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I’m in Small Claims Court, Part I

posted at 11:49 am
on Nov. 17, 2010

Comments: 4 so far



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The first thing to know about court is: you don’t want to be there.

The whole system, every part of it, is designed to remind you that, really, you shouldn’t want to be here.  Ninety percent of the people around me look cowed or off balance or resigned or tense. Maybe this is because the benches are concrete covered in van floor carpeting. Maybe this is because the signs everywhere are in Times New Roman, not Comic Sans.

Or maybe it’s because, no matter what side you’re on or why you’re there, you probably have a troubling situation you’re trying to get out of, and you probably have something significant to lose. And that’s not a confidence-inspiring position to be in.

Sitting in the hall outside room 541 aka department 90, I watched the 90% I was part of, and the other 10% that I wasn’t. Of the “other”, some were grey functionaries—officious by definition, not unhappy like us, but not really human, either.

The remainder, maybe 5%, were the only people I saw smiling: The lawyers. In this, their natural habitat, they do truly look like sharks. Not in a jokey way—you know, because lawyers are mean and hungry and attack in a frenzy, ha ha, —but for other reasons.  First, because they are sleekly tailored in a way that the masses of humanity are not (most average people either dress up unnaturally formally for court, or don’t dress up enough).

And lawyers, like sharks and unlike the wait-ers that I was part of, are always moving. Striding quickly down the corridors, gliding up to rooms at the moment they are due to appear, they are the top of the food chain and they know it. They have no doubts. They know what’s behind the doors that we’ve never been through. And no matter which way we dart, they are going to be ready to cut us off and eat us.

Also, their teeth are all pointy. It’s weird.


I was sitting in this hall because I’m suing a client.  Or trying to.  It’s both easy and not easy at once to sue someone in small claims court. Fill out a form, send it in and boom, you’re a plaintiff.  Or not really.  Why? You filled the form out wrong. I did? Yes.

Try again.  Which form? Oh, OK. Wait, I need Acrobat Pro for that?  What hours can I call the court?  I need a street address as well as a mailing address? I need to ask the post office for that? I need to use the official fax cover sheet?  There’s a special form for requesting that the court send certified mail to the defendant? I can’t pay by check? OK, let me try again.

This was all done and redone and submitted in October, and my court date was set for November 17: today.  I flew down Monday, visited some clients to do paying work, went to The Curry House, visited with Robin and Amy, and generally got ready to WIN.

So, at 7:50 a.m. this morning you would have seen me sitting outside room 541, repeatedly and nervously flipping my tie off the keyboard in my lap as I attempted to get a little work done on the LA Court’s free wifi. (Interestingly, they block Facebook and Twitter.)

When the court opened at 8:30, a crowd gathered around the functionary at the door.  He gave us a pep talk, told us all the things we couldn’t do, and we headed in.  The defendant didn’t appear to be in the crowd—though it’s hard to say, because I’ve never met her in person.

Mr. Functionary kept the now-seated crowd in line with a speech he probably has memorized and with chipper answers to mumbled questions. Spanish speakers sit in the front left row. A chalkboard with magnetized cars is handy for car-related cases. Fill out this form, and DO NOT hand it back with any blank spaces.

There are two very small podiums at the front of the room, and behind a large raised bench/desk, there’s an empty chair that could hold a judge or judge-shaped robot. The seal of California proclaims it a “Great State,” but I think that’s either over-selling it these days. Truth in advertising would be “The Still Doing Relatively Well State of California” I think.

It’s go time.  A tense and bossy black woman calls names. “Allied Automobiles,” “Henry Walters,” “LC Construction,” “Theresa Gomez.” About 50% of the people called are actually in court.

At 8:37, I knew I was right—she wasn’t there.  I’m told by the back of the black woman’s head that the person I’m suing never signed for the certified mail service I’d sent, and because of this, I couldn’t go to trial.  I needed to reschedule, downstairs, in room 469.  Lesson learned: call the court to verify even if the forms don’t mention this.

I wasn’t the only person heading down to 469. That’s the only thing that makes me feel better.

Is it worth it for me to sue a client in small claims court?  It is.  It’s not about the money, but it’s for the principle.  You don’t pay, we’ll do our best to work things out with you.  But ultimately, we all have a responsibility to hold each other to the promises we make.

Plus, it’s for the money.

Part II will be posted on Jan. 6.



Previous entry:
Ultimate Advice

Next entry:
Bowen Island Festivities


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