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Small claims court a lesson in persistence, preparation and patience

Andrew Neff | BDN
Andrew Neff | BDN
District Court Judge Bruce Jordan listens to testimony from witness Scott Baxter, father of plaintiff Laura Baxter (foreground, facing bench) during a small claims court case at Penobscot Judicial Center on Monday, March 12, 2012.
By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — When Monday morning’s small claims court proceedings at the Penobscot Judicial Center began, District Court Judge Bruce Jordan had 39 hearings on the docket.

About an hour later, the crowd of 40 people in Courtroom 101 had decreased to about a dozen waiting to have their cases heard.

What remained included a landlord-tenant rent dispute, a woman suing her father over inheritance money, a lawsuit over damage resulting from a clothes dryer installed without a vent and two men arguing over who pays for an insurance deductible.

Just another day in small claims court, arguably Bangor’s busiest court, with an average of 1,010 claims filed annually over the last three years.

“In 2009, we had 865 small claims filings. It was 960 in 2010, and last year the total was 1,206,” said Diane Jackson, an assistant clerk at the Penobscot Judicial Center. “We’ve seen a very noticeable rise in cases, and a lot of it seems to have to do with a high volume of credit card debt.”

It was a first-time experience — and an education — for many of the people who actually presented their cases before Jordan.

Even Laura Baxter, a Bangor jewelry store assistant manager with two years’ experience as a paralegal, found her experience as a first-time plaintiff to be both nerve-racking and enlightening.

“This was the first time I’ve done anything like this in court,” said Baxter, who was suing a former landlord for $2,500 to get her $850 security deposit back plus damages. “I got to read some depositions for an attorney I was working for, but I hate getting up in front of people, and started having anxiety about it.”

Like many in the courtroom, Baxter was surprised to find out there would be no same-day judgment. Judges typically take the cases under advisement and issue rulings within a week or two.

“That was kind of weird. I thought we were going to have a decision, but we have to wait for the judge’s ruling,” she said. “It’s a little frustrating. I just don’t know how I feel about the whole thing.”

She’ll feel much better if the judgment is in her favor, but if that’s not the case, Baxter already knows what her next move is.

“If it doesn’t go in my favor, I’ll appeal it, only this time with an attorney,” she said.

Preparation plays a big part in presenting a solid case, even in small claims court, and knowing the rules is key.

Plaintiffs can take a case to small claims court only if the amount of restitution they’re seeking is $9,000 or less, but the most they can be awarded in a judgment is $6,000 plus court costs.

Plaintiffs also need to make sure they file their cases in the right court, as Penobscot County, for instance, is covered by four courts.

Another thing to consider is court costs, which include the $50 filing fee, the cost associated with having a defendant served by a law enforcement officer, and the postage required for certified mail.

After a small claims case is filed, defendants must be given at least a 10-day notice of the court date.

“The plaintiff must prove the other party is aware either by mail or in person of the filing, so they should send anything by mail using certified mail restricted delivery, which means only the defendant can sign for it,” Jackson said.

Most small claims are done pro se, which means self-represented, rather than using a lawyer.

If plaintiffs are too poor to pay court costs, they can still file suit, as well as a filing fees waiver. They must also fill out paperwork, including a financial affidavit.

At least two professional mediators are present at each court session in an effort to settle cases before they go to the judge.

As each case is called, if one party is present and the other is not, the judge usually finds in favor of the present party with a default judgment.

“When a small claim gets established in court, it affects credit,” said Jackson. “Credit bureaus check these things. And if they fail to appear and continue to ignore it, it can become a criminal offense.”

Defendants who don’t appear are summoned to court for a disclosure hearing and have 30 days to take care of things. If they don’t appear again, a judge will authorize a civil order of arrest, which gets sent to the sheriff’s department. Bail is then issued on personal recognizance. If they fail to show again, it becomes a crime and goes to the district attorney’s office.

“The worst thing you can do is keep ignoring it,” Jackson said of small claims or any other kind of lawsuit. “It will snowball and catch up to you.”

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