Chantel Hardaway, a single mother of seven, said she didn’t know about the hearing because she never got the letter telling her of the new trial date. Hardaway’s hearing was initially set for June 15 before Judge Margaret O’Brien, but Hardaway's landlord asked for a postponement, so the hearing was reset for July 27. When Hardaway didn't appear then, the court entered a default judgment against her.
Both O'Brien and court clerk Lutishia Williams, who says she filed the notice in question, said the letter found in Hardaway's court file about the new date is legitimate and was properly mailed. But last month, local attorney Mark Melton said a tipster told him that a clerk forged the document and Hardaway was never given notice.
Even if the notice had made it her way, Hardaway likely wouldn’t have been able to show because she was still in the hospital after giving birth to a son.
Melton and a team of lawyers at the nonprofit Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center have been working throughout the pandemic to help Dallas County residents fight evictions.
Melton requested the default judgment be set aside so Hardaway could tell the court what happened, but O’Brien refused. That’s when Melton asked the court to turn over the notice they sent Hardaway about the trial date change. It didn’t look like others he’d seen. The notification looked like it had been typed using the Microsoft Word program and included the court’s seal in the letterhead.
Shortly after, Melton heard from the tipster who said the notice about the hearing date had been forged. He filed a lawsuit against the landlord to have the eviction stopped and has been vocal ever since about getting to the bottom of what happened.
On social media, Melton told followers he was deposing clerks in O’Brien’s court. On Wednesday, he released those video depositions to the Observer.
Melton deposed four people with O’Brien’s court: Wendy Lopez, Tanya Carter, Beatriz Evans and Veronica Sanchez. They all said it’s common for defendants to claim they didn’t receive notices from the court. Usually, rectifying the situation is as simple as showing them documents in their file. It wasn’t so simple when Hardaway and Melton began asking questions about her case.
The deposed clerks also said they feared retaliation from O’Brien and Williams.
Lopez, the civil clerk in O’Brien’s court, has worked at the court for 19 years. In her deposition, Melton asked Lopez if the court sends notices typed up in Word. She said she hadn’t seen this happen since the earlier days of the pandemic. “The only Word documents that were ever sent were during the pandemic when they were being held virtually or telephonically,” Lopez said. “If it’s an in-person hearing, then it’s a system-generated document.”
The system they use for these notices is called Forvus.
Lopez said there was talk around the office about a lady claiming she wasn’t served a notice. This was Hardaway, who came to Lopez to file a motion in her eviction case.
“When she filed the motion, she said she wasn’t served, she wasn’t served with the court date,” Lopez said. “Well, it’s second nature, to me, for as long as I’ve been with the county, and you hear it all the time, ‘Oh, I didn’t get this. I didn’t get that.’ It’s second nature that you show them, ‘Here’s a copy of the letter,’ or ‘Here’s a copy of the citation.’”
“I’m adamant that that letter was not there when Ms. Hardaway filed that motion." – Wendy Lopez, Dallas County court clerk
She was going to show Hardaway the notice but couldn’t find it. “There wasn’t one in there, but I didn’t think much of it,” she said. So, Lopez took the motion and Hardaway’s file to Williams. Lopez told Hardaway she’d get a phone call from the court and she left.
The next time Lopez heard about it was when other clerks started talking. “There was talk amongst the clerks about this lady being adamant that she wasn’t served, like really adamant that she wasn’t served,” Lopez said.
The next time Lopez saw Hardaway’s file was when Melton came in asking questions and wanting to see the notice. That’s also when she first saw the notice in Hardaway’s file. “I’m adamant that that letter was not there when Ms. Hardaway filed that motion,” Lopez said. “And there’s no way I could not have seen that letter.”
Melton asked if she was 100% sure. She said “200%.” Lopez said she felt the clerks were getting the bulk of the blame over the whole ordeal.
“I feel like the clerks are made out to be the bad guy in this,” Lopez said. “The clerks are made out to be the bad guys as if we were the ones that did something wrong, as if we were the ones that created that document.”
Lopez testified she didn’t feel comfortable bringing up her concerns to O’Brien or Williams. “That would cause retaliation, put a target on yourself,” Lopez said. “You’re going to piss off Lutishia, which is your supervisor and, honestly, Judge O’Brien probably wouldn’t have believed it … or that there’s any harm coming from Lutishia.”
Veronica Sanchez, a counter clerk with O’Brien’s court, was one of the people talking about Hardaway’s case. She had picked up the phone one of the times Hardaway called the court about her eviction.
“We felt compassion toward her because she was a mother and she had just had a baby,” Sanchez said. “Basically, our mother’s instincts came in because we’re all mothers.”
Sanchez has worked at the court for almost two years and said she sees a variety of cases, from traffic citations to evictions. She said the only notices she’s really familiar with are those printed for civil court. Most of the notices she sees are system-generated, and she said she’s never seen a letter like the one in question.
