January 9, 2017 • By Dennis Beaver
Today’s story will be of special interest to anyone headed to Small Claims Court, and we begin with this question:
“When the judge’s decision is 100 percent wrong — totally and completely wrong on the law — so as to make you wonder if her law decree came from a box of Cheerios, what can you do?”
“Appeal!” is what you’re probably thinking, and yes, the defendant can file an appeal which typically results in a new trial with a different judge. But in many states including California, if the plaintiff loses, it’s generally all over.
But under very narrow circumstances there is a way for a plaintiff to file what would act much like an appeal, and because it is in small claims court, most lawyers have never heard of it. We will tell you what it is in a moment, but right now, one more question:
“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?”
As you will see, that’s exactly what Kings County Small Claims Pro Tem Judge Valerie Chrissakis did, by rewarding Martin Reyes, owner of Hanford-based Automotive Performance, refusing to order him to return $2,300 he took from customer Susan Stewart in April of 2016 by knowingly and willfully violating California’s Written Estimate Law.
The 1975 California case of Bennett v. Hayes forced repair shops to comply with the written estimate law. No written estimate means no valid contract and the shop is not entitled to be paid no matter what they do to your vehicle. No compensation — period.
“This is still the law today. Countless consumers have prevailed in small claims matters as a result of shops failing to provide an estimate. Additionally, the Bureau of Automotive Repair annually secures nearly $5 million in restitution to consumers, in many cases because there was no estimate,” Bill Thomas, program manager with California’s Bureau of Automotive Repair told us.
He added, “I have never heard of a case where the judge refused to order a refund. You can’t keep money illegally obtained.”
When contacted by our reader, we spoke with Reyes who admitted — on a recorded line — there was no estimate, yet refused to refund the money. He stated the same thing in a letter, and then Susan went to Small Claims Court. Our office submitted a “Friend of the Court” brief to Judge Pro Tem Chrissakis with legal authority establishing that Reyes had engaged in an illegal contract and was not entitled to anything.
But it was a very strange hearing indeed. Obviously ignoring the law, she was looking for some way to compensate Reyes! Then came her decision, which is a slap in the face of justice and forces you to wonder about where she is coming from. Paraphrasing, her opinion cites all the cases which say the shop can’t be paid, but then she states, “But since you’ve paid the shop, I can’t help you. There is no legal remedy.”
“This was obviously a void, unenforceable contract,” appellate attorney Catherine Bennet of Bakersfield stated. “The mechanic clearly can’t keep the money. The judge is obviously way off base.”
Los Angeles-based consumer protection attorney Bob Brennan put it this way: “This is insane. You’ve got to give the money back! The judge is absolutely wrong.”
Contracts Professor Bryan Hull at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles stated, “This is an injustice by allowing the repair facility to get away with violation of a statute that is designed to protect the consumer.”
While Pro Tem Judge Valerie Chrissakis purposefully ignored the law to benefit someone not entitled to one cent — and why is anyone’s guess — Susan is has one remaining hope and that is to file form SC 108 with the Kings County Superior Court. It is called “Request to Cancel or Correct a Judgment.” Section 3 states, “I ask the court to cancel the judgment because the court applied the wrong law.”
If reviewed by Judge Chrissikis personally, she has the ability to correct the judgment, or she could refer it to some other judicial officer who, we assume, will get it right.
The Kings County Superior Court has some highly qualified judges who I’ve met and respect. It now has a hot potato on its hands and needs to restore faith in the public that they will be treated fairly by its Small Claims Court.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.