June 2, 2017 • By Dennis Beaver
Picture yourself going to court. It could be for a traffic ticket, a civil lawsuit over money, divorce, or you are in criminal court facing years in prison. You are worried and have many questions about the judge hearing your case or ruling on a motion your attorney has filed.
• Will the judge be fair?
• Will the judge know the law?
• If the law is squarely on my side, will the judge follow it or without legal justification, find against me?
For the residents of Kings County, and anyone who has a case in its Superior Court, this syndicated newspaper columnist firmly believes that if your case has been touched by Research Attorney Valerie R. Chissakis–who is also a small claims court Judge Pro Tem – then you’ve got good reason to worry.
In January of this year, in a column titled, “Small claims judge got it so wrong,” we asked:
“If it becomes clear that a county has a renegade small claims court judge who rewards the illegal conduct of a business owner, and reveals at the least gross incompetence, should that person be permitted to continue hearing cases?”
We told you about Susan Stewart who took her car to Hanford-based Performance Automotive and never received a written estimate before owner Martin Reyes worked on the vehicle. She was unaware of her right to a written estimate, and more importantly, that without that estimate, she was not obligated to pay a cent for anything done to the car.
To protect car owners from mechanics who quote one price orally and then more when it’s time to pick up the vehicle – the car held hostage – California law says “No compensation without a written estimate.” Susan – like many people – was unaware of that legal protection and paid, getting her car back in worse shape than when it was brought in.
Reyes admitted in writing there was no written estimate, and knew that California law prevented him from collecting money for the repairs, yet refused to refund Susan, and both wound up in Small Claims Court in front of Valerie Chassikas.
Should have been a slam dunk
As Reyes violated the law, the result was an illegal contract from which, by law, he could not benefit. When these types of cases reach a court, the judge asks, “Show me the written estimate.” If there is none, it’s all over, judgment for the customer. The shop automatically loses. That’s what should have happened in Susan’s case.
A spokesperson for the California Bureau of Automotive repair stated, “I have never heard of a case where the judge refused to order a refund. You can’t keep money illegally obtained.”
But he had never met Research Attorney/Judge Pro Tem Chissakis.
Blames the victim
Using Alice in Wonderland reasoning, where black is white and up is down, Chissakis blamed the victim for not knowing her rights and then paying Reyes. Her reasoning goes this way: “You didn’t have to pay him, but because you did, he gets to keep the money.”
This is like saying, “Bank robbery is illegal, but if a teller hands over the money, the thief can keep it!”
Deeply flawed legal opinions
In deeply flawed legal opinions which have been ridiculed by numerous experienced attorneys, her legal analysis reveals either a failure to understand basic legal concepts, or worse, intentionally misstating the law to reward Reyes, who knowingly broke the law.
What amounts to an appeal was filed but instead of it going to another judge, it was sent back to her! In reading her two decisions, Loyola Law School (Los Angeles) Professor Bryan Hull observes, “It isn’t practical to expect that consumers will know that they have a right to a written estimate. They will unwittingly pay the bill, and only find out later that there was a right to a written estimate. This judge’s decision undermines the whole point of the law.”
Bakersfield attorney Catherine E. Bennett, a Certified Appellate Specialist, agrees, stating, “The statute is for the protection of the public. The repair person knew the law; the customer did not. She was blameless; he was not. Restitution to the victim was the appropriate remedy, which the judge refused. As the Court’s Research Attorney, her decision makes no sense and is deeply disturbing.”
Fortunately, when asked by a bailiff to sign the form allowing a Judge Pro Tem to hear your case, you have the right to refuse and to be assigned to a real Superior Court judge.
Research attorneys provide legal advice and counsel to the Judge
The Orange County Superior Court describes Research Attorneys as “Responsible for performing high quality legal research on behalf of judicial officers; examining, analyzing, and interpreting available information and submitting recommendations in matters before the Court.
Research Attorneys provide legal advice and counsel to the Court on various matters, and may serve as temporary judge.”
All those who want Valerie Chissakis working on their cases, please raise your hands.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.