We -Store-It, U-Lose-It?
Kendra Cuyler has lived the better part of the past 15 years immersed in the two professional subcultures that most people, given even half a choice in the matter, spend most of their lives assiduously trying to avoid.
One is the tangled undergrowth of Harris County's civil and criminal court systems, within the confines of which Cuyler has had to become, by financial necessity and dumb bad luck, a reasonably experienced pro se lawyer. She has had attorneys before -- for a variety of insurance and injury claims -- but some have quit on her, and others, she says, have given advice too poor to pay for.
The other is the world of doctors and hospitals and pills, which Cuyler entered 15 years ago through the portal of an automobile accident. Before the accident, she was a student at the University of Houston, holding down two different jobs, as office manager and bookkeeper. Since the accident, she's been diagnosed with severe chronic pain secondary to myofascial pain syndrome, with side orders of fibromyalgia, peripheral neuropathy, CFIDS, multiple sleep disorders, adrenal failure and thyroid problems that, combined, conspire to keep her homebound and dependent upon medicines, machines and up to 22 hours of daily bed rest.
Her medical bills are close to $10,000 a month. For several years she's had to hire help just to get along. Financing this kind of life -- through a cobbled combination of health insurance, social security disability and various legal settlements -- sucks.
There's a lawsuit, still unresolved, over the car accident. She's hoping to get a settlement.
There's another one, also unresolved, over the foreclosure proceedings that have been set in motion against what was her home, which she's hoping to get back.
Cuyler files motions within these suits seeking accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because she has such trouble getting around, she asks, for instance, that she be allowed to file her legal paperwork by fax, instead of by mail or hand, and that she be served also by fax, that hearings be scheduled no earlier in the day than 2 p.m., and that the length of those hearings be limited to no more than four hours.
She is not, it seems, asking for the world.
She wasn't asking for the world on November 22 of last year, either, when Harris County deputies, in the company of two trucks and four men from a bonded warehouse, arrived at her address to execute a writ of possession, resultant of the foreclosure suit. Arrived, that is, to take all of her stuff out of her dwelling and either move it to a storage facility or leave it lying by the side of the road or both.
According to the Texas Property Code, which defines the rules of this particular engagement, "the tenant may redeem any of the property, without payment of moving or storage charges, on demand during the time the warehouseman is removing the property from the tenant's premises and before the warehouseman permanently leaves the tenant's premises."
That's the demand Kendra Cuyler made on November 22, 2000. She says the constable threatened her with arrest if she didn't leave the premises immediately and "forcibly shoved" her into her car, not even letting her gather her daily meds.
She returned later that day to find a "huge amount" of her property still locked inside. Two days later she returned again to find dozens of large garbage bags filled with her belongings lined up on the curb. Neighbors told Cuyler that some of her furniture had been put out on the curb as well, but all that was long gone, and even the garbage bags had been thoroughly scavenged.
About 50 bags already had been picked up by garbage trucks.
Fifteen years' worth of medical records needed for the car accident trial were who knew where.
Cuyler rifled through what was left, finding some linens, some clothes, some of her medicine, on the curb. When she came back the next day, she says, to try to retrieve more, she was met by what she describes as "a platoon of officers," a dozen squad cars and 20 officers in her estimation, both Harris County and HPD. She was handcuffed in front of her former neighbors, she says. She eventually was unleashed without arrest.
It was only later that she was able to discover that the bulk of her world had been taken, in two large trucks, to Security Storage, operated by one Marc Seymour at 2424 Spring Street. Not that this information helped. She's so far been able to recover only a portion of boxed household items and paperwork, even with a favorable court order in hand.
Cuyler suspects that her most valuable properties -- computer and stereo equipment, antique and handmade furniture, heirloom art, a collection of hundreds of stained-glass windows more than $30,000 worth in total, by her count -- may still be there. She hopes so, at least. As long as her stuff is at Security Storage, there remains some pale hope that she might eventually get some of her life back. But with every passing day, that scenario becomes less and less likely.
The most important thing to know about a writ of possession is that you do not want one levied in your direction. It is the third and most final stage of the eviction process, and by the time it has come to this, you are likely already so well and truly screwed by circumstances that you are left entirely at the mercy of the enforcing parties, who, in this case, are going to be a weirdly informal yet strangely consistent public/private merger of deputy constables from whichever of the county's eight precincts you live in and employees of a moving/storage company that specializes in this kind of thankless work, which company is almost always, according to deputies in all eight precincts, Security Storage.
Having such a writ executed on you means that, with a standard 24-hour notice, you will be made to vacate the place that you live, and that the place that you live will be secured against your re-entry. Your stuff is pretty much up for grabs.
Such writs are usually levied for nonpayment of rent. In Cuyler's case, somewhat unusually, it came in the midst of the foreclosure suit.
A judge sends the writ to the constable's office, and the constable places a written warning on the door of the dwelling in question, advising the occupant of the date and time at which the writ is to be executed. Twenty-four hours later, the writ comes down.
