Dear Judge Baker and Members of the Small Claims Court Task Force:
Thank you for appearing at the Pike Township Government Center and allowing members of the bar and the public to have input into possible changes with the Marion County Small Claims Court. As one of the few attorneys who attended who is not a collection attorney, I think I can give a different picture of how things are going on.
I wanted to expand a bit upon the comments I made at the meeting.
FORUM SHOPPING: Make no mistake, attorneys, in particular collection attorneys, are forum shopping in our small claims court. There is an enormous incentive for them to keep big filers happy lest the township lose the income that comes to through the filing fees. I remember when I ran in a vacancy election for Pike Twp Small Claims Court in the early 1990s, the Pike Township Trustee told me I should not rule against the big filers more than rarely lest they go somewhere else.
Decatur Township has often been complained of as being friendly territory for collection attorneys. It doesn't help that they do not have a bus line down there. That is the township I talked about the case my law firm had a defendant 10 years earlier had a medical bill of about $350 that went to collections. The medical provider received a judgment and at pro supp, the court ordered that the man’s be garnished to pay the $350 bill. A decade later he was hauled into court on a pro supp proceeding on the same judgment. Even though the debtor was represented by counsel and the collection attorney had no evidence that the garnishment didn’t fully satisfy the judgment, the court ruled against the client. He paid it again.
I frankly did not understand their objections regarding venue and the Fair Debt Collection Act. A collection attorney who spoke near the end clarified that this is apparently no longer an issue as it possibly was at one time in Cook County. Given modern technology, I do not buy that it is that difficult to tell which township a defendant lives in. Regardless, you could just have a rule that the case gets automatically transferred if its filed in the wrong township, without penalty to the plaintiff.
The thrust of the testimony seemed to be that the small claims court defendant can ask for a change of venue to their home township. My reading of Rule 12 is that a small claims court venue change is not mandatory…it’s discretionary with the court. Some of the collection attorneys indicate that in all their years people rarely ask for a change of venue. That is because they do not know they can make that request. The fact is these are very unsophisticated litigants.
I can guess what was going on. That collection attorney had gone through the court files looking for any cases where judgments were entered, and there was no satisfaction of judgment filed, and made a deal with the creditor that she would pursue it in return for a portion of what was collected. Ironically that same day I was in a Marion County Small Claims Court and the judge there mentioned that a collection attorney had spent the day going through the files, undoubtedly looking for judgments not shown as satisfied. Because a judgment can remain alive for at least ten years, it iseasy to pursue unsophisticated litigants who leave court thinking everything is resolved and will be taken care of, and then find out years later the final paperwork was never filed showing the judgment was satisfied.
SMALL CLAIMS COURT JUDGMENT DOCKET AND NEED FOR UNIFIED COMPUTER SYSTEM: One of the collection attorneys mentioned that the Marion County Clerk has a small claims court judgment docket. I reviewed the rule and that it is indeed the case that the court is to send their judgments in to the Marion County Clerk. I have to wonder though if it is done on a regular basis – do they physically mail the judgments to the Clerk? Nonetheless, that is just the judgments. All filings in small claims court need to be viewable in the Marion County Clerk’s system. Right now, if you want to know what’s filed on a case, you have to go out to the individual township or call.
Thank you so much for your interest in working to make improvements to the Marion County Small Claims Court. It is much appreciated.