A day in District Court and the wisdom of compromise

A typical day in court trumps anything you can learn from Judge Judy. Photo: Wikipedia

WASHINGTON, November 17, 2013 – At the risk of alienating attorneys and taking away their bread and butter work, this writer would like to point out that going to court can be expensive, it is certainly inconvenient, and it can be very time consuming. It is also not always necessary.

Spend a day in a courtroom watching your neighbors’ fights and squabbles and you will come away with a renewed sense of purpose: compromise, apply the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and avoid going to court altogether. 

Every state has at least two levels of civil (non-criminal) claims court: 

  • The first, typically, is called the lower level or “District” court. This court provides a forum for resolving smaller cases, including those that involve lesser dollar amounts.
  • The second, higher level or “Circuit” court handles the more serious matters. 

There is always a dollar amount cap in the lower level courts. Any larger claim—one that exceeds that cap—must be presented in the higher level, or Circuit court.  By way of example, Virginia recently increased the top amount or ceiling for District Court claims to $25,000.00. 

Many states have “small claims” courts that also have caps on the dollar value of claims, perhaps no more than $5,000.00.  Attorneys typically are not allowed in these cases. 

The parade of people that come into our nations’ district courts are our neighbors, and their disputes span the spectrum from ridiculous to life altering. Sitting in a real courtroom provides a view of life not available anywhere else as our neighbors display what are ultimately our own frailties, fears, prejudices and failings. 

This view of life is mimicked somewhat on television shows whose titles begin with the word “Judge.” These “real life” legal dispute television shows, however, often lean more toward the ridiculous, involving cases chosen by television producers for their salacious value.   

We watch these small claims court “reality” shows primarily due to our interest, perhaps our prurient interest, in the foibles of others and because of their essentially outrageous content.  We also watch to laugh at the participants and to confirm our belief that we are above such nonsense and not at all like the participants. “Can you believe he said that?” is frequently our reaction.

Of note, given our collective interest: since Oprah waved goodbye, Judge Judy (Judy Sheindlin) has become the most watched daytime television show in America, with over 9 million viewers per day.

A better view of real cases, however, without scripting, without pre-selection, is available every day at your local courthouse.

District Court judges typically enter the courtroom after a sheriff advises all “to rise.” This forced (and appropriate) respect traces its roots back to England and its long jurisprudential history.

Most of our own judges today will next begin the day’s proceedings with some explanation about what and how things will take place. Then, most “call” the docket (the list of cases) at the beginning of the session to determine if all parties are present, and to get a time estimate as to how long matters will take to be fully heard. 

Many judges will accommodate claimants who show up with attorneys first, to allow the attorneys to have their cases heard and then depart, under the assumption that the attorneys have something better to do than sit around all day hearing and observing others’ cases. Typically as well, shorter time length cases are often heard before those that require more time to hear.

Going to court can be exasperating and time consuming. Also, one of the parties loses. Compromise can help avoid the kicked-in-the-gut feeling losing can deliver.

Often, individuals going to court on their own find that their case is kicked out because procedural or substantive rules were not followed. The lesson being advanced when that happens is that hiring an attorney is usually a good idea.

Yet, while hiring an attorney is often necessary once the matter gets to the point of needing to go to court, an attorney’s time is usually expensive. Consider compromise?

A divorced woman had to cancel an airline flight and her out-of-town plans when her ex refused to come pick up the children on his scheduled visitation weekend.   She wanted to force her ex to live up to the schedule so she could rely on him and make plans in the future, and she wanted reimbursement for her $300 lost airline ticket.  Frustrated, she filed a motion against him for contempt of court. 

When the case arrived in court, the judge took fifteen minutes offering his thoughts on working together, courtesy, and setting an example for the children. He then told the woman that a contempt motion was not the proper vehicle to obtain the relief she wanted. The judge’s parting words to the ex were “if I could buy my way out of the necessity of coming back in here for $300, I’d do it in a heartbeat.” Golden Rule.  Compromise.

A landlord sued a former tenant who left his apartment a mess for the excess cost of cleanup and repair above the amount the security deposit covered. The claim for $6,000 resulted in a judgment when the tenant admitted he owed the money. 

In light of this admission, the tenant’s reason for coming to court (and thereby wasting everyone’s time) was that he did not have any money.  That conversation with the judge was short, because the issue was not how to pay, but whether the money was due.

The parties agreed to go outside of the courtroom and discuss payment arrangements. They could have easily avoided court altogether if that conversation had taken place much earlier. Looks like the tenant’s claim of “no money” was not completely true.  Compromise.

A dog owner refused to keep his dog quiet at night. The neighbor ultimately had to file suit. This case was one easily resolved without court.  Golden Rule.

Many cases require the court process. Injury claims (car accidents, dog bites, slip and fall cases) with disputes about liability are a prime example.  

But you always have a choice when a conflict presents itself. The legal system should be your last resort for resolving such a conflict. This opinion follows thirty-three years of watching what unfolds when humanity walks up to the judge to “explain.”  Golden Rule. Compromise.

Go to your local court, attend a session, and watch and learn. It is much better than what you see on television.

 

Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website. He is also available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics.  Paul is the featured legal analyst on the Washington Times Radio, in Washington, D.C., on the Andy Parks show and he is a columnist on the Washington Times Communities.

His book The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You is free to Maryland and Virginia residents and can be obtained by ordering it on his website; others can obtain it on Amazon.

 


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Paul Samakow

Attorney Paul Samakow brings his legal expertise to the headlines from life and real-life experience to The Washington Times Communties. A native Washingtonian, Samakow has been a Plaintiff’s trial lawyer since 1980, with offices in Maryland and Virginia. 

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