Q: The buyers of our house – we sold it last March – are suing us in small claims court. They claim that we agreed to paint the bedrooms before the close of escrow. We had discussions about it but we never agreed to do anything. The sheriff served us last week with the complaint and the court date is in three weeks. We’ve never been to court before and we don’t know what to do. Should we seek the advice of an attorney? Do we need to file anything? What should we do when we get there? We don’t know anything about this type of problem. Help.
A: I try not to answer emails that don’t have enough facts for me to draw some reasonable conclusion about the outcome of the dispute. And from your email I have no idea whether the plaintiff (the person who filed the complaint) has a good case against you or not. But we’re long overdue for discussing small claims court in this column and so perhaps some general information may help you now and many other readers sometime in the future.
So let’s talk about small claims court in general.
The purpose of small claims court is to gives people a cheap and fast place to go in order to resolve relatively minor disputes. In small claims court lingo, that means disputes of $10,000 or less. That’s the maximum a small claims court judge can currently award, but its limit seems to go up every few years.
The entire purpose for the existence of a county’s small claims court is to provide a relatively fast and cheap way for litigants to resolve their differences in cases where the amount of money in dispute is relatively low.
There are a couple of ways the law keeps the time and costs down for small claims court litigants.
Probably first and foremost is the fact that litigants, with very few exceptions, cannot be represented in court by an attorney. Everybody must show up and tell their own story in their own words.
This alone keeps the expense way down.
Because there is no attorney to properly prepare the case, the trial can be scheduled in a couple of weeks, rather than a year or more down the road.
However, all of this speed and lack of expense has a corresponding down side.
There is a greatly increased risk that small claims court judges will come out with a verdict that, to put it gently, isn’t the verdict a judge or jury would have arrived at in superior court. In other words, a judge in a superior court action, with a courtroom full of lawyers who have properly researched and prepared their cases, might come out with a different, if not opposite, verdict. Albeit, at a much, much higher cost in dollars and time than is required in the small claims process.
The reason is simple.
Most people aren’t schooled in how to present their case. They don’t subpoena the witnesses they need, and they can’t always figure out what facts are legally significant and which are irrelevant. So the judge can only work with what he or she is given.
In addition, most people don’t know how to research the law and write a brief to educate the judge. So, many times, the judges have to go with their instincts or gut feelings in deciding who is right or wrong. This can lead to error more frequently than in a normal court proceeding.
The tradeoff is the speed with which the matter gets resolved, coupled with the fact that there isn’t much at stake.
If the defendant (that’s you) doesn’t ultimately like the decision, they can appeal to the superior court and try the case all over again in a more formal forum. In an appeal, both sides can have their attorneys present.
A plaintiff normally cannot appeal a verdict since they were the ones who decided to go to small claims court in the first place.
So make sure you have your facts straight and bring copies of any pictures or documents you want to show the judge. If your Realtor was a witness to the discussions, bring him or her to testify.
Then, when your case is called, the judge will give you a chance to tell your story, in plain English, not lawyer-speak. Just be polite and to the point. Use only the amount of time needed to present the facts and make an argument about why you believe you are right and the plaintiff is wrong.
Finally, if you still feel insecure about going to small claims court, you can have a consultation with an attorney. The attorney can, if necessary, help you prepare a legal brief you can hand to the judge.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like to have answered in this column you can contact him at SolanoScene@TJones-Law.com.