ChicagoLawyerFilter: Recommendation edition
January 22, 2018 7:14 AM   Subscribe

My mother, located in the Chicago area, needs to consult with a lawyer. As I don’t live in the US, I’m looking for recommendations both for what type of lawyer she should speak with, and referrals/where to search for someone qualified.

The situation my mum has found herself in is exceedingly complicated, rather confusing, and long on drama, but the salient points are thus:

• Whilst between homes (having sold hers and not yet bought another) my mum was invited to move in, temporarily and rent free, with a woman she knew through her employer, and was friendly with. When she was in the process of moving out of this woman’s home, her access to the house was suddenly cut off, while she still had several important/valuable items inside.
• Over the course of months, this woman has, through a series of tactics, avoided returning my mum’s stuff — nobody is home to let her in, they’re too busy, her belongings ‘may’ have been moved into storage offsite, arranging a time and then not being available, etc.
• Some of these items are relatively insignificant — a few clothes, odds and ends — but they also include her computer, her passport and her Social Security card.
• In addition to avoiding (as she never straight-out refuses) returning my mum’s possessions, she has also evolved from being friendly and helpful at the start to antagonistic and manipulative in the past several weeks, telling my mum she’s going to report her to police/social services as being unstable (I don’t entirely understand the circumstances of this one) as well as falsely identifying herself as my mum’s caregiver to a pharmacy to obtain information about her prescriptions, using mum’s personal details and the Social Security number in her possession to do so.

IMO it seems pretty clear that this woman has no intention of returning my mum’s stuff voluntarily, and worst-case-scenario may actively do something nefarious with her identity documents. Mum’s been putting up with this behaviour and walking on eggshells around this woman for months in the hopes she can work things out amicably, but the recent events WRT the pharmacy and other forms of verbal escalation seem to indicate that’s a lost cause.

She intends to go to the police and file a report, but I think it is wise to also speak to a lawyer to determine exactly what her rights are in this situation, how to protect herself — particularly from identity theft — and if there is anything she can do to recover her property. (She also loaned this woman several thousand dollars.)

Any recommendations on what type of lawyer is best for these circumstances, resources on where to find reputable legal counsel in Illinois, or direct referrals are all appreciated. (She will likely also be needing a tax lawyer in the near future, but I'm guessing that she may be better off seeking people who specialise rather than seeing one person for both issues.) My mum’s current residence and the home of the woman in question, where the events occurred, are both located in Cook County.
posted by myotahapea to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Lawyers don't really specialize in this kind of dispute. You want someone who does general litigation on a small scale, which unfortunately does put you in the realm of lawyerly bottom-feeders, without a really good way to distinguish good from bad. Plus, the literal value of the items will quickly be exceeded by the cost of any services beyond simply writing the woman a nasty-gram. So I think you'd be better off trying first the local senior legal assistance provider office.

As a side note, and respectfully...are you entirely comfortable that your mother is fully competent? Because certain aspects of this story strongly raise the possibility of significantly compromised judgment on her part.
posted by praemunire at 7:59 AM on January 22, 2018

P.S. Your mom should file her taxes as early as possible this year, to reduce the chances this woman tries to file on her behalf and steal her refund.

And if she hasn't already frozen her credit report with the three big agencies...she should do so!
posted by praemunire at 8:00 AM on January 22, 2018

This actually might be more of a job for the police than for a lawyer, initially. That is, I am a lawyer, and I'm trying to figure out what a lawyer is going to do for her, and it comes down to (1) write a scary letter, and (2) bring a suit. The scary letter might be effective, but all a lawsuit is going to do is to legally establish the ownership of the items. That doesn't actually change much -- from what you've said the problem woman isn't disputing the ownership of the items, she's just refusing to actually hand them over. Someone is still going to have to compel her to hand them over even if your mother got a judgment saying that she's the owner of all the stuff. (And of course the lawyer will be brutally expensive.)

