Tales from Small Claims Court

It might be fun to take a break from the fiction writing and talk about some (allegedly) weird things I’ve (hypothetically) seen, and that have (allegedly) happened to me, when I used to appear in small claims court as a debt collections attorney.

Don’t Call Me A Liar

I’ve touched on this story before, but here I’ll give it the full treatment.

In debt collection in our area, firms would cover cases for each other due to the geographically dispersed nature of our workloads. This was, of course, done free of charge by agreement among the firms. What happened quite often was that you’d have like six of your own cases and 100 for other forms.

One day, in a court where I generally liked the clerk-magistrate and he liked me, I was covering a case for another firm as discussed above. When the parties were called for the small claims trial, the defendant identified himself as a rather cantankerous elderly gentleman. I think he had a cane.

Anyway, after explaining my side of the situation to the clerk-magistrate, this frightful chap pointed his finger at me and started calling me a liar: “THIS MAN said I didn’t have to pay! THIS MAN told me I didn’t even have to come to court, and here he is! THIS MAN is a LIAR!”

Mind you, when we cover, we get little to no information about the cases we’re faxed over the night before. Yes, lawyers still fax. So I had no idea about this particular situation save that I’ve never spoken to this man in my life.

I tried to explain as the normally mold-mannered clerk-magistrate futilely tried to get this guy to stop talking.

“I’ve never spoken to him,” I replied. “I don’t even work for this form; I’m covering.”

“You’re a liar! Your Honor, this man is a liar!”

Like I wrote in my earlier post:

If there’s one thing about me you need to know, it’s that you don’t call me a liar. It’s like calling Marty McFly a chicken: Unless you want to make an enemy for life, you just don’t do it.

Anyway, I was getting heated. I think I said something like, “Excuse me, what did you just call me?”

“I called you a liar!”

“I’ve never even spoken to you in my life!”

That’s when the clerk-magistrate lost it. Like, totally, completely, red-faced, spittle-flecked screaming lost it. It was a bit scary, because this guy was normally so nice.

He jabbed his manilla folder at each of us in turn, telling us we only get to talk when he says so, because it’s his court. He read is the riot act pretty good, and I actually had to hold in laughter. Because screw that old bastard who called me a liar, that’s why.

Afterwards, when I was in the Clerk’s office sorting my paperwork, the clerk-magistrate very calmly informed me he just had to keep order because things were spiraling out of control, and although I hadn’t done anything wrong, he had to yell at me to so as to appear impartial. I told him I understood and had a thick skin, but just don’t appreciate being called a liar. He understood too.

I Hate Seeing Grown Men Cry

Another time, in the same court for the same firm, this debtor wanted to settle his claim. He had just come into money–I think he said he borrowed it from family–and wanted to pay off this credit card.

I told him I’d call the firm, since I had no authority to negotiate a deal myself, and asked for the settlement authority. The disagreeable woman in charge asked me “What’s his offer.” I told her. “We’ll take that, but try to get some more.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Like another two grand.”

So without getting into specifics, they wanted me to negotiate with a guy who already had scraped together some money, over five thousand dollars, to settle a debt he was told this amount of money would settle, and I was being tasked to extract more.

Of course, I was under an ethical obligation to represent the client, and their attorneys, since I was basically just a warm body taking their place.

I informed the gentlemen. He clenched his fists, looked up into the sky, and whispered, “Those motherfuckers. Those motherfuckers.” Tears started to drip from his eyes. This did not look feigned in the least.

Right there, I wanted to sink into the ground. Why was I doing this?

He took the deal. He gave what he had and said he’d borrow more to cover the rest: “I’ll send it in a week. Every. Fucking. Cent.”

What a way to make a living, right folks?

Check Your Mailbox

This story involves the ninth of my “Nine Lessons from the Law“:

LESSON NINE: A well-timed ad hominem or rule violation can have a hugely positive effect towards achieving your desired outcome. Just don’t push it.

Here’s what actually happened which inspired that lesson.

I had a trial against this really brash, slick-talking guy told me he’d never lost a small claims case. But there’s a first time for everything, right?

So at trial, the defendant testified that he never got bills in the mail, even though I showed them to him and got him to confirm on the record, that that was his address. He also confirmed on the record that he regularly checked his mail.

I called him on it. He said he was out of country, where he lives half the year.

I asked if he gets bills down there. He said not from his home address. I asked him if he had anyone check his home mailbox when he’s out of country. He said he did not recall.

