Jan 13, 2021

The Mondale Administration

March 1985. 

I had spent the morning in Court, and needed to get back to my legal aid office. It was just a couple of blocks from the Arlington, Virginia Courthouse. The area was, at that time before the subway changed everything, dotted with small independent restaurants, filled at lunchtime with lawyers and police and others connected to the court system. I liked going out for lunch. I liked seeing everyone, listening to the buzz, and just getting away from my office. 

But on that day I was in a bit of a rush, so I picked up a turkey sandwich, and went back to the office. It was 12:30 and my first appointment wasn't scheduled until 1:30. However, since I had been out of the office for a few hours, there would be plenty of messages to return. Plus, I had a hearing in a few days and needed to check in with my clients -- I wanted to make sure they remembered the time and date and where to meet me. Part lawyer/part social worker. 

I walked into the reception area and took a quick glance around. A few clients sat there waiting. An elderly couple to see the Elder Law Attorney; a young woman with a couple of kids quietly pulling on her skirt. A single middle aged man. Looks like he might be trying to sell us something. 

I hung up my coat, sat down at my desk and opened my sandwich, and my secretary came in. 

"Your 1:30 came in at noon. Do you want to see him now?"

"Bring him back in 5 minutes." Clients come in that early for a variety of reasons; sometimes it was the only time they could get a ride; other times it reflected their anxiety. Saw no reason to keep him waiting.

So much for returning messages. I quickly ate, scanned my stack of yellow telephone messages to make sure nothing was urgent, and, 5 minutes later, Benjamin Clark* walked in. Benny (as he insisted I call him) looked like someone who worked in an office, and not my usual client. He was about 50, wearing khakis and a plaid button down shirt. Oh, the guy I thought was selling something is a client. A bit unusual.

Most of my clients were women, and the few men were either with their wives or much younger. Benny had a manilla file folder with him, bulging with assorted papers, that he clutched as he sat down. The client intake sheet summarized his problem as "civil matter." I figured it was a dispute over a used car or other consumer issue. I liked to guess what a client's problem was before he or she said anything and I was often right.

I introduced myself and mentioned that I was a lawyer. I was young, and there weren't a lot of women attorneys back then. It wasn't unusual for my clients to think I was a student or a paralegal. That was why I had all my diplomas and certificates framed and hung in the office. Sure enough, Benny glanced up and checked out my certificates. 

After a few seconds, I asked him what I could do for him.

Benny pulled out a folded set of papers from his file. Immediately, I recognized them as legal papers - they had a pale blue cover sheet and were legal size (8 and 1/2 by 14 - rarely used now). I took them and turned to the most important part of any court pleading -- the last page. If it's a Court order, the final decision is there and if not, the last page will summarize what it's all about. 

In this case, a company was asking for an injunction against Benny, ordering him to stop "slandering" the company. Slander? This was a first for me. Right away, I reviewed everything I knew about slander in Virginia law. That took a second, because I knew absolutely nothing about slander law in Virginia or anywhere else. I thought about calling my assistant to research slander but then I remembered -- this wasn't a law firm, this was legal aid. I didn't have an assistant.

"Ok, Benny, tell me what happened. Why is Speedy Photocopying Services suing you?"

"Well, I was working for Speedy..."

My heart sank. Employment disputes were the worst. I hadn't had a lot of employment cases, but the ones I had were doozies - tensions were higher than in divorces. I knew why workplace violence was a thing. People at work can get really angry with each other and are completely unable to compromise. And they get angry with their lawyers. During the last employment case I had my client filing a complaint against me! (that was before we won the case.) No, not an employment case! Don't do this to me. 

"Doing what?"

"I was a salesman. Speedy fixes copiers and supplies toner and all that and I would go around to small businesses to get them to sign a service contract with Speedy. But, then I couldn't do it anymore. Speedy is going under. I couldn't in good conscious sign contracts and get money from these companies when I know Speedy is going to go bankrupt. So I told all their clients that they are going bankrupt. I had no choice."

"How do you know Speedy is going bankrupt? Did they tell you?"

"No, OF COURSE  they didn't tell me." Benny's voice was getting a little louder and faster. I put up my hands and said, "Slow down. There's plenty of time to get into all of it." 

