The Cost of Terrible Roommates and Getting Justice From ‘Judge Judy’

by Leah Smith

My mother on ‘Judge Judy’ with the terrible roommates.

Five years ago, my mom moved on a whim from Michigan to my college town near Los Angeles. Fortunately, she found a job in San Diego a few days after landing on my couch. After she got the job, she found a room on Craigslist in a house in San Diego for $450 per month. I went with her to make sure the roommates weren’t weirdos. The couple were in their forties, and they seemed nice enough when we arrived; they introduced me to their cute beagle who was dancing all over our feet, and they bragged about their breakfast nook. As I stood in the sunny kitchen admiring their little dining table, I didn’t realize this would be the first and last nice conversation I’d have with them.

My mom had announced her intentions to move to California a few months prior, after I stepped off the stage at my college graduation ceremony. My French degree was still fresh in my hands, and my nerves were suddenly on fire about my murky future in the post-recession job market. My mom gave me a quick hug and smile, and then said, “I have an interview right now.”

Before I had time to ask for an explanation, she hopped in my car, rolled down the driver side window, and said, “Sorry, I’m already late,” then drove away. My mom was prone to doing things without properly explaining herself, so I didn’t think this would lead to anything. After all, my parents still hadn’t sold our house in Michigan, and my dad didn’t have any new jobs lined up.

But a few weeks later, she showed up on my doorstep, confident that my dad would join her once he quit his job in Michigan. I was a bit worried that she was acting more like a 20-something than I was, but I also trusted her, because she was my mother after all. Unlike me, she actually had a career and a few degrees under her belt. She also had a savings account, something I wouldn’t have until years after I graduated. If I could make it in California on a crappy part-time job and an utter confusion about what career I wanted, I was certain my mom could make it just fine, too.

But soon after my mom moved in with her roommates, she told me that she wasn’t comfortable. The roommates were very neat and nit-picky about household chores. They lectured her about the spots they found on their bowls and plates. They told her they had a history of being overbearing with roommates. After that, my mom started hiding in her bedroom, trying to avoid them at all costs. She told me on the phone that she was planning to move out. I was a little worried, but it never occurred to me that she might be in over her head.

She found a new place fairly quickly; the rent was $600, more than what she had been paying, but she was willing to pay more to get away from her awful roommates. She was living on a month-to-month lease, so she wasn’t breaking a contract to move out so quickly. After she broke the news to the roommates, however, they acted like they’d just been dumped, and demanded that she move out immediately. From that point on, my mom communicated to them by slipping letters under her door. Soon, the letters turned into shouting matches, and my mom felt very unsafe.

And then the storm touched down: On her move-out day, I got a text from my dad that read, “Mom is in jail, please pick her up.” When I called him, he said that she had gotten into a fight with her roommates while she was packing up, and the roommates accused her of assault. They made a citizen’s arrest. My mother had never been arrested before, and all of this seemed very strange. I’d never seen her act violently.

I spent the whole day wondering what could have happened while I drove around San Diego collecting my mother’s bail bond, her property, and eventually my mother herself. The bail bond cost $685. My dad had arranged everything on the phone from Michigan.

“I don’t know where we’re going to come up with that money, but we’ll just figure it out later,” he told me.

Later, later, later. That’s how my parents had been dealing with money. My confidence in my mom’s spontaneous decisions had disappeared. I was scared and worried for her, but I was also upset that she was being so irresponsible. It seemed as if she really didn’t have anything figured out, even at her age. I thought about my own future: Would I still be just as lost forever?

I finally picked her up around two in the morning, and we got an $85 room at the Holiday Inn. I gave her a big hug when we finally saw each other, and she told me what had happened: Her roommate was screaming and yelling at her while she was taking her boxes to her car. My mom briefly covered her roommate’s mouth with her hand, then called the police. But once the cops arrived, the roommate demanded that my mom be arrested for assault.

Getting arrested didn’t just cost my mom bail money — it also took a toll on her mental health. She went to work the next day sleep-deprived and shook up. In a meeting at work, my mom replied to a coworker’s question by asking, “who cares?” and then broke down into tears. She said that from then on, they thought she was a wimpy, disorganized person. Her work contract was not renewed at the end of the year, and she believed the stress from this incident was the reason. Overall, she lost $15,000 in potential income.

