The state legislature created Small Claims Courts to resolve minor, non-criminal disputes quickly and inexpensively. The most anyone can sue for in Small Claims is $10,000, and in some circumstances the limit is even lower. You cannot be represented by a lawyer. Cases are usually heard within 90 days of filing.
The University faces an additional restriction in that it cannot employ someone specifically for the purpose of representing it in Small Claims actions. Therefore, when defending a Small Claim, the department most knowledgeable about the dispute takes the lead and goes to court, with Risk Services providing advice and support. (Risk Services also defends Small Claims that arise from the University's self-insurance program.)
All Small Claims actions begin with the aggrieved party (the plaintiff) filing a lawsuit and delivering a court summons to the alleged offender (the defendant). If the University is the defendant, the summons may be delivered to the Risk Services Office at 2130 Center Street, Berkeley. But plaintiffs don't always know that, so sometimes they deliver the summons to you. If you are served with a Small Claims summons, call Risk Services at once (643-9317 or 642-5141) or scan and send a copy via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(If someone delivers a summons for a higher court to your office, do not accept it unless the suit lists you personally as a defendant. If you are not listed as a party being sued, send the summons server to the Office of General Counsel in Oakland and notify either our office or the Office of Legal Affairs at 642-7123.)
If the Small Claim against your department arises from a contract or billing dispute, it isn't covered by the University's self-insurance programs, meaning your department is responsible for arguing the case in court and for paying any judgment if you lose. But Risk Services can help you prepare your case. It will:
- Review your files to make sure everything is in order and to identify documents you may want to present as evidence
- Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your case and help you develop a line of argument
- Give you an idea what to expect at the court hearing
The Court Experience
Small Claims Court is less formal than higher courts, but that doesn't mean it's like those court shows you see on TV. If you behave in a real courtroom the way people do in those shows, you run a serious risk of losing your case and getting arrested for contempt. Here are a few guidelines for courtroom conduct:
- First and foremost, BE ON TIME! Judges take an extremely dim view of latecomers. We have seen Small Claims magistrates decide cases purely on the basis of one party being late. No matter how busy you are, if the summons says to be in court at 4 p.m., be there by 3:45.
- You don't need to dress in your Sunday best, but you should wear nice clothing that doesn't call attention to itself. If the judge is thinking more about what you're wearing than what you're saying, you can present an ironclad argument and still lose.
- Remember that the judge is always in control. Speak only when spoken to. When you do speak, get right to the point. If the judge wants more details, he or she will ask for them.
- Don't get angry or argumentative. Emotional displays do not get much respect in the cool, dispassionate realm of the law. No matter how much you may dislike the other party – or no matter how much you feel they're misrepresenting the facts – treat them courteously.
When the court session begins, a clerk will conduct a roll call of all plaintiffs and defendants. Several cases are heard in the same session, so you are likely to find many other people in the courtroom with you. Be sure the clerk sees or hears you when your name, or the University's, is called. (You may have to explain that you are representing the University of California.) After the clerk has taken roll, he or she will swear everyone in.
After the swearing in, the clerk may offer the services of a mediator. The mediator is usually a retired judge, a law school professor, or a law student. His or her job is to hear each side's arguments, critique them (especially for weaknesses), and coax the two parties toward settlement. The advantage of mediation is that you can go into it immediately instead of waiting while the judge hears other cases. A mediator can also give you a sense of how your argument will play in front of the judge, although the quality of mediators varies, and what sounds good or bad to the mediator may strike the judge as just the opposite. Mediation is not binding; if you don't like how it turns out, you can reject it and try your case in front of the Small Claims judge as originally planned. It is entirely up to you whether to use a mediator's services. Generally speaking, if you're not willing to compromise, forget it; what we have found is that, particularly in monetary disputes, someone either owes the money or they don't, and if they do, they want to hear it from a judge, not a mediator.
After the offer of mediation (if there is one), the clerk sets aside a few minutes for document exchange. You must show the other party any documents you may want to give the judge as proof of your version of events. You in turn are entitled to see all documents the other party intends to use. If you are not familiar with the other party's documents, figure out how you're going to respond to them.
After the document exchange, the judge enters the courtroom. He or she may call many cases before yours. Be prepared to wait. Do not attract attention to yourself by flitting in and out of the courtroom or whispering a conversation into your cell phone.
When your case is called, stand (or sit) on the left facing the judge if you are the plaintiff, on the right facing the judge if you are the defendant. You are allowed to bring a witness or colleague with you, but usually no more than two people from each side should approach the bench.
Don't worry if you're nervous. All normal people get nervous in front of a judge, and the judge often makes things worse by having you sit for a long moment while he or she reviews the suit. He or she will then begin the proceeding by asking for the plaintiff's side of the story. The judge may ask follow-up questions or request documentation before turning to the defendant. The defendant gets to speak, and may also be asked questions or requested to produce documentation. Once the judge understands the case, he or she will usually ask if either side has anything to add. Although it may feel like a century while you're up there, the entire hearing should take less than ten minutes.
And the Verdict Is . . .
The judge seldom rules on the spot. He or she takes the case under submission and mails a ruling to both parties in the next two or three weeks.