“You run a business, right?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“You don’t think it’s important to get all your mail?”

The clerk-magistrate at this court was a crotchety old, herd of hearing barnacle, but he was at least fair. “Counsel!” he snapped, his way of telling me I went to far.

“I find it amazing that a businessman would be out of the country for six months and not ever check his mail or have it forwarded or–”

“Counsel that’s not a question!”

“Let me rephrase: So you leave the country for six months and have nobody check your mail for bills you know you’ll get, is that right? Isn’t that weird?”

Counsel!”

So I had pretty much asked an improper question, but it had the desired effect. I won this case. And no, small claims cases aren’t jury trials. I guess this clerk-magistrate could smell bullshit when presented with the stuff.

BONUS STORY

Not small claims, but it’s similar to the above.

A similar thing happened in a civil suit. A pro se defendant, meaning representing himself, counter-sued my client, and filed request for the production of documents after request for the production of documents.

I produced the documents request, as required by law, and was greeted with motion to compel the production of documents after motion to compel the production of documents. This friggin’ guy was convinced my client had a piece of evidence that they did not. And I had to respond to each motion, attend a hearing, and explain to the judge why we weren’t able to will this nonexistent piece of mythical evidence into being.

It was a waste of time, and a licensed attorney would likely have been subjected to a motion for Rule 11 sanctions at this point–and maybe severely chastised by the judge–but although pro se defendants are supposed to be held to the same standards as a licensed attorney by law, that is a complete joke in application.

So I got kind of bitchy and filed several motions to compel against this guy.

Mind you, this case was a loser. The guy had nothing. He was borderline destitute (for a variety of actually very tragic reasons), but my client refused to listen to sound legal advice and just drop it. They were spending more on our firm than they’d ever hope to recover.

Back in court for the hearing, things got interesting.

Let me tell you about this judge, and judges generally. They really enjoy having and wielding power. This was my experience, at least. Some are pro-defendant by default. Others are pro-plaintiff. Still others are pro-police, and so on. There was one, a Hispanic woman, who treated any Hispanic defendant before her, criminal or civil, with such kid gloves and special consideration it bordered on parody. There was another, a black judge, who leaned extra-hard on black defendants.

You get the idea here.

This judge as an older white guy who enjoyed tearing up the rule book–you know, that thing called the law? He literally tore up a negotiated settlement agreement one of my colleagues had reached with some defendants because he didn’t personally think it was fair.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew it would be interesting.

At the hearing, I explained my piece.

“I don’t have that document,” the defendant averred.

“It’s my belief that the defendant has the documents requested and simply refuses to produce them,” I responded, merely mimicking the language of the defendant’s own endless motions.

We went like this for a while, with the judge finally asking me why I was taking this supposedly unprecedented course of action.

“Judge, I’m going by what the defendant has been allowed to do.”

Yes, this took some balls. Yes, this was risky and sort of not smart to do.”

“You filed this motion to compel because the defendant has been filing motions to compel?”

“I believe the defendant is not producing the documentation I believe he has.”

“Answer the question, attorney.”

“Judge, I’m filing this motion because I believe the defendant isn’t producing the documentation requested.”

“Yes or no, attorney: Did you file this motion only because the defendant has filed similar motions to you?”

“Not exactly,” I said. Like I’d give the judge the satisfaction of a yes or no answer.”

“Yes or no, attorney!” he said, starting to get riled up.

“In part,” I said.

“Gentlemen, step to the bench.”

So we had a sidebar in which the judge told us both our cases were losers, mainly because the defendant’s counterclaim was literally for something like $100,000,000 million, and both sides should agree to drop everything. He also told me he knew what I was doing and didn’t like it.

Hey, it got the judge to stop allowing this nonsense to continue and forced a settlement, didn’t it?

Happy Thanksgiving!

This case got off to a bad start because the defendant kept canceling on us and requesting continuances. And because, in his 30-pages long motions to continue he’d always mention that he was a disabled, mentally handicapped vet with PTSD every other sentence. Yet he seemed to write rather well . . .

One day in a snowstorm I had to drive to the courthouse, which was about 100 miles across the state.

And they didn’t cancel court, the bastards.

During my drive, nearly there after driving in hellish conditions (think the ice planet Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back on a twisty, turns, narrow state route), my office called. Seemed they for a fax from this guy requesting an emergency continuance, on account of his being a disabled, mentally handicapped vet with PTSD.

