Southeast Texas Record

Monday, March 30, 2020

Best of 'Legally Speaking': Festivus for the rest of us?

By John G. Browning | Dec 9, 2014

Browning john 2013

This "Legally Speaking" column was first published in the Southeast Texas Record on Dec. 18, 2012

Every year, it seems there are high-profile civil liberties lawsuits in which municipalities are criticized for supposedly blurring the lines between church and state with Nativity scenes on government property.  But agitating for equal time for “Festivus,” the made-up holiday immortalized by TVs “Seinfeld”?

That was the case in Deerfield Beach, Fla., where for five years, local activist Chaz Stevens tried to get the city to get rid of a Nativity scene prominently displayed on the lawn of a city firehouse.  So, Stevens applied for permission to have a “Festivus Pole” next to the Nativity scene—and got it.

As depicted on the “Seinfeld” comedy, Festivus (for the rest of us) is a Dec. 23 holiday marked by the “airing of grievances,” feats of strength between family members, and the display of a simple, unadorned aluminum pole.  The Deerfield Beach city attorney had no comment on the city’s decision to approve putting an aluminum pole inspired by a sitcom 6 feet away from a depiction of the birth of Christ, but it’s not the first time “Festivus” has gained official recognition.

A couple of years ago, a California judge acceded to a prison inmate’s request for special meals on the “holiday” and recognized “Festivus” as a legitimate religious celebration.  Ah, your tax dollars at work.

Want to get even with government?  One man upset over a traffic ticket he received in a small town appeared not long ago to pay the $137 fine in cash.  He brought 137 intricately folded (origami style) dollar bills in the shape of pigs, packed up neatly in Dunkin Donuts boxes.  The city was not amused, and made him unfold his work of art/act of political protest.

Some people don’t know when to leave well enough alone.  Ernest Pagels Jr. of Wisconsin really wanted his day in court to contest a disorderly conduct citation—REALLY, REALLY wanted it.  When prosecutors dropped the charges, Pagels objected to the case against him being dismissed and even filed an appeal when the judge ignored his plea to let the trial go on.  Alas, the appeals court disagreed with Pagels too, ending the case.

And speaking of seeing the justice system at work, that’s what some 20 San Diego high school students thought they were going to see on a field trip to the courthouse to watch a trial.  The Grossmont High School students were in Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh’s courtroom watching testimony in an attempted murder and conspiracy case against three defendants alleged to be members of the Mexican Mafia prison gang.

Suddenly, one of the defendants, Eduardo Macias, slashed his lawyer in the face with a razor blade that Macias had smuggled in.  The teens watched as the lawyer was taken from the courtroom on a stretcher, as the judge pondered whether to declare a mistrial.

It wasn’t exactly the civics lesson that was planned, but it will probably make some of these kids think twice about becoming a lawyer.

Insurance companies can be tough to deal with, and no one knows that better than George Johannesen.  The 59-year-old Canadian recently received a letter, addressed to “The Estate of George Johannesen,” from his insurance company informing him that he had “died” in October. In addition, based on the erroneous information from the carrier, Johannesen’s driver’s license was cancelled.

The Canadian wrote back to inform the company that he was very much alive.  As Mark Twain would have said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Fake deaths and insurance companies just seem to go together.  Recently, Seattle newspapers reported a case straight out of a Monty Python sketch involving a Mr. Samsonov, who had filed a $20,000 claim with an insurance company for the death of a parrot.

Suspicions were aroused when investigators noted that the photo of the dead “parrot” was actually that of a parakeet.  Things got even more suspicious when it was learned that Samsonov had filed a claim (also for $20,000) with PEMCO Insurance over the death of a cat.

Claims investigators asked the man for another photo of the cat; when Samsonov complied, the investigator ran a Google image search and determined that the cat pictures actually came from the Internet, not Samsonov’s camera.  After the state Insurance Commission got involved, Samsonov was charged with and convicted of insurance fraud.

Mr. Samsonov clearly isn’t the only person who appreciates a good Internet photo of kittens.  Writer David Galbraith recently went public with his tongue-in-cheek battle with lawyers from Lockheed Martin after they wrote him about a domain name he had registered, “”

As it turns out, Lockheed Martin has an actual, trademarked facility named Skunkworks.  Galbraith’s registration prompted a “take this down or else” letter, at which point Galbraith sent the lawyers a picture of a cute kitten.

The lawyers were not amused.  After they sent another letter demanding that he turn over the domain name registration, Galbraith replied with a letter agreeing to do so on one condition: that the lawyers send him “a link to a picture of a really cute puppy.”

The lawyers weren’t amused.  After receiving another cold, nasty letter from them, Galbraith repeated his demand, saying “The picture of a puppy will be much cheaper and fill me with the joy that money simply cannot buy.”

While Galbraith understood that “puppy picture payment must be a more demanding logistical problem,” he also felt that “the world would be a better place if eminently solvable legal disputes were resolved by the ludicrous ritual exchange of somewhat cloyingly saccharine pictures.”

If only legal disputes really could be resolved that way!

Finally, I’ve taken over a few cases for clients that I would have described as ticking time bombs.  But I never had that happen literally.

Recently, the Palm Beach County bomb squad was called to the office of Florida lawyer John McDivitt to deal with a surprise McDivitt had found when clearing out the papers of a recently-deceased client: two hand grenades!

The late client had been a World War II veteran.  The explosive devices were removed from the attorney’s office and safely detonated.

All’s well that ends well.


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