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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.•

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  • 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. 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

  2. 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!!!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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