When a friend I'll call Michelle moved to LA last September her landlord stiffed her for the $1,875 security deposit. She and her husband sent him an e-mail and left messages on his answering machine, but he didn't respond. When they asked their old next-door neighbor to talk to him he said he'd sent the check.
In December they threatened to sue. In February they enlisted me to file the papers in small claims court. Michelle got as much information as she could online, then called the Cook County Circuit Court and had the clerk explain the entire process.
I walked into room 601 of the Daley Center, Michelle's complaint and printed list of instructions in hand. The line was short. I told the man behind the counter that I was filing on behalf of a friend and needed to fill out the form to have a summons delivered to the landlord by certified mail. He handed me a four-page form and three sheets of carbon paper--the first I'd seen in 20 years. He told me I also needed four copies of the complaint and pointed to the Xerox machines in the corner.
I filled out the form, made three copies of the complaint--50 cents a page, six bucks total--and got back in line. This time a woman was behind the counter, so I explained again that I was filing on behalf of a friend.
"You're not one of these people on the form?" she said.
She said the form had to be signed by Michelle and her husband and notarized. I said Michelle had talked to someone in the clerk's office who told her I could fill out the form for her.
"Well, that person was wrong," she said. "Do you have the person's name?"
Of course I didn't, but saying so wasn't going to get me anywhere. I asked her what I should do.
"They have to sign the form and get it notarized," she said. "I just hand out forms. I'm not supposed to hand out advice. I could lose my job."
I kept rolling over the conflicting information in my head, trying to decide if I had an option.
"What do you want me to do?" the woman said sharply.
Still confused, I finally stammered that I just wanted to know that I had the right form and all the papers I needed.
"That's the right form," she said.
A couple weeks later I went back with the complaint, the copies, and the signed and notarized summons form. Following Michelle's instructions, I got in line in room 602, and 20 minutes later piled my papers in front of a sad-looking man. He sorted through them, showed me where to write the date the landlord had to respond by, and told me the fee was $144.34.
I pulled out the blank check Michelle had sent me and started filling it out. The man asked if it was my check, because if it wasn't he couldn't accept it. I told him it was Michelle's but the clerk she'd talked to had said it was OK.
"I need a driver's license that goes with the check," he said. "You can write a check or you can go get cash."
I didn't have my checkbook or any way of getting cash. I sighed and asked him if I had all the right forms and if they were all filled out right, so that when I came back I could just pay and be done. He assured me they were fine.
A week later I waited in line for 15 minutes, gave the man behind the counter the summons form, the four copies of the complaint, and my own check. He gave me a receipt--and handed back two of the copies. Oddly enough, I walked out of the Daley Center feeling that in some small way I'd triumphed over the bureaucracy.
Michelle's landlord had 30 days to respond to the summons, but he managed to keep ducking the mail carrier and never got it. In May I was back in line in room 602 with the new signed and notarized form Michelle had sent me, asking the sheriff to serve the summons. She'd even had her sister, a lawyer, call the clerk's office to make sure it was the right one.
"That's only for certified mail," said the slightly frazzled woman behind the counter. She told me to go across the hallway to room 601 to get the form for the sheriff.
In 601 I wound up standing in front of the guy who a month earlier had handed me the certified-mail form without telling me it'd be a waste of time to fill it out. I didn't say anything, and he didn't seem to recognize me. He handed me the form for the sheriff. Four pages, carbonless.
Back to 602 and a short line. The frazzled woman gave me the date the landlord had to respond by, stamped the form, and told me the fee was $6. Michelle had been told there were no more fees to pay since she'd already paid the filing fee, but I just took out my checkbook. The woman stamped the check and the summons form, then asked if the clerk in 601 had told me to take the form up to the sheriff's office. I said he hadn't.
She didn't say anything more, but as I walked into the hall something told me to go to 601 and double-check. Short line. The woman at the counter told me I did indeed have to take the forms to the sheriff's office, one floor up.
There was no line at the sheriff's office, just three women sitting behind the counter, writing. None of them looked up. I walked up to a young woman, who kept filling out a form--an employee information sheet. I stood there a minute, another half minute, then said as politely as I could, "Am I in the right place?"
She slowly lifted her head and said sullenly, "What do you want?"
I told her I had a form asking the sheriff to serve a summons.
She shuffled through the four sheets and said, "Where's the complaint?" I'd brought every paper I had, so I had one of the copies the cashier had given back to me a month earlier. She flipped through it and said, "This has to be signed and notarized. And it has to be stamped."
"Stamped by whom?" I said.
"Go down to 602 and get it stamped," she said, and went back to filling out her form.
A half-dozen people were now in line for the frazzled woman. My frustration overcame my guilt, and I walked around them, holding up the complaint for her to see. I told her the woman in the sheriff's office said the complaint had to be signed and notarized and stamped.
"What's she talking about?" the woman said. "You don't need to have the complaint signed and notarized because you've already filed the case. And you don't need it stamped. I did everything I was supposed to." She sighed. "She probably wants the case number on it--but you can just write it in." She sighed again. "I can stamp it." She turned the wheels on an old-fashioned rubber stamp, thumped it on an ink pad, and stamped the complaint.
Three people were in line at the sheriff's office. The young woman had disappeared, and I walked up to a middle-aged woman whose hands were covered with what looked like white paint. She was explaining to a coworker that while she was at lunch someone had spilled Wite-Out on the counter and hadn't cleaned it up. She'd accidentally set her coat down in it and now she couldn't get the stuff off her hands.
The woman quickly flipped through the papers I handed her, wrote in pencil on the summons form, told me to step down to the cashier--and handed back the complaint.
"$27.40," said the cashier.
I said halfheartedly that Michelle had been told there were no more fees to pay.
"This is for the sheriff," she said.
I wrote out another check.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Elizabeth M. Tamny.