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They sued a hospital in Small Claims Court and won

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Check this out from www.mentalhospitalabuse.org:

Small Claims Court

Where the motto is "Lawyers? We don't need no stink'n lawyers!"


Basic Procedure

Links to California specific information

Advantages and Disadvantages of Small Claims Court


Background on Small Claims Court

Since it can be difficult for an ex-patient to find reasonable representation for a regular civil suit, Small Claims Court (SCC) may be an option. There are some significant advantages (as well as disadvantages) to SCC, but we found it to be a good alternative for us. You won't get rich from SCC because most States limit the award to at most a few thousand dollars, but there is satisfaction in winning the case for any amount. Even if you lose, there is satisfaction in standing up for yourself. The rules for SCC are similar from State to State, but there are some variations, so be sure to check the laws applicable to your State.

There are lawyers who will prepare SCC actions and provide advice for a fee. This may be of value to some people, however the SCC process is fairly simple so that most people should not have to incur this expense.

California also has on-line help guides and forms for SCC. Each SCC in California is also required by law to provide free advisory services to potential clients. Check with your local county court to see what is available in your area. I found the Alameda County advisers very helpful and well worth the trip to the courthouse.

There are a number of self-help books available about SCC. NOLO Press has excellent legal self-help reference material, so we bought a SCC guide book "Everbody's Guide to Small Claims Court" ($27) from NOLO and highly recommend it. You don't have to buy a guide book for California since the Internet and free legal advisers are sufficient. But we still found the NOLO book of value and would recommend it to anyone new to the SCC process. It gave us extra confidence in our case and provided information to make additional compelling arguments.


Basic Procedure

The links in the next section will provide California residents a much more detailed and through procedure to help you with your SCC case. The basics are listed below. Very critical steps are noted with an asterisk *.

1. * Don't wait too long. There is a time limit on taking legal action

2. * Send a demand letter to the defendant, wait for response.

3. * Determine the appropriate court to use. (This is called venue)

4. * Fill out a copy of the Plaintiff's Claim (Form SC-100)

5. File the claim with the small claims court clerk.

6. * Deliver copy of your claim to the defendant with proof of service.

7. Gather your evidence and witness statements.

8. Issue a subpoena if needed.

9. Practice delivering your case.

10. Visit a SCC before your case to see how it really works. It ain't Judge Judy.

11. Get to the courthouse early for your trial.

12. * Be at the right courtroom. SCC are frequently moved, so double check.

13. Present your case. Speak directly to the issues.

14. Wait for the verdict.

15. As the plaintiff you cannot appeal the SCC decision. The defendant has 30 days to appeal.

16. * When the judgement is paid, you must file a form with the court.

Time You must file your case within the allowed time. There are a number of different time requirements depending on the details of your case. If you wait too long, your case will be dismissed.

Demand Letter The court wants you to try and work out the difference first. Don't use the court system as your first attempt to get satisfaction. Send a demand letter and wait for a response, usually a week to 10 days.

Venue To a layman, venue means jurisdiction. You must file your claim with the courthouse that has jurisdiction over your case. This isn't complicated, the SCC form is pretty clear and the legal advisers can help if needed. If you don't file at the right courthouse, then the judge will immediately dismiss your case for lack of venue.

Filling out form You must use the exact legal name of the party you are suing. There is no close enough. Check the California Attorney General's web site for help in determining the legal name. In our case it was "BHC Fremont Hospital, Inc.", not "Fremont Hospital". Registered agents won't accept delivery of legal papers if the name is wrong. Also the Judge may dismiss the case if you use the wrong name.

Proof of Service You must prove to the court that your Claim was delivered to the defendant. California law specifies how you may deliver the letter and the required proof. If you don't follow the rules exactly, your case will be postponed. Get it right the first time. In California having the Court Clerk send the Claim by registered mail (for a small fee) is an option. This can be risky. If you are suing an individual or small company, they can refuse delivery. But if you are suing a large corporation, particularly if they have a registered agent to accept delivery of legal documents, it is a piece of cake.

Right Courtroom SCC cases are frequently shifted from one courtroom to another. When you get to the courthouse, ask which court is hearing the SCC cases. A list of cases will be posted outside the courtroom. Check it and ensure your case is on it. Once in the courtroom, pay attention because some cases may be moved to another courtroom.

Payment When the judgement is paid, you have to notify the court using the "Acknowledgement of Satisfaction of Judgement" form. It was sent along with the judgement notice. Failure to notify the court immediately opens you up to fines and penalties.