Benny shifted in his sheet, put his folder on the chair next to him, and leaned in.

"I know they are going bankrupt. I know things. I know things before other people know things. I just know things. No one believes me but I AM ALWAYS RIGHT."

Excellent chance that Benny was not always right and in fact, was probably rarely right. This was all going in a different direction than I had anticipated when I first saw him, and it was about to go right off the map.

I let Benny talk some more and sure enough, it became crystal clear that Benny had no real reason to believe that Speedy was going bankrupt. He just "knew it" and he "knew it" because the voices in his head told him. 

My heart sank when Benny started talking about the voices. One of the first things you learn working in legal aid is that the legal problem that the client has is often one of the least important things going on in his life at that time. Benny's problem wasn't slander; it was schizophrenia. If doctors couldn't help, how could I?

I interrupted and asked him for a moment to read the pleadings. I needed to give him time to unwind and I needed a break. Turns out Speedy wasn't asking for any damages (money) from Benny, which was good because Benny didn't have any. The company just wanted him to shut up and stop spreading lies. 

So I asked Benny: "Would you be willing to agree not to talk about Speedy -- not to call their clients or anyone else and tell them that Speedy is about to file bankruptcy? I mean what difference does it make to you anymore? You can get rid of this entire lawsuit by agreeing to not talk about Speedy."

A simple matter.

"No, I cannot do that. People need to know what is going on."

I actually felt a little sorry for Speedy. Their papers indicated that they had lost 2 clients after Benny called those clients. Speedy attached an affidavit spelling out in some detail its sound financial shape. But I didn't represent Speedy - Benny was my client.

Rule #1 when dealing with a client with schizophrenia is not to challenge the disordered thinking. It was a waste of time and would undercut any trust he might develop in me. 

"Benny, I'm not asking you to change your opinions or belief. But the law is a bit of a game. If you agree to it, we can draft up an order saying you won't talk about Speedy again and no one will have to go to Court."

"No. I want to explain to the Judge WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON."

"Ok. That is your absolute right. In the meantime, I'm curious what's in that file of yours? Are there any other papers you think I should know about?" 

Benny handed the folder to me and I flipped through the papers. Lordy. A report from the Secret Service. A first for me. I scanned it and sat back.

"Benny, when did you move to Arlington?"

Benny explained that he left his home in Mississippi the day after the election the prior November. (This was the Presidential election in which President Reagan had been reelected, beating Walter Mondale in a landslide.) Benny left because, as he put it, "after Mondale won, I decided to work for him. So I drove up to Washington and after Mondale's inauguration, I went to the White House to report for work." Benny didn't think that Reagan was the President, and that it should have been Mondale. Rather, Benny believed that Mondale was the President. 

The Secret Service Report summarized the situation and kindly referred Benny to social services in Arlington, where Benny was living. But, Benny didn't feel the need for any services, so he got a job with Speedy instead. 

The papers also indicated that Benny had worked for the Veteran's Administration in Mississippi for over 20 years. The VA fired him and pretty much begged him to apply for disability by reason of his diagnosis of schizophrenia. Because of his Federal job, he was eligible for a disability and pension and the precious health insurance that came with it. 

"Benny, it says here that you could get a disability pension. What do you think about that?"

"That's crazy! I'm not disabled. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ME. Those people didn't understand me one bit. No one understands."


"But wouldn't it be great to get the money anyway? I could help you apply. It's money you are entitled to. That's your money that you have plus health insurance."

Benny looked at me like I was crazy and said "I would never take money that I am not entitled to. That's not honest." Benny had schizophrenia and that dominated his life, but Benny was a human being, and also  a sweet honorable man. I like Benny.

The very condition that made him unable to hold a job was preventing Benny from accepting money and health care -- health care that might make him able to work. I had seen this before. Courts had recently granted mentally ill people with important rights, but those rights sometimes backfired. Like a lot of issues, it was complicated. The system itself was far from perfect; in fact it was often crazy.

"Ok, Benny; What are you doing for money now?"

"I'm a cabdriver." Yikes.

I couldn't help myself. I had to delve. 

