The closest thing that most of us will ever come to meeting a Judge Judy is by suing or being sued in Small Claims Court.
Having served as a pro tem judge in Small Claims Court, I learned that, next to being stopped by a traffic officer and getting a ticket, this is the typical way most people see our legal system in action. Plaintiffs and Defendants both hope for a judge who knows the law, listens, and that the other will badly screw up their presentation in court.
Unfortunately, in the case that I will now describe, from reviewing the exhibits and listening to the entire proceedings, an ill-informed judge and scatterbrained defendant led to an unjust verdict.
“They Just Showed Up Without Any Notice”
“Summer” had a small water leak in the toilet shut-off valve in one of her bathrooms, turned it off, called a plumber to repair it–who in turn–without her permission–had a mold remediation specialist come to the home. The only problem was that the area had been dry for weeks and Summer could neither smell nor see evidence of mold anywhere.
She was at work when the “specialist” showed up, and her Vietnamese speaking uncle–having virtually non-existent English language skills–let him in. The chap gets her on the phone, explains that his sniffer found moisture in the wall, and that any work accomplished would be entirely paid for by her homeowners insurance. “You will have no out of pocket expense,” he assured her, but did not put that in writing. He also needed a signature to place a dehumidifier.
Instead of saying, “Wait a minute! Let’s schedule this so that I can be there and go over everything,” Summer tells her uncle to sign the authorization. In reality, it was a contract for emergency repairs waiving the three-day cooling off period for at home sales. (In case of true emergency, that protection can be waived in California and some other states.)
Thus began, in my legal opinion, a classic rip off of a naive, trusting homeowner lacking common sense who proves the saying, “Why don’t doctors ask lawyers for advice before signing contracts? It is because they think they know more than their lawyer.”
Yes, Summer is a physician, and earns over $200,000 a year!
Bathroom Torn Apart – Sued in Small Claims Court
Other customers of this water-damage firm had complained online of almost identical business practices, experiencing as Summer did, having bathrooms gutted and unusable. As her insurance had a large deductible, she was billed over three thousand dollars, refused to pay and was sued in Small Claims Court.
Files Cross Complaint Against the Company
Instead of narrowing down her defense to a clear violation of both Federal and California law which would have established fraud and a void contract, Summer additionally asked the judge for:
(1) $1,500 which is what she paid another relative to take uncle in, as his bathroom was unusable “and it was difficult for him to use the stairs to mine,” and;
(2) Going out to restaurants with the family as she was unable to properly host them at her house due to the bathroom being unusable.
(3) Her time lost.
Her claim totaled close to $6,000.
Judge Missed the Point
Summer attempted to introduce into evidence on line posts almost identical to her experience, but the judge–in my opinion incorrectly–rejected that evidence. The judge felt that as Summer authorized uncle to sign the contract, she was obligated.
Obviously, Summer lost and is appealing the court’s decision, and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a Small Claims Court judge reward dishonest behavior. Several years ago I wrote about a grossly incompetent pro tem judge in Kings County, California who found in favor of an auto mechanic who violated the written estimate law – which meant he legally could collect nothing.
Months later she was appointed to the Kings County Superior Court Bench! It was an example of you-know-what rising to the top.
What the Business Rep Did Correctly in this Case
The representative from the remediation company did everything correctly in court. He was polite, had his documents neatly in order, did not interrupt Summer, and denied any fraud or having violated California or federal law.
Most important of all, he listened and responded only to those elements of her case that required him to comment. In short, he looked the part of an ethical, honest employee from a credible business.
He allowed Summer to make a fool of herself, and the judge rewarded him for it by failing–or refusing–to see the enormity of this rip off.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.