Standing on Principle
Ever been so mad at someone that you swore you'd take the bum to small-claims court? Here's what would happen if you really did.
(MONEY Magazine) – Most days when you find employment attorney Richard Glovsky in Boston Municipal Court, he's there representing a corporation or a big-time executive and billing $425 an hour. But this afternoon he has ditched his clients to sit with his wife Hilary across a table from a solemn-faced assistant director of public works from Milton, Mass. and an attorney for the town's insurer. Over the next couple of hours, the interaction among the four will have all the plot twists of a Law & Order episode, including clashing witnesses ("I know what I saw," one insists), chilling testimony ("It was deep, it was dangerous, and it was clearly their fault," Hilary declaims) and even a revealing exhibit. Never mind that it's a photo of a now nonexistent pothole on a Milton byway; the image draws a level of scrutiny befitting, say, the Zapruder film. From the intensity of the proceedings, in fact, you wouldn't guess that no one at the table stands to win or lose more than $1,421, the damages the Glovskys are claiming after their 2005 Jaguar bottomed out in Exhibit A one rainy night last May. But then, in small-claims court, it doesn't pay to focus on the dollars. It's never, ever just about the money.
Think back to all those times you've suffered some minor but maddening financial loss at the hands of a shady car mechanic or inept contractor or--fill in your own favorite--and swore you'd make the bum pay. A few days later you'd admit the money wasn't worth the likely headache of a suit, and you'd decide to forget it. But what if you followed through?
To answer that question, I spent the better part of two weeks at small-claims hearings in and around Boston. There is certainly no shortage of cases in this area, nor are there elsewhere in the country. Five years ago, small claims represented 33% of civil cases in the states that track them separately, according to the National Center for State Courts. By 2004, the latest year measured, preliminary data show they were up to more than 40%.
Okay, but come on. Why would anyone ever go through the hassle of suing over sums that in most jurisdictions can't top $5,000? Part of the answer is, it's not that much of a hassle. Compared with other civil trials, a small-claims hearing is a fairly efficient affair. To sue, you typically fill out a brief form outlining your complaint and pay a small fee ($40 in Massachusetts). No more than six weeks later, you get your half-day in court. Simplifying things further, lawyers are banned in many jurisdictions and are rare in the others, so there's neither an "Objection, Your Honor" nor a "Hear ye" to be heard. It's just the plaintiff, the defendant and a judge, often a retired jurist, a justice of the peace or, in Massachusetts, a clerk-magistrate.
At its best, then, small claims can be a real People's Court--informal, inexpensive and accessible to all. Clerk-Magistrate Henry H. Shultz, who hears cases in the district court of Newton, Mass., begins trials by reassuring both sides, "I am not Judge Judy. I'm not going to make fun of anybody." Depending on the litigants, of course, the actual proceeding can get, well, amateurish. Some I sat in on looked less like a trial than a community theater tryout for Inherit the Wind. Still, in every hearing I witnessed, justice prevailed--at least, the side that had a solid case and actual evidence won.
What small-claims court will never be, however, is a place to turn grievances into windfalls. The most sought in any case I attended was $2,000; the least, $118. For that money, you may find it hard to justify burning a vacation day to come to court.
But the calculus can change if you see a principle at stake (even if it's only that you just can't let your opponent get away with it). As you'll see, almost every small-claims litigant eventually strikes a high-minded stance. Some are legitimate, some silly; some deeply held, some concocted on the spot. But for those who succeed, the principle of the thing is the thing. "People who won will tell you it was worth it, even if they didn't make much money," says Richard M. Alderman, director of the Consumer Law Center at the University of Houston Law School. "There's a lot to be said for having a judge take your side." Would any of the principles below propel you to court? You judge.
Langton v. American Airlines No Airline Treats Me Like That
• Early last summer, Derek Langton set out to board an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Boston, only to be told at the gate that his seat had been given away. Langton is a Massachusetts state trooper, and not boarding his flight would cause him to miss an extra shift. "I wanted to yell and scream at somebody," he says. Instead, as he watched the crowd head down the jetway, he demanded a printout of any data that had been entered about the mishap. An angry letter a few days later netted him 10,000 miles (roughly half a ticket), but that just upgraded his fury. A frequent flier, he believed he deserved more. "I felt like the airline had screwed me over," he says. (An American Airlines representative declined to comment.)