"Benny, do you still think Mondale is the President, because look here." I gestured to my copy of the Washington Post on my desk, where the headline mentioned President Reagan. "I mean, I think Reagan is the President. The Washington Post thinks Reagan is the President. I think Mondale lost." 

"You're wrong. The Post is wrong. I don't know why they are doing this. I know Mondale won. I KNOW he is the President. They are keeping me from working at the White House, but I know if he knew I was here he would want me working there."

I backed off. I didn't want a truly agitated Benny. And it wasn't fair to poke his delusions just to satisfy my curiosity. And, honestly, a tiny part of me was happy to imagine that Benny was right. I wasn't happy with Reagan's win. The Reagan Administration had a practice of denying ALL claims for Social Security Disability and making every claimant file an appeal. It wrecked havoc on their lives and the system. I wasn't a fan, plus I liked Mondale a lot. But I suspect there was only one person in the US who thought Mondale was the President and that was Benny.

Shaking my head, I snapped back to reality and turned the conversation back to his Court case. Benny promised me that he would come to Court on Friday and I agreed to let him testify. I knew it would be a disaster, but I would try to represent him as best as I could. I didn't want him humiliated in public. I called opposing counsel and let him know that I was representing Benny. He explained that Speedy didn't want to hurt Benny -- they realized he was very ill. They were only doing this to protect their business. I couldn't say much in response, but I let the lawyer know that Benny would be testifying.

I dreaded that hearing. It was going to be awful and it would be public. I just hoped that we would get one of the nicer Judges. 

Benny failed to show up. I had no way of contacting him since he didn't have a phone and could only ask for a continuance. Speedy's lawyer told the Court that Benny had serious mental issues and detailed the havoc he was causing Speedy. He opposed a continuance because that would add expense to Speedy by the way of additional attorneys fees. The owner of the company was there and was prepared to testify. The Judge asked me to respond. All I could do was repeat Benny's position -- that he denied slandering Speedy, wanted an opportunity to testify, and asked again for a continuance.

The Judge looked at me. He knew that I knew that he knew that I knew that Speedy was right, but I couldn't say it. He granted the injunction. I mailed it to Benny at his last known address. I never heard from Benny again but I also never heard from Speedy's lawyer either, so I suspect that Benny was smart enough to stop talking about Speedy. 

Hmm.. The Mondale Administration. 

Sounds good to me.

** All names and some details changed to protect privacy. 


Cat Craig said...

Your stories are so captivating. They’d make a fabulous collection of short stories. Thank you for sharing.

Susan Raihala said...

Joan, I adore your legal aid stories; you are such an excellent writer. This one makes me so sad for Benny, though. You did what you could, Speedy did what it could, and the judge did what the judge could. Compassion all the way around.

Vikki H said...

Your story affirms that mental illness needs compassion, listening, and patience. I enjoyed this so much. Please keep sharing. My dad practiced general law with an emphasis on property rights. His stories of acquiring land through negotiation or condemnation for I-80 for Nebraska were so interesting. He loved listening to people's stories.

Andrew and Bertha Pilgrim said...

I find your stories so interesting and fascinating. Law is as much about social work as it is about the practice. This story really did leave me wondering, what happened to Benny? In the society that I grew up in, all people with mental health issues were "mad" and to be avoided at all costs. Really, they need to be seen, heard and respected. I'm sure it was difficult to know how to help Benny, but maybe by telling him that you were going to allow him the chance to speak and be heard you satisfied his need and he no longer felt the urge.

Julie said...

Thank you. For sharing this story. And your gift in the telling of it.

Taasha Blevins said...

I love your writing. Your card making skills and posts are also amazing. But, your story telling is so wonderful. Like others, I appreciated your compassion and patience with Benny. So often mental health issues are not treated with kindness and compassion.

sparkling stamper said...

Thanks for sharing. I don’t think there’s been a time in our country when there was so much mental illness. You have a special gift of story telling, however, the compassion you exhibited in your lawyer life was wonderful.

Jeanne H said...

What an interesting story. These days we all need attention like your client. BTW, I was a strong supporter of Mondale and he spoke at my then husband's graduation!