Dallas County

Attorney Mark Melton Claims Dallas County Court Forged Document in Eviction Case

Anyone facing eviction in Dallas County can give Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center a call for help.
Anyone facing eviction in Dallas County can give Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center a call for help. Shutterstock
Local attorney Mark Melton was just doing what he usually does, helping a local family — a single mom and her seven children — avoid eviction from their home. Then, an anonymous tipster called him, claiming someone with the court had filed a fabricated government document in the eviction case and that he needed to check it out.

Melton and his wife, Lauren, operate a nonprofit called Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center, which offers free legal assistance to Dallas County tenants facing eviction.

Chantel Hardaway’s eviction hearing came and went on July 27, and she didn’t show up. That’s because she didn’t know the hearing had been rescheduled for that day. She says she never got a notice from the court that her hearing had been rescheduled. Even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to show up because she was in the hospital after giving birth to a son the day before.

However, the landlord managed to receive an email from the court concerning the new hearing date. When the landlord showed up and Hardaway didn’t, the court ordered the eviction as a default judgment.

Melton asked for a new hearing so his client could present her side of the story. He was first told Judge Margaret O’Brien would approve it. Then he got a call about an hour later. His motion for a new hearing was denied, and the family of eight would be evicted.

He asked the court to turn over a copy of the notice sent to the tenant, as well as a copy of the envelope showing the date the letter was sent and the address it was sent to. He says it’s standard practice for courts to keep these records. The court sent him a PDF of the letter, but said a copy of the envelope couldn’t be found. Melton said it’s not uncommon for justice of the peace courts, which handle evictions, to have bad recordkeeping, so the absence of a copy of the envelope wasn’t exactly a smoking gun.

But something bothered him about the copy of the letter the court provided. It didn’t look like the countless others he had seen before. These notices are usually generated by computers. This one, however, appeared to be typed on the court’s letterhead. It was filed and signed by Lutishia Williams, the chief clerk in O’Brien’s court. Melton wanted to dig deeper.

A constable was ready to evict Hardaway on Tuesday, Aug. 16, but Melton was able to delay the eviction. That morning, his phone rang. “No caller ID,” it said. He generally wouldn’t answer such a call and didn’t the first time it came in. But when "No caller ID" popped up again on his screen, it piqued his curiosity. When he answered, the person on the line said he wanted to talk to him about the case but would only do so if he could remain anonymous. 

“Why go to so much effort to evict a single mom and her kids? What in the fuck is the motivation for that?” – Mark Melton, attorney

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The anonymous caller said he was married to one of the clerks in O’Brien’s court and that the notice of hearing date in the case had been forged. The man said other clerks in the court were upset about the forgery but were too afraid of retribution to speak out.

That’s when Melton and his wife decided to investigate further. At the court, clerks told them they didn’t recall seeing the notice of a new hearing date in their client’s file when they went over it previously. Melton got the sense the clerks knew why he was there. One of them pointed out the odd-looking notice of a new hearing date. “That’s why I’m here,” he told them. “I know it’s fake.”

After leaving the court, he pulled an all-nighter drafting a lawsuit he would file by around 5 a.m. the next day, hoping to halt the eviction. A judge granted an emergency restraining order against the eviction that morning.

Melton said he’s not sure how to explain the apparent forgery. “I don’t know why, which is the weirdest part,” he said. “Why go to so much effort to evict a single mom and her kids? What in the fuck is the motivation for that?”

Giving the court the benefit of the doubt, Melton said one explanation is the clerk simply forgot to send the notice to the tenant and retroactively wanted to make it look like everything was up to snuff. If that were the case though, it’s an easy fix. “You could have just fixed it by resetting it and giving her a hearing. It’s not a huge problem,” Melton explained. “Instead of doing that, though, they double down and fabricate the notice. … It’s just egregious.”

He added, “That’s the scenario that I can think of that is the least bad, but even that’s bad.”

The Meltons and the team of lawyers working alongside them aren’t used to seeing forgeries in their cases. What they are used to, however, is what they describe as the bias Dallas County justice of the peace courts often have in favor of landlords in eviction cases. “We are perpetrating a massive injustice onto the poor people in our community by not monitoring these courts and not holding them accountable to the law,” he said. “Part of the problem is half of them aren’t even lawyers. Some of it is a certain level of ignorance of the law. Some of it is just intentional, with malice, ‘screw-the-tenants’ mentality.”

"Mr. Melton should probably have asked to speak with my chief clerk for better assistance." – Judge Margaret O'Brien

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The only way to fix it, he said, is with the work the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center is doing, making sure every tenant facing eviction has legal representation. In most of the cases they work, they’re able to prevent eviction because the actions were unlawful in the first place. If they continue the work, the Meltons believe they can change the court’s bias against tenants and change the practices of landlords trying to evict them. Maybe then, Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center will start losing more cases.

O'Brien's court rebutted all of Melton's claims in an emailed statement Friday afternoon. The statement, which was sent by Williams, the chief clerk Melton accuses of filing a forged document, first says that judges can't comment on active litigation "other than to point out those records in the public domain." Those public records, the email said, showed Hardaway was sued for owing unpaid rent of about $9,600. The landlord also sued for possession of the property. Hardaway got her citation for her trial date in person, O'Brien said in the statement. When the trial date was reset, O'Brien said in the statement that a notice of the new trial date was sent to Hardaway through mail.

"The court did not receive an insufficient delivery return from the U.S. Post Office," O'Brien said. "Defendant did not appear at the original court date or at the subsequent trial date."

O'Brien added: "It should not be necessary to say this, but the Court would of course move without hesitation to discipline or terminate any employee it discovered was falsifying a court record. Falsification of court records is a crime and a violation of Dallas County workplace policies. The Court has no reason to believe any record in the Court's file for this matter was falsified by one of its clerks."

Hardaway's notice looked different from others, O'Brien said, "because the case in question was of an 'urgent' matter in which this was supposed to have been the Defendant's first court appearance, but she failed to appear whereas the other cases were 60-day abatement/status hearing notices to which the Defendants have made an initial appearance before the court. This is why the documents you have in possession look different."

O'Brien also said the clerks Melton spoke to likely didn't know the specifics of the case, and their lack of recollection of one document in Hardaway's file "does not mean the document was not in the file. Nor does it validate any accusations of fraud."

"Mr. Melton should probably have asked to speak with my chief clerk for better assistance," O'Brien said.

She said she works hard in her court to resolve cases as quickly as possible. "My work ethic and work product are excellent. The public trust and integrity of the court has not been jeopardized," O'Brien added. "Judges routinely have to deal with people that make all kinds of false, mistaken, uninformed, aggressive, and inflammatory statements. Today is no different."

O'Brien said the court has dispersed over $1 million as of July for rental assistance to eligible tenants and encouraged people "to reach out to rental assistance organizations provided to them prior to their trial, which is included in every eviction citation."

"I will always remain impartial and fair to both sides," she said.

Commenting on her response, Melton said, "It's damage control 101 – deny, deny deny."
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn