A $950 yard-sale deal for a nearly 50-year-old boat left a Spokane Valley man with thousands of dollars owed in fees – and anger over the role of zealous law students who helped build the case against him.
Pat Lewis, a self-employed metal worker and part-time bus driver for the West Valley School District, said he initially was confused by letters he received from Gonzaga Law School students working for University Legal Assistance. In the end, he added, a judge didn’t decide the matter based on the condition of the boat – which was sold on his lawn “as is” – but rather on his failure to properly react to the blizzard of paperwork filed against him.
“They do it for the sport of it,” Lewis said of the opposition he faced. “Not because it was right. It was just for the sport of it.”
For their part, legal interns at University Legal Assistance, hired by buyer David Whitmire, said Lewis avoided service of the lawsuit and failed to promptly reply to their civil complaint alleging fraud.
“If Mr. Lewis wanted to contest the allegation, he had more than ample opportunity to do so,” Gonzaga Law professor and program supervisor George Critchlow wrote in an email.
The legal battle ended with Lewis cutting a check for $1,800 earlier this year. Coupled with his legal fees, Lewis said he lost close to $5,000 in a judgment that never determined whether the original contract was valid.
Critchlow said a clear argument was made in court that Lewis avoided answering the civil claim and ignored the judgment in Whitmire’s favor.
“We filed very comprehensive briefs,” Critchlow said.
In those documents, Gonzaga legal interns said Lewis committed fraud by telling Whitmire in June 2012 he’d had the boat out on the water a week prior to the sale. Lewis disputes that, saying he told Whitmire and his brother the boat was last on the water a year before. He also detailed issues with the boat’s carburetor and idle cycle, he said, which would later show up on a mechanic’s diagnostic report of problems with the Aqua Lift vessel.
A bill of sale written on notebook paper during the exchange lists the boat and its trailer being sold “as is.” Lewis said that issue was lost in the months of legal wrangling that followed.
“The courts would not look back at the common sense to how this all started,” he said.
The first correspondence Lewis received indicating something was wrong, he said, was a letter on University Legal Assistance letterhead dated Sept. 20, 2012.
“The boat does not run and has significant problems that will require significant monetary investment,” reads the letter penned by Samuel Page, a Gonzaga Law student. The letter said Whitmire paid more than $500 for repairs on the boat about a month after the sale and asked Lewis to contact the office so that a settlement could be reached.
As an attachment, the office included legal paperwork to be filed if Lewis did not respond.
“As my attorney laid it out, it would all be very confusing for a person like me who’s not an attorney,” Lewis said of the multiple mailings he received. “What do I do with all this?”
At first, he did nothing. Lewis received another letter in October requesting a response. That time he complied, sending a note that read in part, “The boat was sold as is.” Another letter came, saying the office had received the response but would proceed with a lawsuit. Page, the legal intern, also wrote that several process servers had attempted to come to the house to serve Lewis with paperwork, but they knocked on an unanswered door.
Lewis said he was in his shop behind his house when the servers came.
But he never called to set up a time for the paperwork to be served and refused the summons when it was delivered by certified mail to his home.
Months passed. Lewis thought he’d sufficiently answered the lawsuit with his note. But a Spokane District Court judge ruled in February 2013 that Lewis had failed to respond to Whitmire’s legal complaint and ordered a default judgment totaling $1,804.56 for the price of the boat and trailer, the repairs made and court fees.
Lewis said he did not learn of the judgment until the fall, when a letter arrived with a court date to answer the default judgment. Failure to appear would result in a warrant for his arrest, the letter read. Lewis figured he could either pay the $1,800 judgment or roll the dice and retain a lawyer for another $2,000, he said.
“I was gambling, hoping to recover my costs,” Lewis said.
Lewis countersued, asking District Court Judge Deborah Hayes to overturn the judgment because he had answered the lawsuit with his handwritten note and requesting damages because University Legal Assistance had failed to show that response to a judge.
A new legal intern, Corey Riordan, and Critchlow argued the note did not constitute a legal response because it was written before they filed suit.
“After ducking service, and ignoring ULA’s clear communications as well as the Summons served on him by mail, Mr. Lewis now seeks to reframe the case as just another example of dishonest lawyers and an unjust legal system taking advantage of a law-abiding citizen,” University Legal Assistance wrote.
Hayes ruled in Whitmire’s favor, saying the evidence showed Lewis “did not actually desire to respond to the lawsuit.”
Because the decision did not involve whether the bill of sale was binding, Lewis has a bitter taste in his mouth about future deals.
“Any yard-selling person in this area should be aware, if you sell something to someone and they don’t like it, you can be attacked,” he said.
Critchlow said the judgment was fair.
“Mr. Lewis was held to the same standard as every other defendant who is sued in the courts,” he said.