Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Catty Legal Problem

Ask lawyers and their clients this question: Judges know the law-true or false? Their answer depends upon whether they won or lost their last case. I’m not even sure what it means to “know the law.” In fact, judges often rely on lawyers to educate them about the application of law to the facts of a particular case and hope to discern when they are mis-educated.

But many people think that judges are presumed “to know the law.” If judges knew the law so well, why do they ask so many questions? “Counsel, would not collateral estoppel apply here?” More often than not this isn’t a mere rhetorical device to stimulate discussion. But have you ever heard a judge outside of the courtroom admitting he doesn’t know the answer to a question, legal or otherwise? Has anyone ever heard a judge ask a lawyer at a bar function to explain what is a retraxit?

By now dear reader you may have guessed that I am leading up to something. I have a legal problem and I don’t know my rights. It is easier to make this admission to you, anonymous reader, than to a person standing before me whose stifled laughter I would notice.

My legal problem can be summed up in one word-CAT, not a tractor or Computerized Axial Tomography, mind you. They at least do some good and they don’t scratch furniture. O.K. I am a little upset. So just pretend I am a client sitting across the desk from you. If you are not a lawyer, pretend anyway. If I include facts that are not pertinent, please bear with me. Remember, I am a client.

So here is what happened. We had this cat, Boz. He showed up at the Court of Appeal, a mere kitten, about 16 years ago. So I took him home and he has been with my wife Barbara and me ever since, that is, until he died about a year ago. He was ill, but we made the last several months of his life comfortable. For example, we held off remodeling our house until he passed on. I don’t have to tell you how much construction costs increased when we finally began the project.

After the passage of an appropriate time, we had planned to get another cat to fill the void in our lives left by Boz. If a spouse dies, you don’t just go out and get married the next month. But cats are animals, selfish ones at that, and the appropriate grieving period is much shorter than it is for humans. Twenty-four hours is a little tight. So we thought we would wait a week or so.

There must be something in our karma, or maybe it has to do with our astrological signs, or maybe the word goes out in the feline community when there is a vacancy at the Gilbert residence. It never fails: cats always show up on our door step just at the time we are contemplating getting one. I don’t even know what it means to buy a cat. Do people actually buy cats? I wouldn’t be caught dead with an expensive Persian wearing an emerald collar around his neck.

Anyway, as ironic as it seems, a lovely elderly lady who lived up the street died around the same time as Boz. She didn’t exactly have a cat, but one lived on her roof for about a year. Her caretaker fed the cat, not on the roof of course. The cat came down to get her meals. During the week they wouldn’t let the cat in the house because the caretaker was allergic to cats. But on the weekend the lady’s daughter drove up from San Diego to relieve the caretaker who was off Saturday and Sunday. The daughter would let the cat in. I bet that caused havoc with the caretaker when she came back on Monday. But that is neither here nor there.

So when the mother died the daughter was panicked about what to do with the cat. She wanted to take the cat with her to San Diego, but thought it would be too traumatic, either for her or the cat, I'm not sure which. The daughter begged us to take the cat. She told us that when the cat first showed up it had a collar and a tag with a phone number. When she called, the kid at the other end of the line said they didn’t have a cat and hung up. So doesn’t that mean it was O.K. for us to take the cat?

I brought the cat over to our house. She, yes, this was a she. We always had males. I can tell you without hesitation male cats are much better tempered than females. I carried her and she actually growled. I bet she thought she was a dog. So I held her tight and brought her into the house. She checked the place out and knew immediately she had a good deal, food, lodging, toys and a medical plan. She purred and meowed and decided right then and there to stay. Simple as that. Barbara even gave her a name. Opus or Oh Puss. Get it?

Opus was temperamental as all get out. But she took to Barbara right away. You would think they were sisters or something. They hung out together all the time, carrying on with their private conversations, snuggling in bed. Most of the time Opus didn’t have much use for me, except when she was hungry. I get up earlier than Barbara, and Opus would follow me downstairs for breakfast. That made no sense because we had dry food in her dish at all times. She would look at me and meow for food that was already in her dish. I don’t know if this cat was a moron or just liked seeing me do things for her. I didn’t even have to put new food in her dish. I just stirred the food around a little and then she would chow down. Go figure.

We bought her a collar and dozens of toys that she drenched in cat spit and left all over the house. She was selfish and egocentric but on occasion thought to redeem herself by reciprocating for our generosity. For example, on various occasions she brought us disemboweled rats, lizards and birds, some still clinging to the last threads of life. That was sweet I suppose, but depositing them on our bed in the middle of the night did not allow for a restful night’s sleep.