I don't know what the police would do if your mother walked in to the station with a file of emails establishing that this woman has her stuff and won't give it back, but I think it's possible that they'd be willing to send an officer along to the woman's house with your mother to have a talk about how the stuff is going to be returned to her. If that doesn't happen, I would expect that the police will have advice about what she should do.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:44 AM on January 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

She should pay a lawyer -- any lawyer -- a fairly modest amount of money to write a threatening letter demanding the return of the most critical, specified items (computer, passport, ss card) within the next 10 days.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:01 AM on January 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

I do agree with that -- I kind of drifted past the effectiveness of the scary letter, but that really is a useful step. But pretty much any lawyer can do it.
posted by LizardBreath at 9:04 AM on January 22, 2018

Police is the right way to go here. A lawyer is going to be for a civil case, and I think you have a criminal one on your hands involving theft and identity theft.

I would recommend your mother contact her local alderman's office. The Alderman's office will likely have a staffer who can help her connect with resources for assistance, including potentially a local lawyer who would give her an hour of time pro bono. Use terms like "elder abuse," "taking advantage of senior citizen," etc.

I would also like to strongly recommend that you work with her to document the issues factually, with a timeline. She's going to have to do that anyway for the police.
posted by juniperesque at 9:05 AM on January 22, 2018

I’m not seeing anywhere that it mentions the mom being elderly. She has an employer, so is still working. Is that the case?
posted by Vaike at 9:57 AM on January 22, 2018

Vaike: She is over 70, so yes, any resources that pertain directly to seniors would be applicable.

DarlingBri, LizardBreath, and others who suggest a nastygram: I mentioned this to mum as well, but it seems this woman is rather antagonistic and vindictive, and has a lawyer she regularly employs. Mum's avoided going this route thus far because she's worried she'll start a protracted feud and skosh any possibility of getting her stuff back.

praemunire: Concern is appreciated, but I am confident my mum is fully competent. She's rather naïve, as she was more or less Betty Draper up until my dad died, and she's admitted she was too trusting of this woman. If nothing else the experience has opened her eyes and taught her to be more wary of people, and that not everybody is as nice and honest as she is.

I've recommended she document as much as possible, and as much as she remembers about their communications. Unfortunately much of it was in person, and it's likely it will be a question of mum's word against this woman's. Hence my desire to help her find out where she stands WRT the law, make a final declarative effort to recoup her stuff with that knowledge in mind, and if that doesn't work, walk away and consider it an expensive lesson about the darker sides of human nature.
posted by myotahapea at 10:16 AM on January 22, 2018

Again, though, the legal issues aren't complicated. From what you've said, the woman isn't making any claim to own your mom's stuff, and isn't making demands based on the idea that your mother owes her something that she's holding the stuff hostage for. There's nothing legal to straighten out, your mother just needs someone with the legal and practical power to help her get her stuff back, and that's the police. (If there are actual disputes as to ownership, that's a little different, but I can't see how it would apply to identity documents.)

IANYL, and this isn't legal advice. But even as a hammer, to whom every problem looks like a nail, I can't see what a lawyer does for her.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:32 AM on January 22, 2018

Well, speaking theoretically, if it's been several months, there's a good case for the woman's being liable for conversion of the property. By rendering it inaccessible to OP's mom for such a long period (and quite possibly fiddling with the laptop), she's effectively exercising control over it, even if she hasn't made a formal claim of ownership. A lawyer could pursue that claim, but no doubt the costs would quickly exceed the value of the property involved.

OP, you say you don't want to do a nastygram from a lawyer, but writing a letter demanding with some force the return of the property is the first (and, in this situation, probably the only cost-effective) thing a lawyer would do. If she's not willing to engage adversarially with this woman (which I do understand)--if all she wants to do is say, "Well, in my opinion, you're breaking the law because [x]"--then I'm not sure spending money on a lawyer will be worth it. The woman has her property and won't return it; the rest is just technical details which she's unlikely to care about. Consulting the state senior legal assistance provider would just cost you time, though, and I still think that's what you should try first.
posted by praemunire at 1:51 PM on January 22, 2018

So, provided she is in the city of Chicago, there are some very strict laws regarding landlords and property

Check out the MTO (metropolitan Tenants Orginization) maybe run things by them .

Sounds like an illegal lock out to me depending on the length of stay. Also landlords are required to give access to belongings.

Paying rent and a lease is not required to be a tenant in Chicago.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:11 PM on January 22, 2018

Adult protective services in can be called to... I'd construe the stealing of identification documents as elder abuse, especially with the power dynamic present.
Info and numbers available through the IL Dept of Aging website.

If they won't investigate, they may have resources as well.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:15 PM on January 22, 2018

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