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Viewing Blog: San Joaquin County Small Claims in Danger!
7/6/2012 4:29:18 PM
San Joaquin County Small Claims in Danger!

Layoffs put small claims court in jeopardy
Loss of 13 clerks will leave court unstaffed
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Jennie Rodriguez-Moore
By Jennie Rodriguez-Moore
Record Staff Writer
July 06, 2012 12:00 AM

STOCKTON - San Joaquin County's small-claims court is in danger of shutting down - the latest casualty of budget cutbacks.

Thirteen Superior Court clerks have been sent layoff notices, and Presiding Judge Dave Warner said the court simply won't have enough employees to staff small-claims court after Aug. 1.

Small-claims court is designed for citizens to resolve disputes cheaply and quickly. It is the court where individuals can file civil lawsuits against someone - up to a maximum of $5,000 - without attorney representation.
What happens in small-claims court

Small-claims court hearings are informal. There is no jury. Parties represent themselves without lawyers. Some examples of the kinds of legal cases:

• Landlord disputes.

• Unresolved car accident issues.

• Appliance repair conflicts.

• Property damage disagreements.

• Personal loan arguments.

SOURCE: California Department of Consumer Affairs

Elimination of the program means that while individuals will be able to submit a small claim, the case will not be heard by a judge until the court can be funded again.

The layoff notices were sent in anticipation of an estimated $4.4 million deficit.

"What we're doing right now doesn't solve the problem, it simply lessens it," Warner said, indicating that additional courthouse budget reductions may come for the 2012-13 fiscal year that started Sunday.

Each of California's 58 counties have court systems that are funded by the state.

"It's not going to affect anything already set for hearing. But anything new will probably be pushed way back, or taken but not given a date for the time being."

In 2010-11, there were 3,213 small claims filed in San Joaquin County.

Small claims, Warner said, can be filed only in the county where the incident occurred. "That's a problem for the court system," Warner said. "It's either done here or it's not done."

That will be one of the arguments Warner expects to raise when he approaches the California Judicial Council to ask for emergency funding.

If approved, funding wouldn't be available for several more months - beyond the Aug. 1 layoff date.

Court administrators have notified the 13 clerks that they will lose their jobs effective Aug. 1.

Warner said administrators and managers, who are not represented by unions, have agreed to take one furlough day per month effective immediately as part of the court's cost-cutting move.

Steve Stallone, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, called the layoff notices a troubling move. He said San Joaquin County has been underfunded historically and had 25 people laid off last year.

Stockton's high foreclosure rates and increase in violent crimes add to the challenges. "Backlogs are just going to keep happening," Stallone said.

Stallone said he also is troubled that layoffs consist of lower-paid clerks, and not managers.

"They're having managers fill in and do the clerk's work at two or three times the pay," Stallone said. "So it exacerbates the problem."

Warner said there is no way of knowing whether the judicial council would award the Superior Court enough funding to revive the small-claims court and rehire the employees.

"We're trying to evaluate exactly where this is going to leave us," said Warner, adding that he was hopeful more would be known in the next few weeks.

The state judicial system as a whole was hit with a $652 million reduction. Even though the state has yet to finalize county budgets for 2012-13, San Joaquin County court administrators are making decisions based on their own projections.

"The longer we wait, the bigger the impact," Warner said. "We're trying to take an early response to spread out the impact."
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