Louis Gonzales, a deputy constable in Precinct Six, executes these things all the time. Here, he says, is how it's supposed to work:
"If the tenant is there and they haven't removed anything, the deputy constable will ask the tenant, 'Okay, you have these things here. Do you have somewhere that they can go?' You're going to have a right to say where these things can go. If he doesn't have any type of arrangements made to remove these items, it's up to the landlord to decide .A lot of times a bonded warehouse is called out to look at the items for removal. The bonded warehouse will remove items if need be and store them, in the event that the tenant wants to come back and claim them."
Although Texas's property code contains language seemingly designed to give the tenant the upper hand, in practice it doesn't always work out that way, and what case law there is has not supported the apparently obvious intention of the words.
Lawyer Mark J. Grandich, with the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation, filed suit against Marc Seymour, Security Storage and an array of Harris County constables in 1997, on behalf of eight plaintiffs claiming abuse at the hands of this system. Some said they were threatened with arrest simply for being on the scene. Some say Seymour placed ever-shifting and undue conditions upon the return of their property; others, that he refused entirely. Some say they were subject to abusive behavior. Some say they weren't properly served notice. All say they were unable to get satisfaction, either from deputy constables or from Seymour, either the day of the move or thereafter.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Grandich's case, even though the lawyer produced written precinct policy manuals showing the county to have explicitly instructed deputies to execute writs in a manner seemingly in contradiction to the language of the Texas Property Code:
"Under no circumstances are any items to be released to any person claiming ownership once the move has begun except for the items listed in section eight (8) of this memo ["clothing, medications, family portraits, family albums, school books, children's clothing, children's toys and other personal items"]. The tenant can regain his possessions from the moving and storage company after the move has been completed."
By the time the move has been completed, of course, the constables are done with you, your evictor is done with you, your neighbors have most likely had just about enough of you, and a large chunk of your universe has reduced itself to an evil little line with you at one end and all of your stuff at the other end, and in the middle, squatting squarely between you and what's left of your life: "Marc Seymour, Individually and as President of Securiteestor, Inc., d/b/a Security Storage."
You probably are pretty sure by now that you don't want to find yourself in Kendra Cuyler's shoes. You probably don't want to wear Marc Seymour's either.
When you go to work, it's to a dank metal warehouse with a dingy concrete office surrounded by rutted dirt and chain link and mangy wandering dogs. You have to go through the bureaucratic nightmare of maintaining the appropriate licenses and insurance required of your business to do the city work that your business is here to do.
You are called to the homes of desperate and little-left-to-lose people, you take their stuff away under official supervision, loading and unloading a dozen piss-stained mattresses and dead lawn mowers for every antique dresser, and most of this crap no owner will ever bother to get out of hock, which means you don't get paid, and most of this crap is so useless that the only way to unload it at auction, and thereby try to generate some profit for your business, is to combine it in huge lots so that somebody who wants the miter saw has got to take the busted PlayStation and 14 cracked purses with it.
When you're not out on site somewhere, you're back at this dump on the ass end of a dead-end street backed up to I-10 by abandoned warehouses, confronted regularly by people who want their stuff back -- people who may or may not be relied upon to deal with you either quietly, rationally or submissively -- and alternately overseeing public auctions at which you sell those items that have not been redeemed to small creepy crowds of people looking for something to turn a profit on eBay.
This kind of work environment, it is supposed, might eventually breed a certain scabrousness of character in those exposed to it.
I called to talk to Marc Seymour about Kendra Cuyler. A receptionist asked what it was regarding. I told her.
She said: "Did you tell her you'd put her name in the paper if she'd shut up?"
Mr. Seymour politely declined, citing advice of legal counsel, to discuss the matter.
I observed him at work on three occasions. First, on Tuesday, January 30, the day that Kendra Cuyler asked me to witness the court-ordered retrieval of what was supposed to be all of her property ("all items stored," the order reads) from the warehouse. Seymour and his Security Storage co-director, Moshe Zanzuri, videotaped the proceedings, having filed for and received their own protective order against Cuyler, alleging a "constant, hourly pattern of harassment demanding to be allowed to go through the trash shoving tape recorders in faces " and, interestingly, "asking for the same documentation, over and over."
Seymour's motion does not mention whether or not Cuyler was ever provided any of the documentation for which she so persistently asked.
As Seymour's men rolled out pallets stacked with cardboard boxes, Cuyler asked repeatedly after the whereabouts of her furniture and larger, more valuable items. Seymour did not speak a single word in response. He did allow Cuyler to open the boxes, to search for individual items, by which method Cuyler discovered several dozen boxes that weren't even hers, and none with the identifying markings that originally had been on them, suggesting to Cuyler that her stuff had been looted for valuables and repackaged.
Somebody called HPD, and two squad cars arrived. Security Storage being "private property," Cuyler was not allowed inside the warehouse -- even though she had filed a theft charge, despite having a court order flapping in her hand -- to ascertain if her furniture, which was never brought out, was still inside. Upon leaving, one of the cops told me to encourage Cuyler to leave the premises just as soon as the last box was loaded. "If she stays," the cop said, "he can call us back here for trespassing, and we'll have to arrest her."