In court, I appeared before the judge and vehemently opposed his motion. The motion was, of course, granted, on account of the guy being a disabled, mentally handicapped vet with PTSD.

Months later, when we finally appear in court together, this guy hardly seemed disabled or mentally handicapped. We had also researched him and learned he never saw combat, injured himself during basic and was discharged, and was taking law school correspondence courses. So he was smart. But he played up his issues like a pro, including the ever-popular race card (he was Indian).

I kept interrupting him (see Lesson Nine, above) because he was the biggest goddamn liar I had ever seen in my life. He was lying under oath! Pointing it out was an exercise in futility, though, because again–say it with me now!–the defendant was a disabled, mentally handicapped vet with PTSD. Or at least pretended to be one.

Anyway, our client decided $1,000 wasn’t worth the headache. We agreed to settle without prejudice, meaning it could be refilled later. We sent the agreement out in the mail, and this dickhead retyped it in such a way that it looked identical to our form, but changed “without prejudice” to “with prejudice,” without informing us he was going to propose new terms.

We could’ve nailed his ass to the wall. Our boss told us it wasn’t worth it.

We dismissed the case sometime in late August or early September. That November, a Thanksgiving card was sent to my office. It was from this defendant, wishing me a wonderful holiday.

I didn’t know if I wanted to tip my hat to this guy, or find him and punch his lights out. I’m still conflicted.

Germ Warfare

This one is something you’d see on Judge Judy. Or Maury Povich. And it wasn’t my case (thank God)–I watched it while waiting for my own case to be called.

This was a lovers’ spat, small claims style, in which the ex-boyfriend was suing the ex-girlfriend for some $500 in medical bills resulting from, let’s say, a social disease she allegedly gave him.

The clerk-magistrate at this court was a really sardonic guy, a bit of a dick, but he didn’t put up with much. His facial expressions said it all though.

“Okay,” he said, reluctantly asking the plaintiff to continue with the facts, but not sounding excited to hear about them.

Turns out the girlfriend went on a two-week vacation, came back, and after having relations with her boyfriend, gave him some sort of unpronounceable groin-related disease.

“Do you have the bill?” asked the clerk-magistrate, trying to focus on more practical, and less unsanitary, matters.

“No, but I can get it,” said the plaintiff.

Now, this gave the clearly disgusted clerk-magistrate the opportunity to vent his spleen about how trials and evidence and notice work, and that sort of thing. “In the absence of any evidence, this is nothing but he-said, she-said, and I’m inclined to dismiss.”

“That’s not fair!” protested the plaintiff. “She’s just doing this to get back at me!”

The clerk-magistrate turned to the defendant, an eyebrow raised.

“He cheated on me and did the same thing the last time he went on vacation,” said the defendant.

The clerk-magistrate raised his hands before she could go on, expressed his utter disgust as he dismissed the case, and told these two rather unhygienic people never to darken this courtroom again.

3 comments

  1. I worked in collections for a year in college (for a bank). Fun times.

    Reading these stories I don’t miss the active practice of law. I have PTSD from too many inane discovery fights. Too often it is just tit-for-tat.

    One thing I learned is that a good trail attorney is ALWAYS working an angle. We got hauled in for a hearing because our client allegedly deleted some evidence. We showed up ready to argue that the plaintiff didn’t own the trade secret they were alleging we misappropriated. The judge said, good point, and they caved and it never mattered that our client probably destroyed evidence, or that he would have been a disaster as a witness.

    In another case, we had our client file for bankruptcy because the state court was screwing her by tying all of her funds up. The other side showed up and argued that since she was accused of all this bad stuff in their lawsuit that a trustee should be appointed to run her businesses for her. She immediately caved, and it didn’t matter that the judge released her funds so she could pay her lawyers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So what you’re saying is that it’s a legal system and not a justice system . . .

      Seriously, it’s amazing how many cases don’t hinge on the merits, what regular people call facts, at all. I’m so, so thankful and happy I’m not doing trial law anymore. Contracts have their own headaches, but by and large is a lot more interesting and fun.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’ve got to turn law into results somehow. As usual, the making of the sausage isn’t pretty. It did leave me a firm believer that you can’t understand substantive law without understanding the procedure that might be necessary to enforce it (even if you are a businessperson or are doing transactional work).

        And that was mostly practicing in FEDERAL court. It was nothing like the wild west of state court.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s