She never looked at Hardaway’s file but was able to see what was documented in Forvus. Sanchez said if a notice is sent it should be documented in the system, but it wasn’t.
Evans is the bookkeeper at the court. She inputs debt claims and defaults. She’s worked for the court for some 15 years. Before Williams took over, she was the eviction clerk. She said she knows what notices from the court look like and that there are different kinds.
Initial notices are usually generated in Forvus. “Now, if you go to reset a case, then there’s a way to do it from [Forvus] or you can also do it from a Word document,” Evans said. These days though, she said, besides receiving the cases, she doesn’t do anything with evictions in the court.
When she was the eviction clerk, she said she would call both parties to let them know if a case had been reset. She would usually note in the file to whom she had spoken and then send a notice by mail.
“We felt compassion toward her because she was a mother and she had just had a baby." – Veronica Sanchez, Dallas County court clerk
Notes like these are present in documents the court provided about Hardaway’s eviction history. One 2020 eviction Hardaway was involved in, which wasn’t handled by O’Brien, also had a hearing date change. A file from that case says both parties were called and a notification was sent by mail about the new hearing date. Hardaway’s current case file only says there was a request for a new court date and that she did not appear. It doesn’t make any mention of a phone call or letter to either party.
Evans said Hardaway’s case isn’t the first in which she’s seen a notice typed up on a Word document. What she described sounds similar to what the court claims it sent Hardaway.
“Back then, when I was doing them, we had a Word document that I would do,” Evans said. “It would have the letterhead, and I would address it to who it was going to … and what it entailed, what happened, that the case was reset.”
Evans said she was unclear about how the court sends out these notices now.
Evans said in the aftermath of Melton’s claims, things have gotten more strict for her and the other clerks at the court. “We were told that if we are late from anything that we would get written up, or we’d get in trouble, I don’t know if it’s written up. But they told us we can’t be late, which nobody in there is late. But every time something happens, everybody gets in trouble and she changes our lunches. It’s like we’re in kindergarten. If something is going on, we have to wait and see what’s going to happen to us.”
Carter is the traffic clerk in O’Brien’s court, where she has worked for almost five years. She’s usually at the front counter and helps whoever comes in, but she’s also in charge of setting the traffic docket and inputting citations, including eviction citations. She also sends hearing notices for traffic cases. The notices she sends are system-generated.
Carter said she’s never prepared a notice for an eviction hearing, but she’s seen plenty. For the most part, they’re all system-generated and look the same, she said.
Hardaway came to Carter’s window in early August asking about a writ of possession that was put on her door, claiming she never received a notice about the July hearing date. That’s when Carter grabbed Hardaway’s file to show that a notice had been sent. She handed Hardaway the file to go through herself. “I’ve been trained to make sure that I stand there to make sure nothing is being taken out of the file, and that’s exactly what I did,” Carter said. “While Ms. Hardaway went front to back through the file we both discovered nothing was there.”
Carter didn’t know what else to tell Hardaway besides that the constable would be coming and that she should grab as many things as she could from her home in the meantime. She said she prayed for Hardaway after she left the court. “I did excuse myself after her leaving the first time and I did go and pray for her because I did feel bad for her situation, being that she was a single parent,” Carter said. She said she also felt bad because there didn’t appear to be any proof that the hearing date notice was sent.
She said she is sure the notice in question wasn’t in Hardaway’s file. Carter said she didn’t bring this up to Williams or O’Brien because she feared retaliation. “As far as I’m concerned, it could have been resolved,” she said. “I make errors. We all make errors. If this was an error, it could have been ‘Hey, this is my mistake’ and it could have been cleared up.”
"It’s like we’re in kindergarten. If something is going on, we have to wait and see what’s going to happen to us.” – Beatriz Evans, Dallas County court clerk
The Observer interviewed O’Brien and Williams the day before the video depositions were released.
“We’re getting to the facts, the heart of the matter because I think what is being basically stated, we’re only hearing one side,” Williams said Tuesday afternoon. “But there is a total[ly] different side as to why the court took the action we did.”
O’Brien said she was happy to give some information but there were certain things she couldn’t discuss because of ethical obligations to the court, “which is unfortunate because I have a lot to say.”
They primarily wanted to discuss the eviction process and provide examples of different kinds of notices that may be sent to people coming through one of the county’s justice of the peace courts.
“I’m going to begin with the case at hand, the case that has led to all of this,” Williams, the chief clerk in O’Brien’s court, said. “I’m going to give you the facts of what occurred. It’s going to be real quick and fast.
“First of all, this is the defendant that is in question,” Williams said, showing a document of several pages with Hardaway’s eviction history. She said Hardaway had a history of evictions dating to 2018. “That’s the first thing to take note of,” she said. “The second thing is that this very first eviction, which is not our court, … it was her first eviction in which she no-showed.” Williams also pointed out that Hardaway didn’t show up to other eviction hearings after 2018.
Williams and O’Brien said many of the notifications that come out of the court are generated in Forvus.
