On the Large Potential of Small Claims Courts

When I was in law school, I bought a laptop that turned out to be a lemon. It would overheat during class, sending the cooling fan into overdrive, and by the end of an hour it whirred loud enough to turn heads several rows away. Soon it started to crash. “System failure,” the screen would read upon rebooting. And then, two years after I bought it, the machine crashed for the last time: “massive system failure,” it said.

This was not a cut-rate computer. It was a Toshiba – supposedly one of the best brands – and I bought it from a reputable national retailer for $1,500. So I called the store. The manager’s response was as predictable as it was unsatisfactory. Since the warranty had expired, the store – OK, it was Micro Center on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, but it easily could have been another – wouldn’t even look at it unless I paid a “diagnostic fee” of $95. My only recourse now, the manager insisted, was to contact the manufacturer.

Just as predictably, Toshiba declined to accept responsibility for the defective machine, due to the expired warranty. But my call to corporate headquarters yielded an interesting fact: someone else had purchased the computer two months before I did, and registered it with Toshiba. That person had apparently returned the computer to Micro Center, and Micro Center then sold it to me as new.

Every state has laws that are intended to protect consumers from such abuses by prohibiting unfair and deceptive business practices. [1] In most states, including Massachusetts, the law provides citizens with a private right of enforcement by means of a civil action for damages. [2] The Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act, like many other state laws, also allows a prevailing plaintiff to collect treble damages for knowing or willful violations, plus costs and attorney’s fees. [3] But often no attorney is needed, because consumers can represent themselves in small claims court.

Small claims courts are the most accessible forum of law available to American citizens. States began to establish them in the early twentieth century, following publication of an influential article by Roscoe Pound, which argued that consumers should have a mechanism for pursuing relatively minor claims without incurring the expense of a full-fledged lawsuit. [4] Today small claims courts exist in every state, and although their rules vary, they share the same basic characteristics: costs are minimal, procedures are simple, and adjudication is lightning fast in litigation time. Filing fees range from $15 to $150, depending on the state, while the maximum claim value ranges from only $2,500 in Kentucky and Rhode Island to as much as $25,000 in Tennessee. [5] Massachusetts falls in the middle: filing fees are between $40 and $150, depending on the value of the claim, and the maximum claim value is $7,000 (except there is no limit on property damage claims arising from an automobile accident). Apart from those requirements, anyone with a grievance can have their day in court simply by filling out a complaint form and appearing at the scheduled hearing. Massachusetts also permits parties to be represented by an attorney, though some states do not.

Despite the original purpose of small claims courts, and the ease with which average citizens can access them, their dockets tend to be dominated not by consumer claims, but by debt collectors and other business interests pursuing claims against individuals. [6] A study of a California small claims court found, for example, that corporate or business plaintiffs filed 56 percent of all cases in 2002, while only 36 percent were filed by individual or private party plaintiffs, and the remaining 8 percent were filed by government plaintiffs. [7] The authors surmise that corporations are simply more familiar with the small claims court system than average citizens, and that collecting debts is a normal part of the corporate business structure. [8] But whatever the cause, they conclude, “the system has been over utilized by businesses and corporations.” [9] In other words, to some extent small claims courts have been functionally hijacked by the very interests they were intended to check.

This is not a new phenomenon. As early as 1972, a comprehensive legal study of small claims court referred to it as “the forgotten court,” because the spirit of reform that gave rise to it appeared to have moved on. [10] But the debt collectors have not forgotten. In 2006, an investigation by the Boston Globe concluded that small claims courts, with their relaxed procedures and evidentiary standards, “have mutated into a system that ignores individual rights and shows favoritism toward debt collectors and their lawyers.” [11]

To be sure, small claims courts may be subject to abuse by unscrupulous debt collectors – and that is just one of many valid criticisms. [12] But they can also be an effective forum for accomplishing exactly what they were originally intended to do. In my case, for example, a $1,500 lemon was more than I could swallow, and so I sent Micro Center a demand letter requesting restitution or some other reasonable resolution. Micro Center declined, and soon we were appearing before a magistrate judge in the small claims division of Cambridge District Court. I presented my evidence, which Micro Center didn’t dispute. Its representative also helpfully admitted that Micro Center routinely sold floor models and returned merchandise as new, without notice to the customer. Justice was swift – I was awarded treble damages, plus costs, for a judgment of more than $4,500.

