By Leah Waters
The Dallas County District Attorney’s office is investigating allegations that a justice of the peace court fabricated a hearing notice in a Mesquite woman’s eviction case, according to an attorney in the office.
“Our Office has just received records from the complainant and we are in the early stages of a criminal investigation into this matter,” Assistant District Attorney Rick Vela wrote in an email Tuesday.
Vela declined to comment further, citing the pending investigation. The scope of the probe and who from Judge Margaret O’Brien’s court is under investigation are both unclear.
The Dallas Morning News has made an open records request for documents detailing the investigation, which the district attorney’s office denied, asking the Attorney General’s Office to weigh in.
Mark Melton, a lawyer with the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Chantel Hardaway against her landlord last month to stop an eviction that she alleged was unlawful after receiving an anonymous call that a hearing notice delivered to his client had been forged.
Melton has been collecting evidence to prove that a clerk in O’Brien’s court fabricated the document after he asked to see it in his client’s file.
According to the lawsuit, the chief clerk, Lutishia Williams, created the hearing notice that Melton alleged to be fabricated.
Several court clerks testified in deposition videos obtained by The Dallas Morning News that they do not believe the hearing notice placed in Hardaway’s file was one normally produced by the court. A hearing notice alleged to be fake is a Microsoft Word-generated document dated June 14 and signed by Williams.
Williams declined requests to comment for this story.
Clerks testified the court’s process is to print computer-generated notices, which do not look like Hardaway’s notice. O’Brien said her court frequently sends noncomputer generated notices.
Melton inspected Hardaway’s case file on Aug. 16 and found a notice of a new hearing date, according to the suit. The same clerk who helped Hardaway review her case file on Aug. 5 told Melton that she “did not recall seeing that page in this file” weeks earlier, the suit alleges.
The lawsuit said that Melton inspected other new hearing notices issued on the same date and they did not resemble the one in Hardaway’s file.
Hardaway has since found another place to live and settled the suit against her previous landlord.
“I’m just glad this is all resolved,” she said.
O’Brien said the allegations of fraud have no merit and that she has no reason to believe Hardaway did not receive notice of her eviction hearing.
“My chief clerk, Lutishia Williams, told me she prepared and mailed the trial notice at issue,” O’Brien said in a statement. “She administers my eviction docket and eviction cases. She is the clerk that would have personal knowledge concerning the trial notice reset. In the eighteen months Mrs. Williams has been my chief clerk and eviction coordinator, I have had no reason to question her work ethic or integrity.”
O’Brien said the clerks who testified in the suit filed by Melton have “violated Dallas County Policy by not going through the proper chain of command and making their allegations known to me or Human Resources at Dallas County.”
Melton said he’s not aware of any Dallas County policy that would prohibit employees from testifying under oath in a deposition they were legally required to attend.
“I would argue that it was not my allegations that may have created disruption; rather it is the actions giving rise to those allegations,” he said.
O’Brien was elected to the Garland precinct in 2018 after a career in real estate. She is running for re-election in November.
Lawyers for owner of The Camilla apartments in Mesquite did not respond to requests for comment.