Making a record: Deadlines and time lines

Here’s an gossipy law item in the May 19, 2011 Daily News: Rosie Perez sues over injury sustained on ‘Law & Order’ set when actress was shaken by an extra.

The Daily News reported that Perez’s injury occurred in 2009. Perez is being represented by Brian O’Dwyer, whom I have fond memories of, since two of the lawyers I worked for had offices within Brian’s law firm and I used to sit sort of in the middle of the space.

I know Brian handles a lot of personal injury cases. Immediately, I started thinking, 2009? Perez was injured in 2009? What is Brian’s reckoning on the statute of limitations for this case? Because there is a statute of limitations.

Maybe I was concentrating on that statute of limitations because I was ready to post, this, about…

Deadlines. I must emphasize how important these are: DEADLINES!

Whatever you decide to do, you must first learn about statutes of limitations–the end date before which you must make it officially known that you intend to sue. Deadlines vary depending on the type of lawsuit you’re thinking about, whom you’ll be suing, the court that will referee your lawsuit (federal, state, city), and the date of the act or event that kicked you into thinking about suing.

But safe to assume your potential lawsuit has a statute of limitations.

I’m highly sensitive about them because I once was inadvertently embroiled in a case that ran afoul of a filing deadline. I didn’t believe a judge would dismiss such an excellent and sympathetic case because it was filed a couple of days late.

He did. Every since then, I worry about statutes of limitations.

You don’t have all the time in the world to mull over suing. You need to do two things pretty quickly. Your first action—making a time line—will, with additions and modifications, carry you through the entire legal process and will lead to your second action, determining your deadline.

A time line is your story, your personal detailed narrative of the events contributing to your current situation.

As an example of the potential power buried within a time line, let me tell you about Mrs. Valerie Scarwater and her painful divorce from Mr. Scarwater who had become wealthy during their marriage (and had left her for his assistant, that old story).

I’d been asked to help Mrs. Valerie with organization. But when I walked into her large, beautifully furnished home office and saw the mess of papers (hereafter shortened to MOP) all over the floor, I got grumpy. I do like a neat chronological file.

This divorce case involved assets Mrs. Valerie believed her husband was hiding. She was clearly too distressed about her husband’s perfidy to articulate her thoughts, and her lawyer didn’t seem to picking up on the points she was trying to make. And there were those papers, all over the floor. That MOP.

Somewhat testy, I plunked myself down at her computer, sat Mrs. Valerie on the floor in the middle of her MOP and had her pick up at random and read to me every letter, every note and scribble, every balance sheet–every single document lying on her floor–while I entered its date and summary of its contents into a chronological record.

Amazing. When I read through this time line we’d compiled, I saw what she was struggling to say. She was right. Her husband had been hiding assets. The time line laid out the full story.

Time lines expose so much. It’s almost mystical, as if once you write down your prosaic sentences, secret writing appears underneath. A single incident–somebody said something upsetting, followed in two weeks by an event that was odd but did not seem at the time to be related–can, when placed into a time line, appear as a clear pattern of, say, harassment or discrimination. Or asset hiding.

Time lines lay out facts in chronological order, thus knitting them into a form of truth.

Coming up next, the recipe for making a time line.

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