The second time I saw Marc Seymour was the morning of Wednesday, March 21, about 8:30 a.m. I was looking to see what I could see of the auctions that were reputed to be held there at that time. There didn't appear to be anyone else present, and Seymour caught me wandering around out front. He wanted to know what I was there for. I said the auction. I asked if there was an auction at eight-thirty. He said eight-thirty and six. He said it several times, quickly, and handed me a printed card advertising the sale at 6 p.m., and hustled me back to my car. I still don't know if there was one auction or two.
The third time I saw Marc Seymour was at 6 p.m. that day, when there was a public auction, and where I actually saw very little of him striding about in the bustle, but did get to meet several of the eBayers, and wandered voyeuristically awhile myself, pulling shredded starter cords, pushing buttons on stereo equipment, admiring one exceptionally nice cabinet, and poking through boxes upon boxes of what can only be described as clothing, family portraits, family albums, school books, children's clothing, children's toys and other personal items.
Cuyler says she wasn't given the name Security Storage by surly constables until November 27, five days after her possessions were moved, on which date she called the warehouse, was told her property was still on the trucks, and offered to pay the total bill that day to have Security Storage deliver it to an alternate location. The receptionist, Cuyler says, refused, and refused also to let her speak to an owner. Cuyler drove to Security Storage the next day and met Marc Seymour, whereupon she requested an inventory and an itemized bill. Seymour said he had to get the inventory from the constable, and the bill would be mailed.
She kept not receiving the bill, and kept going to the warehouse, demanding a bill that she didn't get, during which time she says Seymour alternately demanded a $70-per-box opening fee just to search among the hundreds for particular items, or let her into the warehouse to look for herself, where she was "verbally and physically harassed, pushed and shoved and spat upon." On December 6, 8, 13 and 14 she went back, sometimes redeeming bits and pieces, sometimes stalemated with Seymour.
Finally, on December 22, co-owner Zanzuri refused another attempt at redemption and told Cuyler to come back on December 27. When she arrived on that day, she was told that some of her stuff had been sold that morning, on the 30th day after impoundment, the first legal day to do so, to settle her bill, which she had yet to be shown.
She says Seymour told her he had sold the merchandise to himself. She says he asked her if she wanted to buy any of it back from him. She says she came back to the next auction and Security Storage employees blocked her access into the warehouse with mattresses stacked on end, side by side. She took a picture of mattresses stacked on end, side by side, blocking the entrance.
She'd had a private storage unit rented elsewhere since December 25, in testimony to her intention to redeem her property.
She wondered why every time the cops came around, they seemed to be protecting Seymour from her.
And the new year began with a seasonable flurry down at the courthouse, wherein resides the entirety of Marc Seymour's answer to Cuyler's claims: Defendants "deny all of the plaintiff's allegations and demand strict proof."
Early court battles leaned in Cuyler's direction: a temporary restraining order designed to prevent Seymour from disposing of any of her property, a court order that he release to her all such property that he possessed. But Cuyler has photographs and a detailed inventory of items -- big, valuable items -- that have not been returned, and no way of finding out conclusively which have been sold and to whom, and which may still be lingering in Seymour's dank warehouse, "sold" by Seymour to himself.
Deputies follow the law as best they're taught it, and instructions in the meantime, and the law and institutional custom both bring them into meaningful contact with Marc Seymour far more often than, say, Kendra Cuyler.
Testimony from Grandich's case includes one deputy's claim that while Seymour "has purchased tickets to Constable Douglas' annual barbecue neither Constable Douglas nor I have a personal relationship with Marc Seymour."
On the phone, asked for the name of his bonded warehouseman, another deputy in another precinct more recently called over his shoulder to a supervisor: "Hey, what's the name of Marc Seymour's company?"
If there's any more of Cuyler's stuff in Seymour's warehouse, it'll take a court to get at it. It's been racking up storage charges of $20 a day since Thanksgiving.
The first bill, dated November 29, but not seen by Cuyler until a month later, was over $4,200, more than double standard industry rates.
Seymour's inventory of stuff moved, now in the case file, is more or less illegible.
All the police seem willing to do is escort Cuyler off Seymour's property.
Seymour's attorney is playing hardball, painting her to the court -- in a request for a protective order, which was granted -- as a threatening shrew.
No one has come close to proving that Marc Seymour purposefully misleads evicted tenants in tacit cooperation with county and city police in order to profit from his primary line of business, but it has been formally suggested by at least nine different evicted tenants in the last four years, in similar terms.
And Judge Jane Bland, 281st District Court, Harris County, recently attached a note to the case file identifying the case as eligible for dismissal "for want of prosecution," since Cuyler was apparently late to answer Seymour's lawyer's latest demand for something, though everything she's got is already packed into a manila folder in the court clerk's office. There's a deadline of July 2. Cuyler has been trying to get a lawyer, but the unpromising reception of Grandich's case seems to put them off. She will certainly fax an answer herself. It will go in the file. And one way or another, she will probably never see her stuff again.
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