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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. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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