ACCESS TO JUSTICE – JUSTICE COURT
The first step in deciding whether you need to file a complaint/lawsuit against another person depends on an objective analysis of the dispute: what is the problem and how much is it worth? The answer to these questions will determine which Court you will file your lawsuit with: Justice Court (less than $10,000) or Superior Court (more than $10,000). This article will not discuss evictions, protective orders/injunctions against harassment or libel/defamation cases. See www.wbmlaw.com for more information on those topics. This article is limited to a civil dispute regarding money damages in Justice Court. If your claim is more than $10,000 you have to decide whether you want to waive the amount in excess of $10,000 or file the complaint in the Superior Court of Mohave County. There is a substantial difference between these Courts!
You should always research your options if you are involved in a dispute. This may mean scheduling an attorney consultation, speaking with friends, or researching the internet. There are several websites providing information regarding civil disputes. Mohave County has done an amazing job on their judicial website: http://www.mohavecourts.com.
What documents do I need in Justice Court?
There are three documents you need: complaint, summons, and information/notice sheet. First, the complaint is the document filed with the Court which will require the plaintiff (person filing the lawsuit) to provide information: the defendant’s (person being sued) name, address and phone number; that the Court has jurisdiction over the dispute (less than $10,000 and for money damages only); that the Court has venue (defendant resides in Lake Havasu City, or the dispute originated in Lake Havasu City); that the defendant has done something wrong; and how much have you been damaged. Second, you must fill out the summons. A summons is a document requiring the defendant to answer or defend the complaint within 20 days (if served within Arizona) or 30 days (if served outside of Arizona). You must state your defense in writing and pay the fee to file an answer. If you fail to file an answer, the plaintiff may obtain a default judgment against you. Finally, there is an information/notice sheet which needs to be “served” with the complaint and summons. Essentially, this form contains answers to frequently asked questions. Make sure you research how to properly “serve” the defendant.
Are there specific rules for the Justice Court?
Arizona has adopted the Justice Court Rules of Civil Procedure. This is a set of rules governing your entire case. These rules are written with the intent that non-lawyers will be reading and utilizing them, but they are still “legal rules” and may be confusing to some people. You can find a copy at www.wbmlaw.com or www.mohavecourts.com.
How do I get information from the other party?
Arizona requires complete disclosure in a civil dispute. This means you have to provide copies of all relevant information; even if it “hurts” your case. The idea is simple: there should be nothing hidden and no surprises at trial. This is not a Hollywood movie or TV show! Each party is required to exchange a disclosure statement under Rule 121 stating: the factual basis for each claim/defense; a description of the damage(s) and copies of any exhibits substantiating the dollar value of the damages; the legal theory upon which each claim is based; the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all witnesses and a brief summary of the expected testimony; a list of documents or other evidence which supports the claim/defense.
Why would I hire an attorney?
Most people hire an attorney if they do not like the thought of: speaking in a stressful situation (trial); they do not want to confront the other party; or they feel the amount of money in dispute is too great to risk. Hiring an attorney gives you the comfort that someone is handling the matter competently.
Why shouldn’t I hire an attorney?
Attorneys are expensive. You may have to pay your attorney more than the case is worth. This is a cost-benefit analysis which only you can decide. For example, if you are disputing a faulty car service which caused $6,000 of damage; it may cost $5,000 for the attorney to represent you. Depending on your case, you might be entitled to get your attorney’s fees and costs if you win.
Lake Havasu City Justice Court includes a Small Claims division which provides a very accessible method to resolve a civil dispute under $3,500. This Court can be utilized by an individual, partnership, association or corporation. The types of cases are basic disputes, such as any debt owed, damage incurred by someone (personal injury or property damage), and contractual damages. This Court was designed to be an inexpensive forum and a relatively quick process. The cases are heard by a Judge and the decision is final. There is no right to a jury trial or a right to appeal. There are certain forms (on the website above), which are straightforward; therefore, attorneys cannot represent you. The cost to file a complaint is $24 and the cost to “answer” the complaint is $14, but make sure you determine if you should file a “counterclaim.” The Court (Judge or Clerks) cannot provide you with any legal advice. This means you have to perform due diligence yourself and/or seek a consultation with an attorney to determine if you should file a complaint, answer or counterclaim.