In his small-claims trial, Langton, as plaintiff, tells his side first. If he was late to the gate, Assistant Clerk-Magistrate Michael Sher asks, why did he expect to get a seat? Langton explains that he arrived in plenty of time and was just waiting for the final boarding call. Why not board right away? "There was a line out the door, and I had no bags," Langton replies.
Sher turns to the defendant, Elvia Curiel, a compliance coordinator for the airline. Langton's problem, she says, was that the rules require him to be in his seat 10 minutes before takeoff. At that point Langton starts waving his printout. It's stamped eight minutes before takeoff--which means he had to have been there earlier, since he had been arguing a while before the entry was made.
That decides it. "Based on what I saw, he should have been allowed to board," says Sher. He awards Langton $505, equal to the wages he lost. But the money isn't what gives Langton the greatest satisfaction. Weeks later, on his next trip to San Francisco, he finds the gate attendant who bumped him. "Remember me?" he asks gleefully. "Thanks for helping me win in court."
Zeizel v. Evart Vehicular Homicidal Maniacs Must Be Stopped
• Over eBay, New Yorker Claudia Evart agreed to pay Jeffrey Zeizel $1,725 for a 1986 Mercedes. Zeizel, a clinical social worker in Woburn, Mass., warned her that she'd need brake work before driving back to New York and hired a mechanic to do the job. After he paid for the job, she backed out of the purchase, and Zeizel sued to recover his $118 cost. To his surprise, Evart took the train from New York ($109 each way) to defend herself.
Once Zeizel has told his side to Magistrate William A. McEvoy Jr., Evart speaks up, and it's clear that she believes there's more at issue here than the money. Assuming a prosecutorial wrath worthy of CNN's Nancy Grace, she accuses Zeizel of fraud and misrepresentation and peppers him with questions of great vehemence but uncertain relevance. How many cars does he own? How much business does he do with that mechanic? After McEvoy steers her back on track, she gets to the real issue. Having phoned Zeizel's mechanic, who called the car "a clunker" and "not roadworthy," she concluded it wasn't safe. Zeizel "tried to put my life at risk," she declares. "I want to save others from this man."
Zeizel, who has come to court merely to recover $118, suddenly finds himself on trial for used-car fraud, reckless endangerment and attempted vehicular homicide. "If I was a con artist," he notes in limp self-defense, "I never would have given you my mechanic's phone number." But it's no good. McEvoy rules that Evart doesn't have to pay him back because the brake work boosted the car's value, and so Zeizel wasn't really out any money.
Afterward, Zeizel looks slightly glassy but later turns philosophical. "I could have spent the $118 on theater tickets," he says. "But this was much more entertaining."
Levin v. Koivula & JK Express Little Guys Deserve a Break
• In December 2005, bookkeeper Nina Levin met a new client, John Koivula, the founder and sole employee of limousine business JK Express Transportation, at a Starbucks in downtown Boston. There Koivula revealed his special record-keeping system, a plastic grocery bag stuffed with receipts. Levin said she'd charge $100 an hour to sort it out. Not long after Levin finished in March 2006, she sent him a bill for $2,850--and never heard back from him. Not a word.
Having heard Levin's side of the story, Clerk-Magistrate Henry H. Shultz asked Koivula why he hadn't at least contacted Levin before deciding not to pay. "That was a mistake," he confesses. But he has his reasons for not paying. Sort of. "I've never heard of anyone" being charged as much for tax work, he says. The magistrate almost begs Koivula to come up with a better argument. "Is it malpractice?" he asks helpfully. Finally, Koivula seizes on his principle, best summarized as Small Businessmen Are Special. "I'm not a multimillion-dollar corporation that can pay $3,000 to have my taxes done," he asserts. Shultz doesn't buy it and ends up awarding Levin $2,000.
Koivula, however, regards his loss as a moral victory because the court reduced Levin's fee. Levin is frustrated. "If he had just called," she says, "I would have given him a break."
