I Failed and Here’s How You Can Too

Jason Cochard for Land Academy

         Some things you don’t want to re-live. For me, the last few days rank #1. I learned that I will never, ever be a lawyer. I enhanced my respect for judges. I established my empathy for lawyers. I realized that I’m a decent fact-finder, even under an extreme time crunch. And I found the precise limit to my dealing with stress induced by taking on too much. I represented myself in open court and successfully failed. 

         The reason for the success is that going to a court hearing as an unrepresented plaintiff with zero procedural experience, zero law school experience, and other circumstances (if you know me, ask me), not knowing at all what to expect and learning the right thing to say via a text message 7 minutes before your case is called, is like passing a kidney stone at gunpoint. It’s just a situation you don’t want to be in, but if you can survive it, you can do anything. Luckily, the judge presiding was gentle, fair, calm, and probably immediately recognized that I was in so deep over my head that I was about to implode from the pressure. Because humans have the capacity for learning, all of this is a success.

      The failures came in many forms. First, my case was immediately thrown out (or, transferred to the correct jurisdiction, assuming I continue and pay the difference in filing fee) because my petition was filed incorrectly. I don’t recommend being an unrepresented plaintiff when you’re clearly a real estate investor with means, nor do I recommend not knowing the difference between the concept of limited and unlimited jurisdictions when the judge asks you why you misfiled your lawsuit — your silence and your deer in the headlights look as you try to understand the question will be a source of potential stress and embarrassment, and I’m just lucky because I’ve long refused to ever be embarrassed by anything when the alternative is to learn. Still, you’ll look like a jerk, and everything you say is being transcribed. This is superior court, after all, and not to be taken lightly. As such, I absolutely don’t recommend working with someone to “handle everything” on your behalf who doesn’t understand state law as it applies to procedure, notice, jurisdiction, the naming of defendants, and rules about representation. And if you buy tax property in California, I also don’t recommend ever vesting a tax auction purchase into the name of an LLC if you plan on bringing such a “routine” petition to the court, specifically because, informational only, an LLC may not represent itself pro per, and must be represented by a licensed attorney (I learned this on YouTube from a lawyer who was giving legal information not legal advice so I assume I won’t go to jail for repeating it).

            If you’ve been following along, you will realize that the endgame is checkmate and I lose — even if I had filed my petition in unlimited jurisdiction, I would have been dismissed as I am not a licensed attorney. And even if the judge granted leniency for that, 5 seconds later he would have discovered that my notice of pending action was not properly recorded and sent, and I would have absolutely been dismissed. At the risk that the dismissal would be with prejudice, the only thing to do is to preemptively drop the case and regroup. Misfiling is fine, the case can be transferred and you’ll learn from it. Procedures can be learned from too — go sit in court all day one week and listen to similar cases, it’s free. Facts can be investigated and a case presented, even quickly on the weekend after you realize you’re totally unprepared. But the rule about LLC’s not being able to represent itself is the one reason I dropped all 6 quiet title actions I was waiting on — because working with someone who is ultimately not able to represent these entities in court and no one else exists to do that within my budget.

         This experience does not help to improve my opinion of the title insurance industry, whose refusal to touch tax property — despite a self-reported 95-99% revenue-to-claims ratio and despite what the statutes say about the lack of a redemption period statewide — is the real reason I was embroiled in all this anyway. If you’ve been following along, I am certain that the overburdened courts would be happy if their caseload were lightened by virtue of the title industry actually performing their commissioned duty of pricing risk in the interest of the public, rather than doing everything possible to remove market forces from influencing their revenue.

               Performing a title search is becoming easier and easier. In fact, it’s a commodity. And with a few lines of code, it’s automated (I know because I’ve done it). If the risk to title claims is based on facts revealed by a title search, and I as a mere mortal can search over 6 billion recorded documents in less than 6 seconds, then why does a title policy’s price fluctuate as a mirror of asset value, rather than as a mirror of the value-add of performing a title search? I don’t know, why don’t you go ask a mortgage lender or a realtor, whose kickbacks from title are the exact “reinvestment” that fuels the status quo? Think I’m being harsh or accusatory? Nope, just relaying information from the California insurance commissioner’s website, a 2005 study from an out of state economist analyzing market forces within the California title insurance industry. Anyway, it was an amazing train wreck, and I found myself a better person for it because there were other successes. I can’t get too deep into specifics because it would throw people under the bus, but I was proud to have prepared the facts of the case in a weekend after it became clear that I was not being assisted sufficiently and realizing there was actually no way for me to show cause, because there was no recorded notice of pending action, no proof of service of that notice, and I was probably about to be dismissed. So many requirements I only subsequently realized existed. A consequence of outsourcing the wrong thing.I had an 8:30am Monday morning appearance before a judge, and on the prior Friday, I realized the situation was a complete snafu. I don’t recommend being in that situation. When I was in that situation, it caused me to forget the basis of my original complaint, and I mistakenly set about doing a thorough title search on my own, attempting to prove something that was only ancillary to the basis of the complaint, but I also don’t recommend building a case while panicking.

            The silver-lining, and the next page of my playbook: The work I did in examining the chain of title all the way back to the homestead act provided me with insights into one of the previous owners, who was evidently a US citizen, who was a NSA cryptologist turned defector to the USSR at the height of the Cold War, immediately stripped of his US citizenship, immediately given a premature entry into the Social Security master death index despite not being naturally dead, and quit-claimed the property from Russia in 2001, certified by the US Consulate in St Petersburg and recorded by the county. In short, without failing in superior court I would not have discovered that I own two parcels which are pieces of Cold War history.Since my new strategy needs to be to try to sell this property without title insurance, I now know the exact parameters for targeting my social media advertising. Cold War enthusiasts, espionage enthusiasts, cryptography enthusiasts. Collectors of historical memorabilia. My video script is already in the works, and my pricing has gone up significantly. My buyer can bring their own quiet title petition before the court if they care to, I certainly never will.

           “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt, excerpt from speech “Citizenship in a Republic” delivered at Sorbonne, France, April 23, 1910.