Nuts and Bolts of District Court

Blog of The Law Office of Jana L. Ponczak, LLC

Large Claims and Civil Disputes

Any dispute over $5000 is considered “large claims” or simply not under the “small claims” umbrella. The district court has jurisdiction over a claim up to $30,000. A lot of territory can be covered under district court claims- the range of monetary damages is so vast. An attorney is very useful to have in these types of cases because an attorney can navigate the many important details of a civil case. First of all- discovery is a big part of any court case- whether it is done using interrogatories (a set of questions directed at a party in which the other party is trying to find out specific information) or through production of documents (a set of questions asking for particular documents) or whether it is conducted by simply interviewing different witnesses. Discovery tells the attorney what issues to focus on and highlights any weaknesses in the other party’s case (more on discovery in a later post). Typically, a trial in a district court large claims case will follow the general structure of: opening statement, testimony from both parties- including exhibits and demonstrative evidence, closing statements. An attorney would and should be prepared for those basic trial protocols. What attorneys are also prepared for are the surprises- such as an added witness, a witness who is not cooperating, evidence that is not admissible being presented. An attorney can offer their expertise by helping a client present the best and most cogent argument at trial. They can be ready with objections and motions, rebuttal and argument.

Trial work, however, can be avoided altogether when an attorney is involved. An attorney can speak with the other party and settle the case. An attorney can never settle the case without a client’s consent but an attorney can advise whether a settlement is the correct path to choose. A lot of times, I see clients who are so caught up in the “fairness” of the fight that they forget that going to trial is costly, time-consuming and emotionally draining. I do not shirk away from trials but settling is a far better option for everyone if it can be achieved. People do not realize that testifying at a trial is emotionally draining. I counsel my clients and ask them “what do you want from this situation”. If the answer is “the satisfaction of watching the other person suffer” then going to court is not really a feasible option.

Settling a claim is just as important as going to trial- it can take hours of work between attorneys and is about compromising between the parties. Although compromise is not always what clients like to hear- it is a necessary part of the legal profession.

Bottom line: having an attorney in a large claim civil dispute will help you through the process. Attorneys will give you advice, advocate and litigate on your behalf in ways that a layperson cannot do.

Small Claims Court

Small Claims court is a remedy for people who have claims that are less than $5000 and would still like to go to court and obtain a judgment. In most cases, the plaintiffs and defendants in small claims court represent themselves, however, it is advantageous to have an attorney in these cases for multiple reasons:

1. An attorney will understand the intricacies of the court system and know whether certain procedures and motions need to be presented to the court. For example, there is no discovery process in a small claims case however, some small claims parties think that they are entitled to the discovery process. As a defendant in a small claims action, you may be able to dismiss the case for lack of evidence using a Motion to Dismiss, something an attorney should be able to determine and draft. Additionally, an attorney will be able to subpoena witnesses and know how to prepare those witnesses for trial in a more professional way.

2. If the matter does go to court, then having an attorney will be beneficial in the litigious process. An attorney will know how to present evidence at trial, how to bring out the elements of the claim (i.e. negligence requires duty, breach, causation and damages) and will be able to streamline the trial in front of the judge without bringing emotional elements into the courtroom. An attorney’s job is often to minimize the non-factual or non-relevant parts of a case and distill it to the elements necessary to prove the claim.

3. Obtaining an attorney will help to prepare witnesses and take the stress of the trial preparation out of the client’s hand. By doing so, the client can focus on their testimony or other parts of their life that may have been neglected because of the case. It is a big part of an attorney’s job- to take the stress from the client.

4. Having an attorney will help if a client wants to settle the matter before court. Often times, small claims actions are more trouble than they are worth and going to court becomes more costly than effective. An attorney will be able to assess the situation and advise as to whether a claim is worth pursuing or trying to settle. An attorney can speak with the other party directly or with an attorney (if the other party has one) to obtain a fair and just settlement for the claim.

For these reasons, it is important to have an attorney for a small claims matter.

Rent Escrow

This series is designed to give basic insight into the world of district court topics. Landlord-Tenant problems occur frequently and are usually frought with tension and problems on both sides. The most basic way the court aims to help people in this situation is to provide them with an option of escrow. Escrow accounts allow the court to hold onto money owed to the landlord until the conditions set by the escrow are met. For example- if a property is in disrepair and fails city or county inspection then the landlord is required to fix those elements that are problematic. The court may order that until those defects are cured the money owed to the landlord be put into a special account that will be designated for the purpose of holding those monies owed. At the end of the time period allotted, the money will either be distributed to the landlord or provided to the tenant to make the tenant whole.

The reason that this is a useful tool for the court is because the court acts essentially as a middleman between the two parties- forcing both parties to either cure defects that have been long-standing problems on the property or force the tenant to provide the rent owed to the landlord. This provides the landlord with assurance that the tenant will pay the rent and it assures the tenant that the defects will be fixed.
In situations in which the court awards escrow there is another hearing after the escrow period is over to determine how the escrow funds are to allocated. Again- this provides the court with the discretion and control over these sometimes volatile landlord/tenant issues.
It is a very useful tactic for the court.

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