Stipulation Many courts use pro-tem judges for small claims. A pro-tem judge is not a full time judge, rather they are a local lawyer who has been certified to hear SCC cases. At the Fremont courthouse all small claims cases are automatically scheduled before a pro-tem judge. The law requires you to agree (or stipulate) to the pro-tem judge. Typically the court will announce that a pro-tem judge is assigned and ask for stipulation. The court will assume you stipulate unless you object. If you non-stipulate, then your case is re-scheduled before a full time judge.


Links to more California Information

California Department of Consumer Affairs Small Claims Information General information plus some alternatives to SCC.

California Courts Self-Help Center Small Claims Provides California general information and forms.

County Specific Websites Select your county from the drop down box, then click the "Select County" button. This will take you to your county's specific court website for SCC.

California Superior Court EZ Forms. An interactive program that allows you to fill out your legal forms by answering simple questions. Check the requirements list at the bottom of the EZForm home page to ensure your computer can communicate correctly with the EZForms programs. (Note: Easy to use, but not perfect. It missed putting info on our SCC form SC-100. The SCC legal advisor caught omission and we added it manually.)

California Civil Code on SCC The legal requirements and rules for a SCC hearing.

Find legal name This link to the California Secretary of State will allow you to look up the exact legal name and address of a corporation. If they are represented by a registered agent, the name and address of the agent will be listed as well.


Advantages & Disadvantages of Small Claims Court

No lawyers. You can hire a lawyer to advise you prior to the trial, but they cannot actually represent a party during the trial. While there are some exceptions, in general this means you don't have to face a hospital financed hired gun. This helps level the playing field. In our case the hospital sent the Compliance Officer as their representative while their lawyer sat in the visitor gallery in his suit. No real disadvantage. There are some specific exceptions (husband & wife, military duty) that allow you to have someone else present your case, check with the SCC legal advisers to see if you meet the requirements. The court may allow another to present your case if it determines you are unable to do so. SCC does not provide interpreters. If English is difficult for you bring someone to interpret or provide detailed written statements.

Quick. Trials are usually scheduled only a month or two in advance. The trial itself typically takes only 30 minutes or so. The judgement is rendered within days. In our case the trial was on Wednesday morning and we had the written judgement by Friday. You won't have much time to present your case. If it takes you more than 15 minutes just to explain the situation, that is too long. Try to simplify the case so that your explanation is well under 15 minutes. If you have several issues to raise, consider dropping all but the most important. Also the judge will ask questions to clarify the issues. If you bring up too many issues, it is confusing and the judge is likely to cut you off. Cut your issues to the bone. Practice your delivery so that you give a clear concise explanation. The clearer you are, the less questions asked.

Informal. You don't have to understand the fine points of the legal system. You tell your story, present evidence, and answer questions. You don't have to define your issue in legalese, but you do need to be able to explain the issue to the judge so he can apply the appropriate laws. When you answer the question, be sure you don't veer off onto some unrelated issue. Be specific to address the judge's question. A "Pro Tem" judge may hear your case. This is a practicing attorney that has been deputized by the court to hear Small Claims Cases. Our Pro Tem judge seemed to do a good job in our case.

Subpoena. You can easily have subpoenas for witnesses or documents issued for your SCC case. You may have to pay witness fees or copying charges. The documents are delivered to the court in a sealed envelope, you can't see them until your case is called. We did not see the subpoenaed documents or photographs until after our trial. While there is no written requirement, our court clerk required a proof of service on the defendant before they would issue the subpoena.

Inexpensive. Filing a SSC action costs less that $50. Best bargain in town. If you cannot afford the filing fee, the court may waive it if you have a justifiable reason.

Types of cases. There does not seem to be any fundamental limitation to the type of case you can take to SCC such as contract disputes, personal injury, etc. In our case we brought a civil rights violation and personal injury case to court. As far as we can tell the judge took the issues seriously. Our case was probably too complex for a single hearing, in hindsight we should have divided it into several different cases.

Precedent. The judgement in a SCC won't set any precedent or change any laws. If there is an issue that you want to use to establish case law, then SCC is not for you. In our case Zann was involuntarily injected with Haldol. California statues are clear on the restrictions for involuntary use of an anti-psychotic drug and since Zann was not psychotic, the injection was not required and therefore was illegal. Heater v. Southwood Psychiatric Center speaks to this issue, but is not definitive. Taking this issue to SCC would not establish any case law precedents.

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