Access to justice in Superior Court (general civil cases)
Civil cases in the superior court of Arizona typically involve legal disagreements related to breach of contract, debt collection, personal injury, medical malpractice, and real property disputes between individuals or businesses. The superior court also handles: divorce, legal decision making, adoptions, probate, and criminal matters. This article will only deal with general civil cases such as breach of contract. The monetary threshold to file in this Court is $10,000.00. If your claim is less than $10,000.00, please read the Living Article “Access to Justice in Justice Court.” The party suing in a civil case is the plaintiff and the party being sued is the defendant. There are several stages/phases of civil cases. See the Living Article on “Collecting on a Judgment” for methods of obtaining money from a defendant after going through the steps outlined below.
Commencing an lawsuit (pleadings)
Pleadings (formal legal documents) occur in the beginning stage of a lawsuit in which parties formally submit their claims and defenses. There are four documents the plaintiff will prepare: complaint, summons, certificate of compulsory arbitration and cover sheet. First, the complaint is the document filed with the Court requiring the plaintiff to provide information: the defendant’s name, address and phone number; the Court has jurisdiction over the dispute (more than $10,000); the Court has venue (defendant resides in Lake Havasu City, or the dispute originated in Lake Havasu City); and the reason you are filing the complaint against the defendant. Second, you must fill out the summons. A summons is a document requiring the defendant to answer or defend the complaint within 20 days (if served within Arizona) or 30 days (if served outside of Arizona). A person being sued must state their defense in writing. If the defendant fails to file an answer, the plaintiff may obtain a default judgment. Third, the plaintiff also must file a certificate of compulsory arbitration which states whether the case is subject to arbitration or not. See below. Fourth, the cover sheet is a document providing information about the case. There are fees associated with filing a complaint ($304.00) and answer ($222.00). A sample of these documents and more information can be found on www.mohavecourts.com.
Disclosure and Discovery
Discovery is the phase of the case where both parties collect information to help their case and it is usually the longest phase of the case. Each party is entitled to “discover” relevant information about the other party’s case. Both parties are required to submit a “disclosure statement” within 40 days of the answer. It is submitted to the other party and contains information such as: factual basis, legal theory, witness information, witness statements, expert witnesses, measure of damages, and description of documents. Arizona has a fairly comprehensive requirement for disclosure statements and a continuing duty to supplement it because trial by ambush is now considered unethical. Information is gathered formally through interrogatories (written questions), requests for production of documents, and requests for admission (which ask a party to admit or deny statements of fact). The deposition process is arguably the most important tool during the discovery phase. This process requires witnesses to be questioned under oath and the entire interview is recorded by a court reporter.
Arbitration is a private process of resolving a dispute in which a neutral third party will hear both sides of the dispute, review evidence or documentation, and then make a decision. Essentially, the arbitrator is the judge and jury combined into a private forum. Arbitration is a mandatory program for disputes valued under $50,000.00. The Court should order an arbitrator within 120 days after the answer is filed and the appointed arbitrator must set a hearing 60-120 after the arbitrator’s appointment. Arbitration is intended to lower court costs for litigants and allow the Court to utilize judicial resources more effectively. Arbitrators have judicial authority to resolve cases without a trial; however, their final award is appealable to the Court.
The parties present evidence in support of their claims or defenses to a jury and/or judge. The plaintiff usually makes an opening statement telling the judge or jury what they expect the evidence to show. The defendant will then usually provide an opening statement with their version of events. These opening statements are not evidence. The purpose of an opening statement is to give the judge or jury the framework of the case, the points of conflict, and the issues of the case the judge or jury will need to decide. After the opening statements, the plaintiff begins their case in chief, in which they attempts to prove each element of each legal claim alleged in the complaint. The plaintiff bears the burden to prove their case by a preponderance of evidence; which essentially means more likely than not. Then the defendant presents evidence to refute the plaintiff’s evidence and establish any affirmative defenses. The defendant may also present evidence to support claims they have against the plaintiff (counterclaims) or third parties (cross-claims). The judge and/or jury then makes their decision based on the process stated above. The decision may be appealed.