Denver Bar Association
June 2003
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A Real Class Act

by Doug McQuiston

 

Litigation, Western Union and the mother of a lawyer

We need funny!" The usually laid-back Docket editor was edgy, anxious during our monthly editorial lunch. "We’ve gone too long without something ‘funny.’ "

"But it’s hard to be funny in these unfunny times," we argued. "Hell," I thought, "it’s hard for us to be funny even in funny times . . ." Just when I thought I was going to hit the black hole of editorial inspiration, it came to me. Literally. In the mail.

This may not sound funny at first, but stay with me. To know the whole story, you’d have to know my mother. A fiercely intelligent but self-taught woman, she made her own way in the world. She was smarter than most lawyers, and had little use for them. Even when she died, almost four years ago, she needed no lawyer to assist her on her journey to the Great Beyond.

This brings us to my discovery, there in my mailbox, of a letter. It was from a law firm, addressed to my mother. What could it be?

As my mom’s estate’s personal representative, I had changed her address to mine when she passed away almost four years ago, to receive any claims or other correspondence. Aside from the odd Reader’s Digest and Omaha Steak catalogs, I hadn’t gotten any mail addressed to her for more than three years. I felt it was my obligation to open the letter. It was too late for a claim against her modest estate, but I worried nonetheless. Quel surprise! There, spilling out of the folds of an official looking letter from the lawyers was not a claim at all, but an equally official looking check!

My mother, in addition to being a classy woman, was also a member of a class. The lawyers sending the letter had ridden to the rescue of this class, snatching the poor wretches from the clutches of an evil corporation—in this case, Western Union. These valiant lawyers had worked like monks for years on this class action, seeking only justice for the disadvantaged masses victimized by Western Union.

How might they have been victimized, you ask? What had my mother done to receive the services of these unflagging champions? Beats me. The letter said nothing about the merits (or lack thereof) of the class action, nor did it shed any light on how my mom came to be a member of the class. Knowing my mother, I know she never "opted in." I couldn’t even figure out when she may have used Western Union—could it have been back in the War days, when she cabled home with her holiday plans so someone could meet her at Grand Central on the 5:18 from D.C.?

Besides, she liked to solve her own problems without interference. If she was ever overcharged by Western Union for a telegram, I’m sure she would have been perfectly capable of bitching sufficiently about it right then and there without the help of legal counsel. No, the only way she could have found her way onto the class list is if she was Shanghaied onto it, an unknowing "member" who probably never even received the letter advising her she could "opt out."

It has been said that the wheels of justice grind slowly, but exceedingly fine. Nothing proves this quite like a class action lawsuit. As I mentioned, my mom has not been with us for nearly four years. She now lives in a place, (as fable has it), blissfully devoid of lawyers. The class action, therefore, would have had to have been well under way before her death. During that long time, the other poor, hapless victims of Western Union’s misconduct (whatever that may have been), had to just hang on, I guess, waiting for the big payday, ever watchful of the mailbox.

Then, one day, there it was. After much hard work on the part of the lawyers for the class, a settlement had been reached. Justice had prevailed. Of course, Western Union admitted no wrongdoing, but payment was made. My mother, God rest her soul, was among the fortunate recipients of that justice. How much did she get? This is the funny part—

Two dollars and fifty cents.

Could that be right? Did they get a decimal point wrong? Nope. After years of litigation, countless millions in fees and costs on both sides, arguing over issues long lost to the fog of time, the wheels of justice had ground this case up so exceedingly fine that all that was left on the bone after the lawyers fed on the carcass was a lousy $2.50. Payable to my mother. I couldn’t cash it if I wanted. I wondered how the other "victims" of Western Union felt when they opened their checks. What did this make them think of lawyers? Somehow, I doubt they saw the same ironic humor in this that I did.

I’m hoping my hanging onto the check screws up the lawyers’ accounting, but I know it won’t. It will just increase their multi-million dollar fees by $2.50. No wonder lawyers remain the last group that can be ridiculed publicly without fear of rebuke. We ask for it, don’t we? The check remains in the envelope, here on my desk at home. Mom’s estate is long closed, as is her estate checking account. Some things even a class action lawsuit can’t fix. Not only can’t you take it with you, you can’t have someone send it to you after you get There, either.

Not even by Western Union money-gram.


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