“It’s a record keeping of all Dallas County JP cases whether it’s traffic, small claims, debt claims, all of them,” Williams said. “That’s the current system as of now but that is due to change in October.” Hardaway had been sent these system-generated notices before in the cases she no-showed, Williams said.
“Now, between that time, unfortunately the plaintiff, which is the apartment complex, contacted the court via email,” Williams recalled. “They said, ‘Look, we’re under new management. We would like to reset this case.’”
Williams first suggested they do a hearing by phone. “Let’s do a phone hearing. The person’s been served,” she told them. “They said ‘No, this is more serious than that. Can we just have a different court date?’”
This is when the allegedly forged notice enters the mix. On June 14, the day before the original hearing date, Williams typed up the notice in question, she said. It was mailed the following day, according to the court.
Even though the hearing date had been changed, Williams said she called Hardaway’s name when she read the docket on June 15. Williams said if Hardaway had been in court that day she could have told her in person about the new hearing date.
Williams said sending the notice was strategic, given Hardaway’s history and the facts of her current case.
“I did something strategic in this on the notification, given the past history of the defendant not showing up to court, not really paying very much attention to the citation or any notification,” she explained. “I actually sent this defendant the original, which had a giant copy stamp in red with my signature in blue to show her ‘Hello, hello hello.’ And then I put a copy in the case jacket. That is how that was done.”
She said her only mistake was not making a copy of the envelope. Melton has admitted that this isn’t uncommon for Justice of the Peace courts, which he says doesn’t have the best record keeping.
Williams said the court never heard from Hardaway and the notice they sent was never returned in the mail. When Hardaway didn’t show up on July 27, a default judgment was entered in favor of the landlord.
From there, Melton took the case, eventually hearing from the tipster about the allegedly forged notice.
Williams and O’Brien, however, maintain that there’s nothing out of the ordinary with the notice they claim was sent to Hardaway. The clerks who spoke to Melton, Williams and O’Brien suggested, didn’t recognize the notice because they don’t work eviction cases, and they likely don’t recall seeing it in Hardaway’s file because there were so many other documents.
Williams and O’Brien said the kind of notice sent to Hardaway is often used in “urgent” situations. The chief clerk showed one from another judge. “As you can see, this judge basically told this person, ‘You were just released from jail. We need to see you,’” Williams said.
O’Brien added: “It’s not Forvus-generated. That’s the point. So, these look different.” O’Brien said many standard notices get generated through Forvus. “But if it’s something different, and if you’re not doing those types of cases, you would be looking for something that looks like that,” O’Brien said, pointing to a Forvus-generated notification. “If you’re doing other cases and you’re a different clerk, you might think that this is the only notification that gets sent out, the Forvus one.” But O’Brien and Williams say that’s not the case.
Williams said they can’t treat every case the same, and sometimes they call for these kinds of notices.
“It’s always case by case,” Williams said. “And in my opinion this was a serious situation and I’ve already given the factors.”
O’Brien also said the Forvus notifications are limited in the number of characters one can include. “So, you wouldn’t be able to alert a person with a Forvus-generated [notification,]” the judge said.
Comparing two kinds of notices – a Forvus-generated one and another similar to the one in question – they said the one they sent Hardaway was more likely to get a response.
“That was the whole method to try to get the defendant’s attention to come in,” Williams said. “That is what occurred.”
Williams and O’Brien said they couldn’t comment on the other employees at the court.
But when it came to why someone might not remember seeing a specific document in an eviction case, Williams pointed out how many pages can be in a person’s file. Going through all the documents in Hardaway’s file, Williams said, “As you can see, all of them, they kind of, sort of look the same, you know? Same font…”
O’Brien said, “There is no intent on either part to not send somebody something.”
She said Melton could have filed a grievance with the court. On Melton’s claim of a forgery, O’Brien said: “It’s ‘allegedly.’ There has been no investigation of fraud.”
The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office wouldn’t say whether or not it was investigating the allegations.
Williams also said there’s a protocol for these kinds of situations. She said, “If you feel that something is fraudulent, you should first bring it up to [she points to O’Brien.]”
“Or HR,” O’Brien said. “There’s a protocol.”
Williams said the clerks could have spoken to the judge if they had concerns. “We’ve had clerks send things to her, not about fraudulent stuff, but just other things,” Williams said. “So, it’s not like she doesn’t respond. They have her email. They know where she’s at.”
O’Brien said she does everything she can for people facing eviction who come through her court. For example, she provides handouts about rent relief and legal aid.
“We would not intentionally deprive someone of their right,” O’Brien said. “Nobody wants anyone to be evicted, OK? If they want to actually do something, they should change the legislation. I can’t rewrite the rules. I just have to enforce them.”
Melton isn’t buying O’Brien and Williams’ account. Instead, he believes the clerks who testified to him under oath about the circumstances surrounding the allegedly forged document. “It’s kind of a dog ate my homework excuse,” Melton said of the court’s denial. “It’s just a ridiculous statement.”