Arizona Tenants Advocates & Association
Articles written by Ken Volk
Small Claims: for Small Minds with Slim Pickin's
by Ken Volk
Don’t. Just don’t.
If you think you’re going to get a fair trial in Small Claims, think again. There is no appeal from a Small Claims case. So, this leaves the justice of the peace (JP) or hearing officer free to act out his/her inclination.
Now, what do you think a typical JP or hearing officer, left unaccountable for his or her actions, is going to do? Answer: screw the tenant, big time.
This is not hyperbole. Even in the civil division of justice court, where at least the JPs are subject to the accountability of the appeals process, tenants are still treated horribly.
In 2005, the William E. Morris Institute for Justice published “Injustice In No Time,” a study of how tenants fare in the civil division (not Small Claims) of Maricopa County justice courts. A few of the findings:
*When evictions cases are before the courts, in a single hour between 30 and 60 cases are heard.
* Approximately 40% of the cases lack crucial documentation on how tenants are served the summons and complaint.
* Most court files do not contain copies of the leases, yet judgments are given for lease terms regarding payments in amounts more than originally sought by landlords in their notices, and often even more than is requested in the complaint – far in excess of rent owed.
* Factual disputes between landlords and tenants invariably are ruled in the landlord’s favor.
* Many times, immediate (also known as, material and irreparable) evictions are granted without any evidence presented.
*Of 626 court cases observed, only three tenants who appeared before the court were successful and had their evictions dismissed. Not one tenant was awarded a monetary judgment.
In my opinion, the only way that a renter has any chance of succeeding in court is by having attorney representation. But attorneys are prohibited in Small Claims.
Recently, I was exposed to a Small Claims case where the landlord did not appear, but instead just used his manager, who had no ownership interest in the business. This was contrary to court rules. The tenant raised this issue to the hearing officer, who disregarded that essential fact. In fact, the property was illegal to occupy as a rental, but that, too, was rebuffed.
JPs are not attorneys, but depend on landlord attorneys for their on-the-spot legal education. So the JP or hearing officer has an inherent bias, taught by landlords. From a JP’s molded perspective, renters are less than human. Think of it as akin to racism. But, like any competent con-artist, it will be cloaked in all sorts of pomposity, highfalutin self-serving mumbo jumbo and, at times, hints of deference or compassion.
Conversely, tenants are generally clueless about the law and court procedure. Even the rare tenant who raises an intelligible defense will be given short shrift.
Then the ax falls. The justice court system is a slaughterhouse of tenants, institutionalized under the imprimatur of law and government. Its purpose is to maintain the power of, and enrich, the ruling elite landlords and their proxy attorney guardians. Small Claims is the worst of it.
Court is always an uphill battle for any tenant. Why make the odds even more overwhelming? Whether you have a Small Claims case filed against you, or if you are the plaintiff who initiated the action, immediately remove it to the civil division of the justice court. Then, retain an attorney or you will regret it.