“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Problems With Marion County's Small Claims Courts
This evening I attended the task force meeting in Pike Township reviewing the operation of Marion County Small Claims Courts. I was able to speak briefly about problems with the courts and suggestions. Here is my followup letter to Judge Baker who chairs the task force:
Judge Baker and Members of the Small Claims Court Task Force:
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.
wanted to expand a bit upon the comments I made at the meeting.
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
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
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.
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.
What is noted above could have been avoided with the filing of a satisfaction
of judgment. I cannot emphasize enough the problem with
courts not demanding that Plaintiffs file satisfactions of judgments on
cases. This month I had a case in nearby county where eight years
earlier a landlord in a trailer park had sued my client for rent. She
agreed to give the landlord the trailer in full satisfaction of the
judgment. Because there was no satisfaction of judgment, a
collection attorney eight years later filed another pro supp proceeding to
collect on the original judgment.
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.
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.
you so much for your interest in working to make improvements to the Marion
County Small Claims Court. It is much appreciated.