Do I need to appear in Los Angeles small claims court?
June 14, 2016 7:28 AM   Subscribe

I know you are not my lawyer, etc. We have had a serious family death and I need to pack up everything to move across country in the next few days, for an undetermined amount of time (6 months, one year?), but I am supposed to show up here in small claims court in July. Need advice.

This was really tragic and horrible and I am not thinking clearly enough to make phone calls/function, so I am asking you all for guidance. I have a small claims court date for July 11. Is there any way I can send someone else, postphone it, send in my proof some other way or something I am not thinking of? Or if you could guide me where to start to ask, that would be wonderful.

For details, my ex tenant is suing me for not returning $x for security deposit. I actually returned it certified mail, but it got lost and undelivered and is still in the postal system somewhere. I did cancel that cashiers check and sent another. But in the meantime she is suing me for 3x the amount, which she has a right to, but I think I can show proof enough that I won't have to pay it. I am already broke because of my experiences with her, so paying the extra money would be a big hardship, but the bigger hardship would be not getting to and helping my family member immediately, as that would be devastating.

I am in Los Angeles.

posted by Vaike to Law & Government (10 answers total)
I'm not a lawyer, but I've been in small claims court where landlords and tenants have been in the same room with cases, and when one doesn't show up, the other seems to automatically win, so you'd most likely, at the very least, lose your case if you didn't show up.
posted by xingcat at 7:30 AM on June 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Call the court and talk to the clerk and see if you can reschedule the hearing. I think not showing up would be bad. If it can't be rescheduled, you could ask whether you could be represented by someone else at the hearing.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:36 AM on June 14, 2016 [10 favorites]

To protect your credit and avoid a court judgement, which could then be sold to a disreputable collection agency and inflate the amount owed by astronomical amounts.... Oh goodness, make sure you fly back for your court date. This is not the Middle Ages! You can travel! Just show up!!

If you have a lawyer, they might be able to appear on your behalf. Call the court and ask (you can call them!) or call lawyers/get a friend's recommendation.

You could also just pay the 3x deposit directly to your tenant with the written agreement they withdraw the case.

Yes. If you are not there (or perhaps your lawyer is not present on your behalf?) there will be a judgement entered against you.

I'm so sorry about the timing of all this. I'm urging you to treat this court date seriously.
posted by jbenben at 7:38 AM on June 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

IANAL, but some Googling turned up this page on the LA court system's website which would suggest the answer is almost definitely that you'll need to appear yourself, unfortunately. The postponement angle might work, but it looks like it's the only chance you have.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:38 AM on June 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

This may not be the best plan, but since you are moving out-of-state and don't know when you'll be back - and since you claim you're already broke - consider that you may be "judgment-proof".

If you don't appear in Small Claims court (and it looks like in California you must appear personally - in most other states, you can send a lawyer if you choose) then it is likely you'll lose the case since you're not there to present your side. However, even if your ex-tenant wins, she'll still have to collect her money. The court doesn't compel you to pay her right then, right there.

If she wins, she'll get to enter a judgment against you, and then she'll need to make the effort to collect the judgment - by filing paperwork to garnish your wages, if you have a job; or by filing papers to place a lien on your real estate, which generally only must be paid once you sell the property. If your straits are deep enough to file bankruptcy, that could vacate her judgment against you.

Morally, I don't necessarily advocate ditching court and avoiding paying her; however, your awareness of the consequences of skipping court could influence your decision-making process. For you, it may be akin to how home-buyers strategically defaulted on underwater mortgages.

More details about the Small Claim judgment collection here:
Can You Collect Your Money If You Win Your Small Claims Case? [Nolo Law]
posted by Ardea alba at 7:53 AM on June 14, 2016

First, I'm deeply sorry for your loss.

The question to ask yourself is: Will I be able to return to LA for a few days some time in the next few months? If so, when?

While there might be a way to postpone the hearing date, I suspect that the court will not want to postpone it for 6 months to 1 year (the time frame stated in the question). Since Itaxpica's link implies that getting representation also seems to be off the table, you'll almost certainly have to fly back to LA to appear in court and then fly back across the country to continue to deal with family matters. It may still be valuable to you to try to get a postponement, if you feel that your family situation is likely to be more stable two months from now rather than one month from now.

If you think that it will really be impossible to get back to LA before (say) October, your best option might be to try to settle with your tenant. This will probably not save you any money, but it will avoid having a court judgement on your credit report. If you go this route, you'll want to hire a lawyer to make sure that your ex-tenant actually drops the suit.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:58 AM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

This may not be the best plan, but since you are moving out-of-state and don't know when you'll be back - and since you claim you're already broke - consider that you may be "judgment-proof".

Not the best plan. OP is not judgment-proof. Judgment-proof people, so-called, are generally elderly, and/or dirt poor, with zero assets and future income. It's really hard to be judgment-proof in this country.

Will the police in two states drop what they're doing and track him or her down to make him or her pay? No, but at some future date a judgment WILL come bite you in the butt, probably at the worst time. I've had garnishments sent to me for employees from matters dating ten years back, with attendant costs that have stacked up, and there's no recourse at that point. It's a pretty tightly integrated credit system we've got here.

I'd say there are 3 choices, in order of what I'd likely do:

- is there any way to settle at this point? Contact the ex-tenant or their attorney and say "look, I've got these documents showing payments were made. I get that they're angry/feel inconvenienced. I'll pay $X [I'd start at half of whatever the plane ticket and travel would have cost] if you'll drop this." If you go this route, make sure you get a letter that clearly states the tenant is completely and forever dropping ALL claims against you related to their tenancy in consideration of $X, and that you have court documentation showing the hearing is waived. Because it sounds like a grudge suit.

- get the plane ticket and make the appearance. Obviously, be ready and prepared to present to the court. If your documentation is as good as you say, the hope here is to leave the tenant without a penny, or a $1 token award.

- or don't go, if the tickets, travel, and other inconveniences aren't worth it, but if you do that, you know you'll lose. Pay the judgment ASAP or work out a payment plan immediately. Do not let it fester from there.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:57 AM on June 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

I would talk to a lawyer, because it's likely you can send a representative. It's not like BigMegaCorp sends their CEO if someone sues them in small claims, even if it's a non-lawyer situation in technicality.

I've taken landlords to small claims, and my parents have been the representatives of property owners who were taken there. It's very common for a "representative" to show up. Sometimes even of the tenant. I'm not super familiar with the law in LA, and i'm in no way trying to speak definitively here, but that seems like a plausible option.

Whatever you do, don't no-show. I've been the person who wins by default/summary judgement. Which is what will happen.
posted by emptythought at 11:21 AM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was able to represent myself in a small claims court via telephone. This was in another state, and whether this is possible or advisable in California I have no idea.
posted by BungaDunga at 12:45 PM on June 14, 2016

Emptythought has a good point - I don't see why an attorney couldn't represent you, even in small claims, in lieu of your traveling. Might be about the same cost.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:54 PM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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