HALT Releases 2011 Small Claims Report Card
Reform Group Finds Real Peoples Courts Losing Ground
HALT's 2011 Small Claims Report Card reveals that most small claims systems are still failing to implement meaningful reforms that expand consumer access to the real Peoples Courts. While several small claims systems have improved since our last review in 2004, most states are failing to meet the growing demand for these inexpensive services.
"More than half of the states we evaluated this year had grades that either dropped or remained the same," said HALT Deputy Director Theresa Meehan Rudy. "Low dollar limits, limited self-help programs and rising filing fees are unfortunately depriving legal consumers of an easy way to resolve everyday disputes in court without having to hire a lawyer."
HALT's report card grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia in four areas that track the chronology of filing and resolving a dispute in small claims court:
- What Types of Cases Can I Bring? assesses the dollar amount for which a person can sue as a small claim, as well as the court's power to award non-monetary judgments.
- How Easy Is It to Start My Case? includes the user-friendliness of forms, the availability of online filing and the ability to serve a complaint on a defendant.
- How Easy Is It to Resolve My Case? reflects the navigability of courtroom procedure, including the availability of court personnel to assist litigants.
- How Easy Is It to Collect a Judgment? considers court assistance after a verdict has been handed down.
Georgia leads the way, earning an overall grade of B, followed by California (B-) and nine jurisdictions that earned a C+ (Colorado, Minnesota, the District of Columbia, Alaska, North Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, Utah and South Dakota).
At the other end of the spectrum, Delaware and Mississippi—the only two states that still do not have a true small claims court with simplified procedures—earned Fs; Louisiana earned a D-; and five states earned a D (Michigan, Arkansas, Missouri, Rhode Island and Wyoming). Thirteen states (Virginia, New Jersey, West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Vermont, Alabama, Montana, Hawaii, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada and Ohio) received a D+.
HALT has long advocated dollar limits of $20,000 or more, but only Tennessee has achieved this benchmark. Having a reasonable $15,000 limit allowed Georgia to be ranked first overall by HALT, and California ($7,500) was able to receive second ranking overall, despite its failure to adopt HALT-backed legislation that would have raised its dollar limit to $10,000.
In contrast, Kentucky ($1,500), Arizona ($2,500) and Rhode Island ($2,500) have dollar limits so low that consumers are only marginally better served than residents of Delaware and Mississippi, which do not have true small claims systems.
"Kentucky's $1,500 limit has not been raised in 20 years and Arizona's $2,500 limit has remained stagnant for over a decade," Rudy said. "When you consider the rate of inflation over the past two decades, retaining such low dollar limits is actually a huge step backward by these states."
Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey and Ohio, with $3,000 limits, and Hawaii and Nebraska, at $3,500, also stand out as failing their citizens. In all, HALT found that 31 states have dollar limits of $6,000 or below.
Although 25 states have increased their jurisdictional limits since 2004, most did so only minimally—by $2,500 or less. The biggest increases occurred in Tennessee which raised its limit from $15,000 to $25,000 and in Indiana which raised its limit from $3,000 to $10,000. The next biggest jumps occurred in Illinois, North Dakota and Texas, which all doubled their limits from $5,000 to $10,000. Massachusetts increased its limit from $2,000 to $7,000.
HALT's 2011 Small Claims Report Card also looked at how easy it is to collect a judgment after a litigant wins in small claims court. The good news is that Washington, DC, and 34 states place their post-judgment forms online, including forms that let the debtor pay in installments or that let the winner garnish wages, place a lien on real property or even get a debtor's driver's license suspended until she pays the court's judgment in full.
The Denver County Court Civil Division runs a "Collection Clinic" once a month to provide tips on how to collect a small claims judgment. Other states (California, Minnesota, New York and the District of Columbia) and several counties (including Maricopa, Ariz., and Jefferson, Ala.) provide collection help through a small claims advisory program or through the court's online self-help center.
Programs such as small claims advisory services, where court employees (other than clerks) help people navigate the system, are still not offered in most states, and in several counties that previously offered this service. The same, but to a lesser extent, is happening with court mediation programs, which help people resolve their disputes amicably before facing a judge. While mediation is more widely offered than small claims advisory programs, several counties have had to either eliminate this program because of budget cuts, or make a "mandatory" program optional.
In Kentucky, for example, the mediation services offered in 2004 in Fayette and Jefferson counties are no longer available. In Massachusetts, mediation is no longer mandatory. Counties in Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Rhode Island and Virginia have also decided to discontinue their mediation programs.
New Hampshire, Texas and Utah, however, now offer mediation in most of the counties surveyed by HALT.
At the same time that some previously offered services are being cut back or eliminated, filing fees are going up. In 35 states, it will cost you $50 or more to file your small claims lawsuit. And now Washington, DC is one of the few jurisdictions still offering extended courtroom hours. It holds Wednesday night and Saturday morning sessions. "Small claims courts can help consumers resolve monetary disputes quickly and inexpensively without the need for lawyers, juries or complex rules of procedures," Rudy said. "Sadly, HALT's 2011 Report Card shows that too much of this tremendous promise is still not being met."