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Foss: Justice hard to come by in small claims court

Foss: Justice hard to come by in small claims court

This might not seem fair, or just, but it's not unusual
Foss: Justice hard to come by in small claims court
Jerry Romeo of Ballston Lake at his home.
Photographer: Eric Jenks/For The Daily Gazette

For many people, winning in small claims court is easy.  

The difficult part comes later, when they try to collect the money they're owed. 

Ballston Lake resident Jerry Romeo learned this the hard way. 

The 80-year-old retiree sued a handyman, claiming he never finished the home repairs Romeo hired him to do in the fall of 2015 and that the work he did do was poorly done. 

In early 2016, the handyman failed to appear in court and Romeo was awarded a judgment of $700. But he yet to see any of this money, and probably never will.

This might not seem fair, or just, but it's not unusual. 

A small claims court victory is no guarantee of payment. 

The onus is on the winning party to collect their judgment, and while there are certain avenues they can pursue, such as contacting the losing party and seeing whether they're willing to pay, or asking an employer to garnish a judgment debtor's wages, there are no surefire methods for obtaining the money. 

"Everything is left to you to do," Romeo said. "It's extremely frustrating." 

I knew very little about small claims court until I began following Romeo's saga, back in March. 

I had always assumed that small claims court was serious business - that losing came with real consequences, that the judicial system played a more active role in holding defendants accountable for bad behavior. 

But that isn't really the case. 

Amanda Bransford is an attorney who has represented low-wage and immigrant workers suing employers over unpaid wages in small claims court. 

She said that these employers rarely show up in court to defend themselves, and plaintiffs are awarded a "default judgment" as a result. When plaintiffs realize there's little they can do to make defendants pay up, the thrill of victory often turns sour.  

"They just can't believe it," said Bransford, who was in her final weeks of employment at the Empire Justice Center in Albany when I spoke with her. "It kind of undermines the legitimacy of the entire operation." 

Romeo has tried to hold the bad handyman accountable. 

He posted copies of his judgment around the bad handyman's neighborhood. He mailed the handyman an information subpoena - a legal document that orders the debtor to answer questions about his or her assets - but it was returned unopened. This month, Romeo had hoped to return to court and ask the judge to subpoena the bad handyman, but was informed that he needed a lawyer to make that request. 

Which didn't sound right to me - Romeo has represented himself in court all along, and I've seen nothing that indicates that certain requests require the presence of an attorney - but it was enough to bring Romeo's quest for justice to a halt. 

"It's been almost two years and I'm almost back to where I started," Romeo told me. "There should be a mechanism to force these people to appear in court." 

I know the identity of Romeo's bad handyman, but he's such a small-time operator that I decided to withhold it. 

Romeo isn't the first person to take the bad handyman to court over poor work or an unpaid debt - I spoke to another Saratoga County man with a tale very similar to Romeo's. But when I contacted the bad handyman, he denied ever working for either man, or any knowledge of the case against him. 

Romeo believes that the small claims court system is in need of reform, and after hearing his story I'm inclined to agree with him.  

Small claims court might be an appropriate venue for settling a dispute between two honest parties, but it fails miserably at providing justice when one party has clearly been wronged and the other party refuses to accept responsibility.

Edward W. De Barbieri, an assistant professor of law at Albany Law School, said that small claims court represents "a unique opportunity for the little person to get justice or at least consequences." 

The problem is that justice and consequences aren't necessarily easy to come by, although De Barbieri believes there are ways to improve this. 

Expanding the use of alternative dispute-resolution practices, such as arbitration or mediation, might produce better results, he said, noting that he has served as an arbitrator in small claims court. 

"People have to learn how to talk to each other," De Barbieri said. "We don't do a good job of talking to each other respectfully."  

Arbitration and mediation might lead to more satisfying outcomes in some cases - maybe a lot of cases - and it would be great to see them become more widely used.  

But there are always going to be defendants who aren't willing to sit down with their accuser, or show up in court. We need to do a better job of holding these people accountable, too. The current approach, which amounts to little more than a collective shrug of indifference from the judicial system, just isn't effective.

"There are hundreds of guys like [the bad handyman]," Romeo said. "They're ripping off seniors, and there's no way to fight it, so people just give up. But they're criminals, and they should be treated like criminals." 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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