She soon met with a lawyer. The charges were already dropped by the end of the next day, but she still had to pay the lawyer $1,200 for the little advice that he gave. He told her she could sue them for false arrest, but she probably would never see the money, because even if she won, she’d have a hard time getting the roommates to cough up the dough. She didn’t care; she was obsessed with getting some kind of justice. He gave her a book on how to make small claims cases so that she could sue them by herself. It took her a year of studying the book, and getting her paperwork in order before she was able to do it.

When she was finally ready, I went with my dad to serve the roommates. The moment we got back in the car, I said “This seems like something that’d be on ‘Judge Judy.’” It was all so childish and petty to me.

The next week, the producers from “Judge Judy” called. They picked up my mom’s case almost immediately after she filed it. My mom was embarrassed at first, but after talking to her lawyer, she agreed to appear on the show. The lawyer explained to her that “Judge Judy” would pay if my mom won, so she wouldn’t have to worry about getting the money from the roommates. Also, both my mom and the roommates would receive $500 just to appear on the show.

Somehow, my mom convinced the producers to include my dad and me on the episode even though we weren’t testifying. I didn’t mind, though, because I thought it’d be really fun. The show paid for a hotel room for us in downtown L.A., and covered our hair and make-up. After we got all glammed up, we spent a long time waiting in the green room for my mom’s segment to start. Eventually, they shuffled us off to a private room.

My mom was suddenly super nervous, muttering, “Good morning your honor,” to herself over and over again like she was memorizing a script for a play. She had picked up that phrase from a chapter in the lawyer’s book called “How to Speak to a Judge.” I was worried about her, because she was shaking like a little dying leaf, but I didn’t have time to calm her down, because the producer charged through the door at that moment. She reminded my mom to think of how angry she was, how much she suffered, to remember the crying at work, and the embarrassment she felt that I had to pick her up from jail. She also told my mom to not be afraid to talk back to Judge Judy. Of course, my mom knew that was exactly the opposite of how she should act, but the producer was only interested in making good TV. I couldn’t believe we were acting out our own life as if it were a soap opera, the real emotions were still there, but we had to display them on a stage full of shiny lights and extras that just came back from a morning tanning at Venice beach.

We came on the show, the music played, Judge Judy made her big entrance. Then my mom stood up, and immediately my face felt hot. I was worried about her — just like on the day that she had been arrested — and I was kind of mad that I had to be. Judge Judy asked my mom to describe what happened the day of the assault. My mom blurted out, “Good morning, your honor!” then paused for a few seconds before telling her side of the story. My face was turning bright red, Oh mom, what have you gotten yourself into now? I thought.

But soon, I could tell that Judge Judy was on her side. She started picking on the defendants, yelling at one of them for not looking her straight in the eyes. She accused them of lying when they said they politely asked my mom to leave the house. Everything seemed to be working out well for my mom. Finally, Judge Judy took a look at the police report. It said that the roommates had changed the locks against the officer’s request, and that he did not feel there was an adequate reason for the arrest. Judge Judy granted my mother $5,000.

My mom finally felt that justice had been served, and I have to admit, I was giddy with excitement when we walked off the set. My mom and I felt as if we were walking on clouds. We hugged each other, giggling like little girls. A producer yelled at us mid-hug, saying that we had accidentally stepped onto the set of another “judge” show. We were bumbling idiots, but we had won, we had finally won.

But, did we actually win anything? Clearly, the roommates had won the most, because they never actually had to pay for all the suffering that they caused my mom. Plus, even though my mom had received $5,500 from the show, she didn’t win as much money as she thought she had lost. But perhaps my mom never cared about the money in the first place — perhaps she just wanted to see those bad roommates again, publicly shame them, and go back home to cook up her next spontaneous move. Money comes and goes, but we’ll have this story forever.

Some people spend their lives meticulously calculating their future mistakes; my mom has taught me to just make them, then hope for the best. No matter what planning, saving, and worrying there is to be done, life is expensive. That evening, we spent even more money: a nice dinner, a bottle of whiskey for the lawyer — my mom even bought me the lipstick the make-up artists used for the show. We were rich, if only for a second, and boy did it feel good.

Leah Smith is a writer, dog-walker, nanny, and Judge Judy star living in Brooklyn. Catch her on Twitter here: @leahsmith723

Low-res clips of this episode can be found here and here.

This story is part of our Real Estate Month series.

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