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COA reverses small claims judgment

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a small claims court judgment because it was troubled by the court's outright refusal to give the plaintiff a chance to introduce evidence to refute a counterclaim.

In Robert A. Elrod v. Larry Brooks, No. 10A01-0903-CV-155, Robert Elrod appealed the small claims court's judgment in favor of Larry Brooks, who was the defendant in Elrod's suit and filed a counterclaim for theft and conversion. Elrod filed his original complaint alleging Brooks never gave him the title or bill of sale for two trailers he purchased from Brooks.

The small claims court knew there was a complaint and counterclaim before Elrod presented his case. After he finished, the judge asked if Elrod wanted to present any more evidence, to which Elrod said no. Then Brooks brought his case; Elrod asked to let witnesses dispute Brooks' claims, but the judge refused.

The small claims judge said he had given Elrod a chance to present his case and Brooks didn't present anything surprising or shocking. He also said letting Elrod present his case again would be like starting over, which he can't allow. The court granted judgment in Brooks' favor and ordered Elrod to pay $3,000 in damages.

The Court of Appeals determined the small claims court erred in denying Elrod the opportunity to present evidence on Brooks' counterclaim. It recognized the great amount of discretion the small claims court has in conducting proceedings before it, but it erred in not letting Elrod try to refute Brooks' counterclaim, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

There's nothing in the Small Claims Rules that would prevent it from following the Rules of Trial Procedure, as the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in Bowman v. Kitchel, 644 N.E.2d 878, 879 (Ind. 1995). In that case, the high court decided that the Rules of Trial Procedure apply in small claims court unless the particular rule in question is inconsistent with something the small claims rules.

"Even if it was the small claims court's intention that Elrod should have presented all his evidence which supported his claim and contested Brooks' counterclaim at the same time, the court never shared this intent with the parties," Judge Riley wrote. "Regardless, it would still be dubious for Elrod to have to defend against a claim before hearing the evidence in support of it. Although informality is the key in small claims proceedings, it should not come at the cost of fundamental rights of the parties."

The appellate court remanded for a new trial.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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