General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine
My Adventures with the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act
BY Carlos O. Santiago
So there I was, only a couple of years out of law school, facing contempt charges, a $500 fine, and payment of the opposing counsel’s fees for failure to appear at a divorce hearing in Florida.
Earlier this year, I read a message on the JAG Corps electronic bulletin board from a fellow judge advocate (JA) in Bosnia. She needed assistance from a Florida lawyer. Her client was a Florida resident whose spouse had filed for divorce in Florida; he had received a notice to appear in court. Unfortunately, he was deployed to Bosnia. My colleague in Bosnia had sent the standard letter informing the court of the soldier’s deployment and requesting protection under the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act (SSCRA).
The judge responded by stating that only the soldier himself or a Florida-licensed lawyer could request a stay of the proceedings and invoke the protections of the SSCRA. But neither of these options was viable or afforded protection. If the soldier appeared before the court to enter a request for a stay, he would submit himself to the court’s jurisdiction. Any response from him would preclude reopening the default judgment later. Also, in Florida, a lawyer is authorized to proceed in the soldier’s absence. So if I filed the request, I may have been forced to handle the action without the client. What could I do to help? At the time, my primary qualification was that I had a license to practice law in Florida.
I started by calling the judge, who refused to speak to me and suggested that I set the motion for a stay on the next motion calendar day available. I tried to explain to his judicial assistant my role as a military legal assistance attorney, to no avail. I also contacted opposing counsel and explained the situation to her. She had no objections but was unable to intervene with the judge. With the hearing date quickly approaching, I sent the clerk of the court a letter, requesting the stay afforded under the SSCRA and including all the appropriate language to prevent my letter as being considered an appearance by me or the client.
The following week I received a notice of hearing for the end of the month; and see that I am now listed as attorney of record for "my client" in Bosnia, whom I had yet to meet. Again I called the judge to explain; again, he refused to speak to me. I wrote another letter, explaining my role as a legal assistance attorney, and attempted to educate the judge on the SSCRA. I never received a response to this letter. The day of the hearing I received a call from "my client." He was in Florida and attended the hearing, where the judge refused to let him proceed pro se because I was not present. My client informed me that the judge was quite upset, saying he would seek to disbar me; for now, the judge simply imposes the $500 fine and sets a hearing on the contempt charges.
This is the part where I really started to sweat. After all, I had held my precious license to practice law for just over one year. Some of you may have heard about the Department of Justice representation for military lawyers in these types of situations—it is not easy to get. But after going through the necessary steps, a young Assistant U.S. Attorney in Florida was appointed to represent me. The only problem was, he didn’t know how to remove a contempt case against me to federal court. We worked on it together; after six months the matter was resolved, and my license to practice law was safe. During this time I also had to respond to the Florida Bar grievance the judge had filed against me. (Thanks, judge!) The grievance committee found no grounds for disciplinary action.
So this story has a happy ending. "My client" got his divorce, I kept my license, my JA friend returned and sent me a coffee mug from Bosnia, and I think the judge learned a little about the SSCRA. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, just call me. But don’t expect me to write any letters for you.