Everyone, it seems, has their own “Micro Center” story. In today’s economy of mass produced goods and automated transactions, the consumer who has never been victimized by defective products, shoddy services, overcharges, hidden and unauthorized fees or other unlawful business practices is vanishingly rare. But all too often, consumers accept these abuses as a cost of doing business if they want cable television, cell phones, rental cars, airline travel, hotel rooms and all the other amenities or necessities of modern life. Some people may be unsure of their rights, or how to go about obtaining a remedy. Others may not even know they have a claim, because putative corporate defendants have become so adept at warding off litigation by citing boilerplate provisions of their fine print contracts.

Imagine if more consumers were willing to challenge corporate malfeasance in small claims court. Corporations might soon decide that unfair and deceptive business practices weren’t so cost-effective anymore. They might even start treating consumers with the kind of honesty and fairness that real people expect from each other in business. That’s the idea behind the Small Claims Action Center, a new non-profit organization launching in Washington, DC. SCAC will help ordinary people use consumer protection laws to obtain justice in small claims court, while raising awareness among similarly situated parties who also may have meritorious claims. The more individual plaintiffs who are made whole, the greater the deterrent effect small claims court will have against the abusive and unlawful corporate practices proliferating today.

Those who doubt that small claims court litigation can produce a meaningful deterrent effect may be surprised to learn that it has already done so, albeit in isolated instances. In the early 1980s, for example, more than 100 people filed separate small claims actions against the San Francisco Airport, seeking the jurisdictional limit in nuisance damages for excessive noise. The small claims court awarded judgment in favor of each plaintiff, and the appellate courts upheld the judgments. [13] In doing so, the Court of Appeals expressly rejected the city’s arguments that the claims were too “complex” or otherwise “inappropriate” for resolution in small claims court. [14]

The same thing can happen again. And again, and again, and again.

Oliver Hall is a public interest attorney in Washington, DC. He is founder and legal counsel to the Center for Competitive Democracy.

[1] See Carolyn Carter, Consumer Protection in the States: A 50-State Report on Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices Statutes, NATIONAL CONSUMER LAW CENTER (February 2009).

[2] See MASS. GEN. LAWS ch. 93A (2014).

[3] See id. at § 9(3).

[4] See Roscoe Pound, The Administration of Justice in the Modern City, 26 HARV. L. REV. 302 (1913).

[5] See NOLO, Small Claims Court: The Basics (visited February 20, 2015) <http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/small-claims-court>.

[6] See Bruce Zucker and Monica Her, The People’s Court Examined: A Legal and Empirical Analysis of the Small Claims Court System, 37 U. SAN. FRAN. L. REV. 315, 341 & n.143 (Winter, 2003).

[7] See id.

[8] See id.

[9] See id. at 340.

[10] See Barbara Yngvesson and Patricia Hennessey, Small Claims, Complex Disputes: A Review of the Small Claims Literature, 9 L. AND SOC. REV. 2, 219 (Winter, 1975).

[11] See Michael Rezendes et al., Dignity Faces a Steamroller, BOSTON GLOBE (July 31, 2006).

[12] See, e.g., Jeffrey H. Joseph and Barry A. Friedman, Consumer Redress Through the Small Claims Court: A Proposed Model Consumer Justice Act, 18 B.C. IND. AND COMM. L. REV. 5, 839 n.2 (June 1977).

[13] See City and County of San Francisco v. Small Claims Division, 190 Cal. Rptr. 340 (Ct. App. 1983).

[14] See id. At 343-44.

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