Gary J. Pieples Helps USA Today with a Small Claims Court Explainer

Posted on Friday 11/2/2018
Gary Pieples

Have a beef? Here's how to take it to small claims court

(USA Today Press Connects | Oct. 12, 2018) Patrick Gilboy got a quick lesson in business promises this past April: Don't always believe what you're told. When the retired law enforcement officer hired a local landscaper to remove a tree from in front of his City of Elmira home, he thought it was a done deal.

After all, Ray's Landscaping boasts, "We do it right or it's free," prominently across the face of its business card. Gilboy was anything but a satisfied customer. He didn't get his money back. Gilboy sued Ray's Landscaping, upset about a job he alleged was left half done. Ray's had removed a tree but didn't grind down the unsightly stump, part of the job promised in a contract written on nothing more than a Post-it note.

The venue for Gilboy's beef: Small Claims Court, the largely informal arena where petty cases are argued in a courtroom and before a judge. Plaintiffs and defendants make and state their own cases, often without benefit of legal representation.

The stump remained for months. After many excuses, a frustrated Gilboy finally hired a second contractor and paid an additional $270 to have the stump removed. He sued Ray's Landscaping for the for the added cost.

Gilboy spent 15 minutes in front of Elmira City Court Judge Ottavio Campanella. The defendant was a no-show, despite having been served with an official notice of the hearing through registered mail and confirmation with a return receipt. Judge Campanella accepted the contract as valid and found Gilboy's case credible. With no one at the defense table, Gilboy won his case.

"I paid him the money to do the job and he didn't do the job," Gilboy said.

Across New York, thousands of petty claims are adjudicated in just such an informal setting. More than 18,000 small claims cases were heard in city courts in 2017, not counting the five boroughs of New York City. Small claims cases adjudicated in town and village courts are not included in those numbers ...

... While there some basic parallels between the television version and real-life experience, there are also some major differences.

For example, don't expect a judge in actual small claims court to berate the plaintiff or defendant, as sometimes occurs on the entertainment side of proceedings.

"Television shows don't really give you a real accurate picture," said Gary J. Pieples, director of the Securities Arbitration and Consumer Clinic at the Syracuse University College of Law. "In real small claims court, the judge is just trying to solve a problem."

And those problems can run the gamut from contractor disputes, as Gilboy experienced, to squabbles between divorced couples about who is going to pay the summer camp bills for the children ...

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