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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. Applause, applause, applause ..... but, is this duty to serve the constitutional order not much more incumbent upon the State, whose only aim is to be pure and unadulterated justice, than defense counsel, who is also charged with gaining a result for a client? I agree both are responsible, but it seems to me that the government attorneys bear a burden much heavier than defense counsel .... "“I note, much as we did in Mechling v. State, 16 N.E.3d 1015 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014), trans. denied, that the attorneys representing the State and the defendant are both officers of the court and have a responsibility to correct any obvious errors at the time they are committed."

  2. Do I have to hire an attorney to get co-guardianship of my brother? My father has guardianship and my older sister was his co-guardian until this Dec 2014 when she passed and my father was me to go on as the co-guardian, but funds are limit and we need to get this process taken care of quickly as our fathers health isn't the greatest. So please advise me if there is anyway to do this our self or if it requires a lawyer? Thank you

  3. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  4. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  5. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

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