After close to a year of doting attention, we took her to the vet for a checkup. Yes, she had been “fixed,” (a term I find particularly offensive) and the vet tech gave her shots for a cost of $176. I have been told we got off cheap. A few days later Opus went out for an afternoon prowl and simply disappeared. Barbara was heartbroken. We searched the neighborhood, inquired of residents in a two block radius of our home, searched garages and sheds where she might have been trapped. Nothing.

I blamed this loss on coyotes who I was certain had dined on her. But as it turns out, the coyotes did not eat her. Six weeks after her disappearance she shows up, her fur straggly and matted. Although she was grossly overweight, she still begged for a handout. She wore a new collar on which was attached a tag and a phone number. Barbara called the number to inform whoever answered that she or he had our cat and thanks for taking care of her.

The lady at the other end of the line lives on an adjacent street no more than 100 yards from our house and claims that "Snookie" (her name for Opus), is and always has been her cat who has been missing for (are you ready for this?), two years and she would like to come over and get her. Rather than argue over the telephone, Barbara gave the lady directions to our house and she said she was coming over. An hour later (that’s how long it took to find our house which is half a block away), she came in her SUV with her 9 year old daughter who had allegedly been heart broken over the loss of “Snookie.” For two years? Give me a break.

I was ready for some serious negotiations when she whipped out a photo album showing Opus or "Snookie" as a kitten, and then as a mother nursing her young. One of her kittens who is now a grown male, Rex, and still living at his place of birth, was purported to have amorous inclinations towards his mother before she was “fixed.” That’s cats for you. But to be perfectly honest the photos were convincing. Opus and Snookie are one and the same. No doubt about it. Add to that the presence of a pouting 9 year old daughter and I knew a successful negotiation was as likely as President Bush admitting to a mistake.

In utter defeat I led the mother and daughter upstairs where they scooped up the sleeping Opus, who I think growled, and left with a curt good bye and no offer to pay the recently incurred vet bill. It is obvious that the overweight Opus is not eating proper food. And she hasn’t been brushed since she lived with us. That seemed a good basis for getting her back. I did some research, violating the rule about having an ass for a client, and it was not helpful.

In an opinion out of the second district, In re Marriage of Isbell, Willoughby (2005) authored last year by my colleague, the now retired Justice Nott, the appellate court concluded that in a marital dissolution action there is no authority to support who should get custody of Emmit the cat based on the best interest of Emmit. Instead, the court opined the only consideration is whether Emmit is the separate property of the wife. Luckily the opinion is unpublished and therefore not citable.

In another unpublished opinion, also from the Second District, my colleagues in Division V were of no use. The justices had their backs up, about whether a cat who bites should be tethered. In Goldshine v. Lafferty (2004) the appellate court acknowledged out-of-state authority that holds it is not abnormal for cats to bite under the right circumstances. For example in Lee v. Weaver (1976 195 Neb. 194, 237 N.W.2d 149) the appellate court found it not surprising that the cat who growled at the housekeeper’s vacuum cleaner and broom would one day bite the housekeeper. Opus growled at me and the vacuum cleaner on occasion, but I cannot say she bit me. And this is where George Bush and I are of like mind. I bet he agrees that she would have bitten me if she could. But getting damages for infliction of emotional distress might be a stretch.

Then I found a recent case directly on point. Unfortunately, it is of no use. It’s from Texas. In Willick v. Deastadeak (183 S.W. 3d 92, Tex.App. Dallas, 2006), defendant found a kitten shivering in the rain and cold in front of his house. He took cat in and nurtured him back to health and incurred vet bills. Over a year later, plaintiff, the original owner who lives next door, saw the cat in the neighbors window. Both sides want the cat. Neither will accept money. The Justice court ruled in favor of new owner who named the cat "Biscuit." On trial de novo court ruled in favor of original owner who named the cat "Sweet Pea" and awarded $80 damages. The Court of Appeal ducked the issue by deciding it lacks jurisdiction to hear the case. We might have had an answer if the damages had been at least $100.

I called my friend, the ancient but still wise Miss Anne Thrope who once wrote a legal advice column for the Police Gazette. Her advice was as follows: “Get over it and get on with your life.” I don’t believe she adequately researched the problem. If you agree with her, please don’t bother to write.

No comments: