Monday, July 18, 2011

WSJ Report Brings Up Forum Shopping Issue...Old News to Us


Others including Paul Ogden have weighed in on this today, and I plan to blog more on this tomorrow. The Wall Street Journal took a look at the crazy way that creditors can file small claims court cases in Marion County today. Again, more on this tomorrow.

Back in October, 2010, I covered a candidates' forum at the Decatur Township Civic Council. Steve Terrell, who was running for Small Claims Court Judge, pointed out that there is truly apparently little justice in small claims cases and that it has become a cash cow for township government. I'll let my account of what happened take over from there.

Things Get Heated at Decatur Twp. Forum

At last night's Decatur Township Civic Council Candidates' Forum, Judge Bill Fisher, of the Decatur Township Small Claims Court, got a little hot under the collar when Democratic candidate Steve Terrell brought up that collection cases seemed to get filed in Decatur Township's court because the court seems to, by its own representation, value revenue over fairness.

Fisher took the comment personally and attempted to lodge an objection to Terrell's statement. He shouted something unintelligible about his judicial record and then was lightly pulled back down by his arm into his chair by Decatur Township Trustee, Steve Rink. He later apologized for, "losing his cool." One way or another, it showed, in my opinion, bad temperament for a sitting judge. He also refused afterwards to shake Terrell's hand.

The truth of the matter is that Fisher had just explained...out of his own mouth...what a cash cow the Decatur Township Small Claims Court has become for Decatur Township government. He said that since he became judge in 2007 that the court moved from 8th in the county to 3rd in the number of cases filed. With the accompanying filing fees, court costs, and judgments, Fisher called the Decatur Small Claims Court a "valuable asset."

Here's something you might not know, plaintiffs such as collection agencies, hospitals...can file small claims cases in any small claims court in Marion County. You can shop for a court. If a specific court seems favorable, you can file there. The Decatur Township location is particularly attractive because it doesn't sit on a bus line. That makes it more difficult for, let's say, a person that doesn't drive to get down to the courtroom and provide a defense.

None of this shouldn't be construed to be personal towards Judge Fisher. He's a truly nice guy. It's just that the manner in which his courtroom operates is absolutely fair game for Terrell. It's the issue of the campaign for many who feel as if they did not get a fair shake in the court itself due to the pressure or the philosophy of the court as a cash cow.

The question, I guess, is should the Small Claims Court be more about making money or more about making fair judgments? For Fisher, it seems he wants to be fair, but it's also that he seems to be more about making money for the township than fairness. Perception can be reality.

I invite Judge Fisher to respond to this blog post if he believes I have been unfair.


By the way, Judge Fisher never responded.

The result: You get the government you deserve. Fisher was handily reelected, and the court practices go on. Again, more tomorrow.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. Marion County is a very large county and it would appear only fair and reasonable that small claims actions be commenced in the Township Small Claims Court in which the consumer debtor resides. Compelling a consumer to make a long distance trip to a remote court is unconscionable.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if Decatur Township Small Claims Court is handicapped accessible? Are the sidewalks from the nearest bus line to the court handicapped accessible? Has anyone ever tried to get his or her wheel chair over a tall curb?

One other question--what about hearing impaired consumer defendants? Does the court have any equipment or trained personnel to assist a hearing impaired defendant understand what is being said?

Another question. Has any individual consumer defendant who does not reside in Decatur Township ever been granted a change of venue to different Township Small Claims Court where the individual defendant resides?

On the Decatur Township Small Claims Court's summons form it states:

"NOTICE OF THE DEFENDANT'S RIGHT TO FILE A CHANGE OF VENUE: in pertinent part:......
2. Venue is in the township where a transaction or occurrence giving rise to any part of the claim took place;
3. Venue is in the township (in a county of the Small Claims Court) where the greater percentage of individual defendant so named resides, owns real or rents an apartment or real estate or where the principal office or place of business of any defendant is located."

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if Decatur Township Small Claims Court is handicapped accessible? Are the sidewalks from the nearest bus line to the court handicapped accessible? Has anyone ever tried to get his or her wheel chair over a tall curb?

One other question--what about hearing impaired consumer defendants? Does the court have any equipment or trained personnel to assist a hearing impaired defendant understand what is being said?

Another question. Has any individual consumer defendant who does not reside in Decatur Township ever been granted a change of venue to different Township Small Claims Court where the individual defendant resides?

On the Decatur Township Small Claims Court's summons form it states:

"NOTICE OF THE DEFENDANT'S RIGHT TO FILE A CHANGE OF VENUE: in pertinent part:......
2. Venue is in the township where a transaction or occurrence giving rise to any part of the claim took place;
3. Venue is in the township (in a county of the Small Claims Court) where the greater percentage of individual defendant so named resides, owns real or rents an apartment or real estate or where the principal office or place of business of any defendant is located."

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if Decatur Township Small Claims Court is handicapped accessible? Are the sidewalks from the nearest bus line to the court handicapped accessible? Has anyone ever tried to get his or her wheel chair over a tall curb?

One other question--what about hearing impaired consumer defendants? Does the court have any equipment or trained personnel to assist a hearing impaired defendant understand what is being said?

Another question. Has any individual consumer defendant who does not reside in Decatur Township ever been granted a change of venue to a different Township Small Claims Court where the individual defendant resides?

On the Decatur Township Small Claims Court's summons form it states:

"NOTICE OF THE DEFENDANT'S RIGHT TO FILE A CHANGE OF VENUE: in pertinent part:......
2. Venue is in the township where a transaction or occurrence giving rise to any part of the claim took place;
3. Venue is in the township (in a county of the Small Claims Court) where the greater percentage of individual defendant so named resides, owns real or rents an apartment or real estate or where the principal office or place of business of any defendant is located."

Anonymous said...

Out of curiousity, I drove to 3730 S. Foltz Street where the Decatur Township Small Claims Court in located. It is out in the middle of nowhere and has streets with strange names such as Mars Hill, Kentucky, etc. It feels like Mars in that area of Marion County. If you want to see very old factory buildings with tall smoke stacks in a rust belt area, then you definitely want to see Decatur Township. In my opinion it is all rednecks. There are no sidewalks along Stoltz Street where the small claims court is located. One would have a very difficult time trying to take a bus to that remote court in the middle of nowhere. I saw absolutely zero buses running along Kentucky Avenue (the main drag) about a mile north of the court. Decatur Township Small Claims Court is a relatively new building. Business must be good with collection agencies to have allowed the construction of this new court building.

Anonymous said...

Decatur Township Small Claims Court has a reputation for favoring debt collectors, hospitals, doctors and clinics who sue on unpaid bills. The last time an individual consumer defendant won a small claim in that court probably dates back to before when O.J. Simpson won the Heisman. That consumer was probably the judge’s brother.

Anonymous said...

Rather than lose by default as a result of not showing up for a court date, individual consumer defendants could try car pooling in order to be able to get to Decatur Township Small Claims Court. That would be a lot cheaper than paying a taxi cab over $100 for a round trip to and from that distant court.

Anonymous said...

Small claims courts were created for lay people to have their day in court as a plaintiff or defendant without the necessity of hiring a lawyer. It should be an informal process and as simplified as possible. Forget about all the written motions, legal briefs, formal rules of evidence and legalese. Even Judge Judy on TV does not require that from litigants. What is truly reprehensible is that debt collectors usually know what township the consumer debtor resides in and that is the proper venue in Marion County to file a small claims action. Instead, debt collectors oftentimes file in a remote township where they have cause to believe that their business will be welcomed. That puts consumer debtors at an unfair disadvantage.