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Finding the right forum

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As a small claims judge in one of Marion County’s nine townships, Judge Douglas Stephens isn’t worried about the familiar faces who file claims in his court.

Though he knows that some attorneys probably choose his court, as they might choose other courts and judges because of location and convenience, the local judge in Pike Township is more concerned about making sure the litigants – especially those not represented by an attorney – know and understand their rights.

“We’ve been painted as a cold heartless collection court,” Stephens, who’s been on the bench for more than eight years, said about the county’s
 

stephens-douglas-web-15col.jpg Judge Douglas Stephens (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

small claims court. “But we are first trying to make this a pleasant and fair experience for those people who have to come here, and we’re not focused on why certain lawyers are filing in a particular court.”

The national spotlight shined on Indiana’s largest county court system in July after a front page Wall Street Journal article highlighted perceptions about “forum shopping” in the Marion County small claims courts. The article focused on debt collection cases and how the location of proceedings is often determined based on a lawyer’s perceptions of local courts and the collections practices imposed by each judge.

The issue has received increasing attention in recent years. In early 2011, a federal judge in New York found that Illinois-based Allstate was “judge shopping” by filing in Manhattan its $700 million mortgage debt lawsuit against Bank of America Corp’s Countrywide. The judge moved the case to Los Angeles to ensure consistency and efficiency.

The WSJ reported that some Indiana judges handle their courtroom practices differently by accommodating “frequent-filer” collection attorneys. For example, some have different practices for supervising meetings between creditor attorneys and debtor litigants or which cases actually go before the judge. The judges cited in the WSJ article tell Indiana Lawyer their comments were taken out of context. While they acknowledge forum shopping does happen, they say it is not the concern that the national newspaper makes it out to be.

In Marion County’s township courts, court figures from the state show most of the debt collection cases involve less than $6,000 and those can be filed in any of the nine townships – except in landlord-tenant disputes, which must be filed in the township where the property is located. But in every case, no matter the jurisdiction, the defendant has the ability to ask that the suit be venued to the township where he or she lives.
 

gonon-richard-mug.jpg Gonon

Attorneys practicing in small claims court have mixed feelings about the notion of forum shopping. Indianapolis medical debt collection attorney Richard Gonon said the practice is used and that it can cut both ways, depending on where either party is located.

“Forum shopping isn’t illegal. It’s a valuable mechanism to use as a method to best advocate for your client,” he said. “It might have a poor connotation, but the way it’s implemented is perfectly legal and there’s no need to change it.”

Gonon said some courts may appear eager to accommodate plaintiffs who file 50 to 100 lawsuits a week – simply for the efficiency and convenience of it, not the end result of ruling for or against them.

Indianapolis attorney Paul Ogden, who occasionally practices in the small claims court, sees the practice as more of a problem than his colleague does. He takes issue with what he describes as informal settings in some courts that seem to better accommodate frequent users, allowing them access behind court counters, use of copy machines or even preferences on setting court dates.

“The problem is that small claims courts are profit centers for a township and end up competing against each other for business,” he said. “While the shopping around doesn’t affect the judges’ perspective on cases, there is a sense that you want to keep the attorneys happy. Every court acts a little differently and has different ways of handling attorneys who are always in there, but the underlying incentive seems to be to keep those frequent filers happy. That gives the appearance of impropriety and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”

But the judges say it’s not a matter of judge shopping, but rather the attorneys picking places that might help the process move more smoothly for them and the other parties involved in cases.


rosenberg-louis-mug.jpgRosenberg

Marion Circuit Judge Lou Rosenberg said he sees concerns surrounding local forum shopping to be more about how court services are used than any ideological disposition of a particular judge. That is something the small claims court judges agree on.

“It’s not forum shopping in the traditional sense, it’s basically which court of the nine is closest to me as an attorney and which gets me out the quickest and most efficiently and conveniently,” Stephens said. “If there’s any shopping going on, it’s probably staff shopping more than judge shopping.”

Stephens and the other judges echo that they aren’t deciding cases to please frequent filers. While internal court practices may currently differ to some degree, judges say the end result is based on the facts.

“Every judge may be familiar with the same faces that appear in his or her court, but it wouldn’t dawn on me that they might be choosing this or some other court for whatever reason,” said Judge Michelle Smith-Scott in Center Township, which has the most landlord-tenant disputes and is the only small claims court located in the Marion County City-County Building. “I just don’t monitor that. I’m more interested in safe-guarding the system to make sure our courts are fair and accessible to all.”

Since the WSJ story ran, Smith-Scott said she has made a practice of speaking with larger filers, such as creditors, and instructing them to meet with people before court officially convenes in order to discuss settlements or possible garnishments, and if there are any disagreements those go before the judge.

“That’s always been an option, but now this is more of a formalized process we’ll be doing,” she said. “I don’t want any private discussions where litigants might feel pressured.”

Judge Garland Graves in Warren Township said that since the article ran, he’s been observing the nine small claims court judges working more closely and communicating more than before. Rosenberg has also been advising and helping the small claims courts create a more unified and consistent approach to how they handle cases and work with litigants.

The courts are working on a “rights and responsibilities” pamphlet to display and hand out in court to litigants to help ensure the public knows the rules and what is and isn’t allowed. That should be finalized by year’s end, Rosenberg and Stephens said.

“We didn’t realize that some of these perceptions exist about judge shopping in a way that treats people unfairly, and now we’re doing our best to make sure those things aren’t happening and the perceptions are addressed,” Stephens said.•
 

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  1. 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!!!

  2. 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.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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