Glovsky v. Town of Milton Love Trumps $425 an Hour
• In the case brought by the Glovskys, the Jaguar owners suing for pothole damage, the key question was this: Was the town negligent in not fixing the crater sooner? After all the impassioned testimony--and, of course, the photographic exhibit--Assistant Clerk-Magistrate Sher is torn. "I found both sides to be credible," he says. Rather than issue a ruling right away, he prods the parties to talk. "Why don't you take one last shot at settling this?" he asks. Nobody moves.
A couple of weeks later, Sher mails the litigants his decision: The Glovskys win $759, just over half the amount they had sought. Plus court costs. It's actually $500 less than Richard could have made billing clients during that time, but of course, this wasn't about money. His principle? "It's...love," he says. He jerks his head in the direction of Hilary, who locates and then finishes his thought. "He means I wouldn't stop yapping about what happened and how unfair it was," she says.
Love. Now that's a principle worth going to court for. But there was another benefit to the trial that the Glovskys didn't bargain for, one I observed in a number of cases. While most participants entered the trial ready to tear their opponents' lungs out, many left the courthouse feeling better disposed toward them. "When you are forced to listen to the other side," says Alderman of the Consumer Law Center, "you may find that you are dealing not with someone trying to hurt you but with an honest mistake." After her trial was finished, for example, Hilary acknowledged that their opponent, the town's assistant director of public works, was a hard-working guy. For all his rage over his missed flight, Derek Langton likewise admitted, "There is nobody at the airline who deliberately said, 'I want to screw this person over.' " (And he still regularly flies American.) Then there's Aurore Rudnick, who, for moral support, brought her sister to Brookline district court, where she was suing a car dealer for $1,500. As soon as she escaped into the corridor, Rudnick anxiously asked how she had performed. Before her sister could speak, a reply came from behind. "You did well," said lawyer Pamela Salpoglou, reassuringly. She knew too. After all, just minutes before, she had opposed Rudnick in court.
Can You Make a Case for Going to Small-Claims Court?
BEFORE YOU DECIDE TO FILE SUIT, ASK:
• Does the small-claims court in your state hear the kind of case you are pursuing?
Not all states admit personal-injury damages in small-claims court, for example.
• Do the monetary damages you want exceed the maximum?
In the majority of states, the most that can be awarded in small claims is $5,000. To look up your state's rules, tap into www.consumeraffairs.com (go to "Small Claims Guide") or www.ncsconline.org (go to "Small Claims State Links").
• Is winning this fight worth the time it could take to prepare your case?
As with renovations, make an estimate of the time involved. Then double it.
• If you win, is there a reasonable chance you will ever collect?
If the party you want to sue is flat broke and likely to stay that way, you may very well want to forgive and forget. Or just forget, anyway.
TRIALS AND ERROR
How to Win a Small Claim
No, you needn't wear a suit to file suit in small-claims court. But don't use that informality as an excuse to get sloppy. To win, you've still got to make a convincing case, proving your key claims to a judge (there's no jury). Patrick Mullaney, assistant clerk-magistrate in Boston, describes what works best in his courtroom:
1 Try settling beforehand. Small-claims court is no place to air an ugly misunderstanding for the first time. (Save that for divorce court.) A judge wants to see that you've filed suit only after making good-faith attempts to, say, collect the money you're owed. That means sending the debtor a certified letter that includes a 30-day deadline. "It shows you tried to resolve it and you made a clear demand," says Mullaney. "You've put yourself in a good position to make a claim."
2 Come prepared. Constructing a case against your landlord? Bring copies of the lease. If you hope to get mileage out of that muffler mishap, organize all relevant receipts. And bring live witnesses whenever possible. "An affidavit isn't the best evidence," says Mullaney. "I can't ask it a question."
3 Be realistic. In calculating your damages, don't get greedy. Show that you're seeking only the amount you lost when that contract was breached or the amount of the debt (with interest) that has gone unpaid. "I'm not interested in hearing everything that the other party put you through," says Mullaney.
4 Stay calm. Yelling may be emotionally satisfying, but no judge is going to stand for it. "Sometimes I get rather forceful in telling people to be polite," says Mullaney. "If that doesn't work, I remind them that the proceedings are being taped." And remember: The judge can just dismiss the case, if it comes to that.