Not Too Small Claims

I was maybe five years out of law school when I first became a small claims court arbitrator in Manhattan. It was one of my pro bono activities, once or twice a month, usually Thursday evenings, going over to 111 Centre Street, using the judges’ elevator in the back, and hanging out with my buds, the small claims court officers and Joe Gebbia, the chief clerk, with whom I would usually get dinner later in Chinatown. Joe was always kind enough to let me pay. It was his superpower.

The jurisdiction of small claims court at the time was $3,000. so that was the most an arbitrator could award. We had no authority to do anything beyond issuing a monetary award, and the legal basis upon which we ruled was, by statute, “substantial justice.” Beyond that, we were largely left to our own devices.

Before court commenced, Joe would read a speech to the litigants, that when their name was called, they could be heard by an arbitrator or by “the court,” meaning a real judge in a black robe. If they chose an arbitrator, their case would be tried that evening. If they chose a judge, they might not be heard and would have to come back another time, or more. If they chose an arbitrator, there was no appeal. It was done.

Small claims is very much “the People’s court,” as litigants didn’t need lawyers, and lawyers were usually detrimental to their case. It wasn’t a court of objections and evidenciary rulings, but two sides telling their stories, showing their proof when it was required (like repair bills or estimates).

It could be fairly rough, as people would often launch into fantastical, long-winded tales about their life, starting at birth, and it was left to the arb to focus them on the issue, say the unpleasant words when they explained why they decided to go to trial but left their evidence at home or just had nothing to argue but the fact that they owed money and just didn’t want to pay. Decisions were written out and mailed later to avoid heated tempers in the room. People were often quite angry at their adversaries, and wouldn’t have taken kindly to learning they lost. The court officers were very protective of us should a litigant get loud. Or worse.

Over the years, I estimate that I “presided” over 1,500 cases. I had an extraordinary ability to get sides to settle, which was always preferred. When there was a new judge sitting in the big room, Joe often asked me to sit on the bench with him to teach them how to get parties to settle. Some judges had never actually interacted with real people as lawyers, going from law secretary and envelope licker in the Democratic Party office to civil court judge. They weren’t very good at the judging part of the job and had no ability to read litigants and were shockingly unempathetic. They didn’t like people very much, and were often disgusted by dumb or dishonest people, who weren’t necessarily wrong in their claim or argument.

Then again, the quality of arbitrators was a very mixed bag as well. Some would take all night to try one case because they lacked the capacity to move litigants along and control their courtroom. Others were, well, not very good at law. The arbs sat around before court began, talking about our cases and rulings, and there was no shortage of cringeworthy moments.

Some of us got the high profile cases (and there were some very well-known parties in Manhattan small claims court) because Joe knew we could be trusted to handle them without embarrassing the court. But for the most part, any lawyer who wanted to be an arb and qualified got a courtroom. They were always short of volunteers, and weren’t in a position to be picky.

Not that they would have been picky, as we were the lawyers and they were the staff. They cared that cases moved, not what we decided, as long as there were no complaints that came back to bite them in the butt. There was an association that put on CLEs to help, but you can’t fix stupid, and some of the arbs were, well, stupid. Or biased. But mostly dumb.

In 2004, the jurisdiction of the court was increased from $3,000 to $5,000. It was a necessary increase, as prices had gone up and for matters such as car accidents, the lower amount was insufficient to cover the most ordinary fender bender. A new law has just raised the jurisdictional limit to $10,000.

“It is gratifying to see the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court increased to better reflect the true cost of living, and litigating, in New York City,” Chalfen said. “The Small Claims Part of the New York City Civil Court anticipated this change and is ready to handle the increase in filings.”

Before, a $10,000 claim often went unaddressed. If it was brought in the New York City smalls claims part, only $5000 could be awarded. If the litigant wanted full damages (and who doesn’t?), it had to be in real court, which meant getting a lawyer, which made the cost of litigating the case too high to make financial sense.

“This is an important law that will make it easier for people to achieve justice in relatively minor disputes without needing to hire an attorney,” Gianaris said. “I am pleased to see this legislation addressing basic fairness signed into law.”

It’s surprising that State Sen. Michael Gianaris calls $10,000 a “relatively minor dispute.” It’s a lot of money, particularly to the denizens of small claims court. Whether they “achieve justice” has more to do with the quality of arbs, who handle the vast majority of the cases since the judges are lucky to get through five trials per session while there are hundreds of cases on the docket.

Without this increase, many claims wouldn’t be viable, and many would have no place to turn to litigate their grievances in excess of the old $5,000 jurisdictional limit. Whether this will produce “basic fairness” isn’t clear, and why the limits have only been increased in New York City is a bit of a mystery, but there needs to be a place for people without lawyers to have their case promptly heard and decided.

And for arbs, it’s a great place to learn the craft of understanding people and their complaints. Volunteer. Take it seriously. Be fair to all litigants and help them to make the most of their arguments as possible, even if they struggle to explain themselves. Just make sure you know the law, as the last thing people need is to be pro se and have a judge who is as clueless about law as they are.

3 thoughts on “Not Too Small Claims

  1. KP

    ” but there needs to be a place for people without lawyers”
    Well, I’m glad someone still recognizes this, but law seems so complex now nearly everything in life needs a lawyer.. just read a EULA!

    We couldn’t have a $1/4million limit?? Maybe a million??

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