Marion County small claims under review

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A two-judge task force looking into the operation of Marion County’s small claims courts has listened to complaints from the public about inconvenience and confusion with the current system and will consider if any changes are needed.

The feedback makes clear that some people who’ve been before the courts as litigants believe the system is broken.

Public testimony was taken at hearings held Feb. 22 in Perry Township, Feb. 29 in Pike Township, and March 7 in the Marion Circuit Court, where people talked about their experiences in the nine township courts. They said it was difficult to determine who were court employees and who were attorneys for the debt-collection agencies or creditors. Litigants explained they felt harassed or forced to talk with plaintiff attorneys rather than a judge, and that any effort to argue their side would lead to a loss in court or a greater monetary judgment against them. Many people didn’t understand why their case was sent to a small claims court away from the township they resided, saying it would make more sense to have a case filed closer to where they live.

The small claims courts are being put under the microscope following critical news articles in the national media last year suggesting Marion County litigants may not receive the same access to justice in each small claims court or as parties have in other Indiana jurisdictions. The Indiana Supreme Court announced in February that Judge John Baker and Senior Judge Betty Barteau from the Court of Appeals, both with experience at the small claims level, would host the hearings to get feedback about the system and then examine the court structure and operations.

At the hearing held in Judge Doug Stephens’ Pike Township courtroom, about 60 people attended and a dozen spoke about their experiences in small claims courts throughout the county.

john baker Senior Judge Betty Barteau and Judge John Baker, both from the Indiana Court of Appeals, led a task force studying the Marion County Small Claims system. They conducted three hearings to get public feedback. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Roger and Reita Vandrey of Pike Township spoke about having to travel three times to the small claims court in Decatur Township to resolve confusion over the payment of a medical bill from 2002. Although they thought they would see a judge, they were taken after a two-hour wait into a small room with only the bill collector’s attorney and told the judge wasn’t even in the building. They said they were told to “shut up” when trying to ask questions and were not allowed to speak, and after the debt was eventually resolved, they had to repeatedly request a document from the court staff to prove the matter was completed.

“Nobody wanted to hear our side of it,” Reita Vandrey said.

Mariann Hunnicutt from Washington Township talked about having to take a half day off work to travel to a different township for a court hearing on a medical bill debt. She wasn’t advised of having the option to change venue until she specifically asked about the possibility, and when she was in court, Hunnicut said she wasn’t able to see a judge.

Brandon R. Major, a litigant in a $3,900 lease dispute, prevailed in Center Township Small Claims Court with a $240 judgment in his favor. But a Superior Court review led to a reversal and his having to pay almost $6,000 – with only about $1,100 going to the plaintiff and the rest going to the attorney, he said. He also talked about his observations of intimidating attorney behavior and court staff not helping people who had basic questions about the court procedures.

Some people who have been small claims defendants spoke about court decisions that were not properly recorded, causing them to handle the same case again due to claims that it wasn’t resolved, when it had been.

Several attorneys offered their feedback, some defending the system and others criticizing the courts.

Indianapolis attorney Paul Ogden, who represents defendants in small claims court, said he is concerned about the practice of “forum-shopping” and believes the courts need more consistency. He also said attorneys should be required to file all actions in the township where the defendant lives, not just in landlord-tenant disputes as the rules currently require.

Collection attorneys said they have many cases to file, so they often choose a location based on where they can be the most efficient. That involves locations close to their offices and where they are able to easily get court assistance. Several said litigants have notice of their rights, including venue change availability, when they receive suits and notices in the mail.

Phillip La Mere, managing partner at Bowman Heintz Boscia & Vician in Indianapolis, described the term forum shopping as a “gross misnomer” and said it doesn’t happen the way the media or defense attorneys say it does. Most often, he said litigants’ lack of understanding about the process is because they’re not reading the notices and documents that are in front of them.

Attorney Jeff Galliher, who has handled about 1,800 eviction cases in the past two years, said he hasn’t observed any unprofessional conduct from his colleagues or the judges, and that he thinks everyone is very cognizant of litigants’ rights – especially those representing themselves. The legal community is doing its best to get the cases moved through the system efficiently, he said.

Collections attorney Joseph Guy, past president of the Indiana Creditors Bar Association, argues that lawyers having access to court space isn’t a conflict and they aren’t presenting themselves as court employees.

“We do need a place to do our work,” he said.

But Baker said a concern that repeatedly has been brought to the task force’s attention is how it appears the plaintiff’s attorneys are doing tasks and getting preferential treatment that should be reserved for court staff. That can be confusing to someone who doesn’t understand the system, Baker said. He also pointed out that some evidence has been presented to the task force that entire courtrooms have been turned over to collection attorneys to use in meeting with debtors.

“The public might not know the difference between the plaintiff’s attorney and a member of the court staff when they have just arrived at court,” he said.

Baker and Barteau will now put the feedback into context to determine if any changes are needed. They will issue a report to the Supreme Court Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure which will then study the topic and recommend any needed changes to the state’s justices for consideration. Any procedural rule changes would come from the Supreme Court. No timeline exists for that process to happen and there’s no guarantee that any changes will be made, Baker told residents at the hearings.•


  • kangaroo court
    I was a guarantor on a legal bill, despite a usuary interest rate of 12%per month, aguarantor provision that says im obligated only if they are still on the case,no date or copy provided, lawyer quit due to knee surgery. Contract eas onesided voidable, judge interrupted presentation of case, no final statment of charges provided,etc

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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues