As an appellate attorney, I get a bird’s eye perspective on a lot of current human behavior (at least in the United States). I’ve started to take note of certain recurring habits that lead to terrible consequences. Avoiding them is often relatively easy, and it pains me to see people struggling through litigation because they failed to take a simple preventative measure. I’m going to write about these issues from time to time—and I’ll call them Life Lessons From a Law Practice.
Lesson #1: Always read your mail.
I have worked on countless cases where the only reason it has progressed to a point where an appeal is necessary is because the client failed to read their mail. This issue is different from–but related to–the rather well-known tendency among just about everybody to not read the fine print before signing a contract (which has led to some interesting outcomes, both good and bad). Under the law, failing to read your mail is arguably much worse: it can be catastrophic to your legal rights and will end up costing you money as you fight to win back what you’ve lost by missing a crucial letter.
Before you think this will never happen to you, consider these three scenarios taken from my recent caseload (note: some of the details have been changed to protect my clients’ confidences).
First, how would you feel if you suddenly found out that your home was scheduled for a foreclosure auction and you had no idea? That is exactly what happened to one of my clients. The crazy thing is that this was a foreclosure of a tax lien that totaled a mere $1,500.
The law requires a foreclosing plaintiff to strictly follow a number of procedures to ensure that a home is not sold without giving the homeowner a chance to pay off the tax lien. In this case, the lien was so small that the homeowner would have paid it immediately to avoid foreclosure. But somehow the case got all the way to the point where the home was sold at an auction. Why? The homeowner missed the numerous notices that were mailed to her about the case—she simply failed to read her mail. (I know it’s possible that the notices were lost in the mail, especially given the atrocious state of the U.S. Postal Service, but there were so many notices mailed in this case that it’s hard to argue that all of them were lost).
My client managed to halt the completion of that sale by filing an order to show cause right after the auction. But of course the successful bidder at the auction is appealing. Thus my services are required to convince the Appellate Division that my client is entitled to pay off the lien at this late date, despite the fact that she failed to do anything after the plaintiff mailed her all of the required notices. This was all completely avoidable. She could have paid off the tax lien as soon as she got notice of it.
In another case, my client lost his home completely but not in a foreclosure. The home was ruined in a fire, and when he called his insurance company to report the loss, he was informed that his policy had been canceled six months earlier (to his great surprise). It took years for him to get to the bottom of what happened, after sorting through piles of documents in a contentious litigation with the insurance company. But in the end the case came down to this: the insurance company mailed him several notices regarding the impending, and then actual, cancellation of his policy and it appears he did not read them.
The motion court put the onus directly on my client and held the insurance company was not responsible for his failure to read his mail. In his appeal, I made an impassioned argument about the unfairness of denying coverage when the insurance company had no grounds to cancel the coverage anyway (the reason they gave for the cancellation ended up being an error on their part). He was not expecting to receive those notices, because he had paid the premium, so he shouldn’t be penalized for not seeing them.
The Appellate Division wholeheartedly disagreed. One of the judges flatly told me (in oral argument) that all the people he knows always read their mail.
Even if the judge’s sentiment is checked out of reality–because we all know people (sometimes a lot of people) who ignore their mail–it’s a pretty accurate expression of what I’ve seen all across the law: there is no tolerance for not reading your mail, and there is a presumption that you have done so.
The last scenario is from a divorce case, which of course has incredibly high stakes. The client was held in contempt because he failed to appear at a hearing. Notice of the hearing was mailed to him at his workplace, but he didn’t check his mailbox there, so he never got the notice. The client filed a motion to vacate the contempt order and argued the notice should have been sent to his home address, of which his adversary was aware.
Maybe the judge will buy it. Maybe not. I’m not optimistic because of the widespread judicial sentiment that “justice” requires penalizing those who do not read their mail, regardless of where it is sent. Likely this case will end up on appeal, and I will strive to convince the Appellate Division that the client was not expecting to receive mail from his ex-wife’s attorney at his workplace so it is reasonable that he did not see it.
It would have been easier, and less expensive, for everyone if the client had just checked his work mailbox and read his mail.
I know there is a strong emotional urge to bury your head in the sand and ignore painful messages. But as any good therapist will tell you, if you ignore the problem it will not go away, it will only get bigger. This is especially true in the legal system. So I’ll say it one more time:
Always. Read. Your. Mail.
If you are in a bind because you missed something in the mail, and your case is on appeal, get in touch and I will do my best to help you.