This matter must be heard today, lawyer or no, the judge ruled. And so Rob Lee was on his own.
Lee's situation didn't look good. His lawyer had quit on him, leaving Lee to face an angry car dealership all by himself. Dressed in work shoes and blue auto-mechanic garb with "Rob" stitched in red above his shirt pocket, the mullet-haired Lee looked somewhat comical sitting at the counsel table across from the suits. Minutes before the hearing began, Joe Jacobson, one of two lawyers who sat in opposition, told a reporter that Lee is a "nut" -- maybe even dangerous, Jacobson suggested. After all, Lee had written, "I'm locked and loaded and just waiting for some walking mass of feces like you to try to shut me up," on an Internet message board when someone disagreed with his opinions about Bo Beuckman Ford, which is suing him for defamation.
This had all the markings of pro se fodder. Should be over in about an hour, Jacobson predicted.
The parties were here in St. Louis County Circuit Court to decide whether a temporary restraining order against Lee should become an injunction. For the better part of a month, Lee had been picketing Bo Beuckman Ford, claiming the Ellisville dealership had sold him a lemon pickup for $30,787, then refused to right the situation. The picketing began in early December, soon after KMOV-TV (Channel 4) ran a story on Lee's battle with the dealership, which insisted there was nothing wrong with his Ford F-350 diesel pickup. Unable to get satisfaction from Beuckman or Ford, Lee had to go to an arbitration panel, which ruled in August that the truck was defective and should be replaced with a new one. But Beuckman refused to compensate Lee for insurance, interest and other out-of-pocket expenses that Ford wouldn't cover. The dealership also told Lee that the price of the truck had increased by $1,500: What was standard equipment on the first truck, a 2000 model, was now considered optional on the replacement, a 2001 model. Lee had to pay according to the new price list. All told, Lee would have been out $4,700 for a truck he drove for barely one month, logging fewer than 1,500 miles. Beuckman wouldn't budge, so Lee called the media.
When KMOV called Beuckman, Larry Perez, the dealership's general manager, telephoned Lee and offered everything he wanted: a full refund, plus reimbursement for all expenses. As part of the deal, Lee had to call KMOV and ask the station not to air the story. But the TV station ran the story and Beuckman rescinded the refund offer [D.J. Wilson, "Short Cuts," RFT, Dec. 6]. Within a few days, Lee and his family were handing out fliers, shouting at customers and carrying signs reading "Bo Ripped Us Off," "$30,000, No Truck" and "Bo Leaves Family in the Cold."
Lee has also railed against Beuckman and Ford on the Internet, chronicling his battle on a Web site catering to Ford mechanics (www.flatratetech.com). He has called the police to report what he believes were illegal advertising signs at the dealership. He has threatened to contact every Ford owner in five ZIP-code areas. And he has gotten under Beuckman's skin. A few days after the picketing began, the dealership reinstated its offer of a full refund. The offer still stands. But it's too late.
Now, Lee is really angry. He wants more than a refund. He says he won't shut up until he gets his money back, plus $35,000 -- after nearly 10 months of haggling, he figures, he's due some damages. Beuckman says the cash demand amounts to extortion. On Jan. 5, the dealership sued Lee and stopped the picketing with a temporary restraining order. Beuckman, which claims it has lost sales, says Lee is lying when he says he was ripped off. The dealership is asking for damages of more than $25,000 -- more than enough to ruin Lee, a self-employed mechanic.
So it was no surprise that Lee arrived in court Thursday looking serious, if not scared. His girlfriend, Lorie Kraemer, sitting cross-armed in spectator's position, looked worried. Lee told Judge Carolyn Whittington that he hadn't had a chance to get a lawyer. Could this wait for another day? he asked. No, the judge replied.
The opening statements were brief. Beuckman attorney Fernando Bermudez, who represented Beuckman along with Jacobson, said Lee overstepped his First Amendment rights by telling lies. Lee told the judge he didn't have a statement and would do the best he could. "I have no knowledge of the law, ma'am," he said. Then Beuckman general manager Larry Perez took the stand.
Lee sat motionless and stony-faced, staring at the man who had insisted the truck was perfectly fine, then offered to make everything right, then pulled the deal away, then put it back on the table when faced with a relentless campaign by a simple Joe who'd been pushed too far. Lee let the questioning go on for about 10 minutes before objecting to a question about exhaust smoke -- "Is Mr. Perez an expert on diesels?" he asked. The judge told him he could get into that during cross-examination. A few minutes later, Lee again spoke up when Bermudez asked about the truck's mileage. "I object," Lee said. "Hearsay. Mr. Perez has no knowledge of this vehicle."
"Sustained," the judge ruled.
There was a brief silence. Bermudez started asking about Perez's review of the truck's repair records. He didn't get far. "I object, your honor," Lee said. "It's hearsay."
Sustained. Bermudez looked flustered, having to rephrase questions and work for several minutes before the judge finally allowed Perez to testify that his review of the truck's records showed tire wear wasn't a problem. Lee peppered the courtroom with objections, some more effective than others. "I don't know if that was an objection or what that was," Bermudez said when Lee asked whether documentation on tire wear had been made available to the court. "Nor do I," said the judge. She chided Lee for his objections, asking him to let the questioning continue. He'd get his chance during cross-examination.
But Lee wasn't deterred. "I object, your honor," he said when Perez began an answer by saying, "We verified ..." "Who verified?" Lee demanded. Sustained. Perez tried again: "The dealership ..." Objection. Sustained. "Tom Hoff ..." Objection. Sustained. Lee demanded that testimony be based on personal knowledge, not what Perez heard from someone else. Kraemer leaned forward. Her worried look was gone. Bermudez was getting around the objections, but he had to work. If nothing else, Lee was proving he could play this game.
"I object to anything downloaded from the Internet," Lee said when Perez testifed about Internet postings. "Was he (Perez) present when it was written?" Sustained.
The postings are as much an issue as the truck in Beuckman's case against Lee. In his Internet messages, Lee pondered whether Perez smokes crack. "Larry, put the pipe down, we have a problem to deal with," he wrote. He also questioned whether Beuckman uses illegal aliens to wash cars and described Beuckman as a "rip-off auto dealership" that has "raped" the community and invited bankruptcy by mistreating customers like himself. Perez soberly testified that the dealership is financially healthy and hasn't raped the community, and he neither smokes crack nor hires illegal aliens. He also denied that Lee got screwed out of a truck.
But the hearing exposed mistruths on the part of Beuckman. In the lawsuit, Beuckman says the dealership believes the truck is not defective. But Perez, in sworn testimony, told a different tale. "The truck definitely has problems, yes," he admitted. He could hardly say otherwise, given that an independent appraiser confirmed that a noise in the transmission persisted even after Beuckman replaced the clutch. That was one of the reasons the arbitration panel ruled Lee should get a new vehicle. The panel also decided clouds of exhaust smoke and excessive tire wear -- which Beuckman insists aren't problems -- are "unresolved" issues.
After two hours, the plaintiff rested and the judge called a brief recess. Lee looked exhausted. Kraemer hugged him as he retreated from the courtroom. Walking slowly to a hallway drinking fountain, he appeared to be hyperventilating. He gulped water for at least a minute, Kraemer patting him on the back and whispering encouragement while Perez huddled with his attorneys a few feet away. In 10 minutes, it would be Lee's turn to ask the questions.
After a few queries about advertising signs at the dealership, Lee asked Perez about the KMOV story and the aborted settlement. "We had an agreement: If the story ran, we would rescind the offer," Perez testified. Until now, Lee's tone had been measured. But this was too much. Rising from the counsel table, Lee stood up, held his arms out, Christ-style, and raised his voice for the first time. "Is Mr. Lee powerful enough to control the press in this city?" he demanded. "I don't know," Perez answered quietly. Lee wouldn't let it go. "How would you expect me to get a story stopped?" he asked. The answer was the same and equally quiet: "I don't know that."
Holding a copy of the arbitration panel's decision in front of Perez, Lee forced him to admit the truck had problems that the dealership couldn't fix. And he ripped Perez for demanding $1,500 more for the replacement truck on the grounds that the price list had changed. Aren't you making me pay twice for the same thing, Lee asked. Perez wouldn't agree. He wouldn't answer when Lee asked him whether he would pay $2 for a roll of toilet paper at Wal-Mart if the price tag said 99 cents. "I don't go to Wal-Mart for toilet paper," Perez replied.
At times, Lee's questioning turned into rants. He accused Perez of perjury and making a mockery out of the courtroom. He demanded that the general manager be jailed. His questions were as much statements as queries, finally prompting an objection from Bermudez. "Argumentative," the lawyer said. "Does that mean I have to calm down?" Lee asked the judge.
Whatever legal strategy Lee may have had seemed to dissolve once he took the stand. At first, he balked when called to testify. "I'd like to exercise whatever right it is I have that doesn't incriminate myself," he told the judge. "This case has been made very clear. There's nothing more that needs to be said." But he relented and was sworn. Bermudez asked whether he'd authored anti-Beuckman postings on the Internet. "I refuse to answer that," Lee sniffed. Then he changed his mind. Regardless of rules of evidence and the Fifth Amendment, Lee told the truth -- the legal gamesmanship that marked the first part of the hearing was over. "Yes, I did," he said. "I wrote what was included in all the exhibits."
What followed was as much confession and catharsis as it was testimony. His battle with Beuckman has left him emotionally absent from his family and unable to sleep at night, Lee testified. Ten months of unreturned phone calls, being put on endless hold, getting back-and-forth promises, listening to Beuckman insist the pickup was fine, even after a independent body decided it wasn't. Ten months of making payments on a truck that Beuckman and Ford couldn't fix, then wouldn't replace without charging him thousands of dollars he never expected to pay. Yes, Lee declared, I want $35,000 plus a full refund. "Is it a surprise I would expect to be compensated for this?" he testified. Then he admitted he has no legal grounds for damages. "That's how the car dealerships get away with this," he said. "There's no law against it. That's why my attorney withdrew from this case. There wasn't a legal issue, and there is no law."
But that doesn't make Beuckman right, at least in the eyes of Lee. "If you went to Wal-Mart and bought underwear and it was torn, and they wanted you to wait 10 months to return it, you'd be outraged, especially if it was $30,000 worth," he told the judge. "I have no knowledge of the law, ma'am. I've just had enough."
Lee's fate remains uncertain. Until Judge Whittington makes a ruling on Beuckman's request for injunction, the temporary restraining order remains in effect. In the meantime, Lee has been banned from the Ford mechanics' Web site after numerous complaints that his campaign against Beuckman has nothing to do with issues between mechanics and the car company. The ban came after Lee posted his reaction to the hearing.
"It was better than sex and lasted four hours," he wrote.