star is on the game’s list of phone numbers, but the contact person isn’t there. Bereft of leads, I check with opposing counsel, who is about as helpful as one would expect a digitized photograph of an actor portraying a lawyer would be.

Ah well. Time for trial.

The Trial

The City of Cypress Heights, through their counsel, requests a summary dismissal (i.e., summary judgment in their favor, as they allege there are no disputed issues of material fact to be litigated), plus costs. What a jerk!

The game then gives me four options to choose in opposition to this motion, none of which are good:

The first isn’t true, because, by my math, $85,000.00 IS the required 40% minimum bid on a $212,000.00 (or was it $212,500.00?) property. I have no proof of the second, as the grounds weren’t “trumped up”: Mrs. Hoskins did fail repeatedly to pay a fee, albeit for only $40.00, and did not attend her hearing. The third makes the most sense, if you ask me. And the fourth is another one I have no proof of. Now, if I had contacted a doctor to assess her mental impairment, that would’ve been one thing. But I don’t think a trial is the time to allege this sort of thing sans any proof, unless you want to request a continuance, which is (a) unlikely to fly at trial and (b) is a very risky legal strategy.

I go with the third option, that Harold Korliss tricked Mrs. Hoskins, even though I would have preferred to have shown that the house was sold for a starting bid below the statutory minimum. But what I want doesn’t matter, because the judge grants the defense’s summary judgment.

It kind of is a question of legality, because tricking someone into agreeing or not agreeing with something is illegal, especially if they have a degree of mental impairment, but this game is hardly flexible enough to allow a robust and complete legal defense, so I take the L even though I’m not happy about it.

I take that back: I’m not accepting the L. Screw you, Leland. I’m handicapped by this game’s ham-handed way of simulating legal work. Nothing left to do but hit the “Restore” button, and I’m back where I started.

Trial Prep, Again

I go through the same steps I did above, except I click on the first two options when talking to Jeremy Wells instead of jumping straight to asking him about Mrs. Hoskins’ property. The only bit of useful information I glean is why his company is interested in Cypress Heights.

Okay, good to know. The only wrinkle this time is that I’m unable to contact the Business Journal. For whatever reason, I get no answer. Is this because I called before talking to Stuart? Did I have to talk to Tom and then Stuart? Because when I went to Stuart for advice after making the call, the Journal still doesn’t pick up. Did I torpedo my own case?

I chat with Tom, hoping he’ll tell me to talk to Stuart, which will then let me contact the Journal, but Tom now has this to say:

What? Why the change? How does this game work? What triggers any of this? I really wish I knew. This is why, while the game does make you feel like a lawyer, I can’t say that it exactly works as a game. I can’t figure out the mechanics.

Marcia Kelly helpfully sends over the records for Mrs. Hoskins’ number during that time, a thing I thought you needed very compelling evidence to acquire—if I remember correctly, much TV policing about getting phone records is highly exaggerated, and even they are supposed to need a warrant or some other heightened necessity to get phone records. But this is just a game based on a TV show, so I shouldn’t be surprised at the attenuated realism.

The records appear in Victor’s case file, and they show a number during the dates in question, the dates Mrs. Hoskins said she spoke with that nice young man from City Hall.

Now, who could that be?

Korliss. Interesting. Victor hangs up right after, and we go to trial.

The Trial, Again

This time around, opposing counsel is singing a different tune. I don’t know what it was—proof that Korliss manipulated Mrs. Hoskins? This doesn’t seem like the strongest proof, quite honesty, but it’s better than merely Mrs. Hoskins’ testimony.

I still don’t know why Victor didn’t just depose Korliss, but say it with me again, folks: it’s just a game.

Park Development offers Mrs. Korliss a settlement of $275,000.00, along with 1,0000 shares of stock equaling $60,000.00. I like what the game does next: it gives me the options to accept on Mrs. Hoskins’ behalf, decline, or ask her what she thinks.

I decide to ask her what she thinks, because it isn’t the lawyer’s job to make decisions for the client. In my experience at formal mediations and other settlement discussions, I request a private meeting with my clients to discuss options, but here we do it all in the open. Justice is blind! No, wait . . . Sunlight is the best disinfectant!

Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Mrs. Hoskins, for such a kooky old lady, plays a little hardball here.

She ups the offer to $350,000.000 and 3,000 shares of stock, and Park Development accepts! Everyone is happy now, including the big boss Leland McKenzie.

Alright, on to the next case. And this looks like it’ll be a doozy.

Oh boy: The woman I helped with her divorce back in case #4, who ended up reconciling with her shady money laundering husband, has killed him. And guess who’s representing her?

“I made partner, guys!”

Session Time: 40 minutes
Total Play Time: 4 hours, 35 minutes
Record: 5-1


  1. So, Mr. Sifuentes seems to have a broad field of expertise, since he's doing murders, divorces, property law etc. Is this just a complete fiction or are there truly generalist lawyers, who are willing to take any type of case whatsoever?

  2. No kidding! Vic sure gets around.

    In real firms, there is a mixture of both generalists and specialists, although in high-end firms, or firms with a lot of attorneys, lawyers tend to specialize. A lot of that is due to how deep you can go in just one area (tax, divorce, even just one particular crime . . .). Still, there is always a home for a jack-of-all-trades.

    In my personal experience, lawyers usually join a practice--or start their own--doing a bit of everything until they find their niche.

  3. If an unknown lawyer called me, I'd definitely want to know why, so I'd talk to them. Though it's just as likely I'd suspect it was a telemarketer and hang up before the lawyer got beyond giving me a name.

    1. Hah! You are far more trusting than I am. Me, I’d tell them to pound sand, and then get my own lawyer (assuming I weren’t one).

      Absent a subpoena, you really generally have no legal obligation to talk to anyone.