On Nov 2, 2012, I appeared as plaintiff in Santa Barbara Small Claims court
against my son's former orthodontist, Alex Trigonis. I made three allegations:
Kristine McCardle, a pro tem (acting) judge presided. I lost the case, but learned quite a bit about the small claims process. I'm sharing the following information in the hopes that it may be helpful to others, or at least educational.
The elimination of lawyers (along with motions, objections, sidebars, and much of the rest of what goes on in a normal courtroom) does streamline the process and hold costs to a minimum. On the other hand, because there are neither lawyers nor any transcripts of the proceedings, small claims judges have considerable leeway to bend or even ignore the law if so inclined.
Ms. McCardle departed from accepted legal norms in at least three ways:
She stated that the existence of a contract between me and the defendant was unimportant, and that the principle of caveat emptor applied. But, she subsequently examined the contract and decided that it was binding on me. This violates a basic principle of contract law: A contract is either valid or invalid. If valid, it must bind both parties. If invalid, it binds neither. A contract cannot bind one party only. [There was no mention of caveat emptor in Ms. McCardle's written decision.]
She indicated that the court would not be swayed by any written evidence submitted by the plaintiff, essentially eviscerating my case. I can understand that a judge might decide to reject any particular document on the grounds of non-relevancy, or because he/she questioned the authenticity of the document, but I don't know of any legal basis for throwing out all written evidence wholesale. [Ms. McCardle did subsequently examine two of my documents.]
Although hearsay evidence is normally inadmissible, she accepted hearsay evidence from the defendant—his recollection of a phone conservation with the orthodontist Dr. White. This hearsay evidence was in conflict with a document that I submitted from Dr. White; the hearsay evidence appears to have ultimately been given greater weight.
Ms. McCardle faulted me for not bringing an expert to testify, although it would have been difficult to do this. (I expect that specialists in the Santa Barbara area would have been reluctant to testify in person against one of their colleagues. I could have brought an expert from the Los Angeles area, but the cost of this would probably have exceeded the amount in dispute).
In summary, I feel that I did not receive justice from the Santa Barbara Small Claims Court.
Using pro tem judges who have private legal practices creates the potential for conflict of interest, e.g., if a lawyer who routinely (or even occasionally) provides medical/dental malpractice defense counsel serves as a pro tem in a case involving medical or dental malpractice, it may be difficult for him or her to remain impartial.
I had an opportunity to observe several other trials. It was impossible to avoid the impression that the relative social and economic statuses and linguistic backgrounds of the parties manifested itself not only in their abilities to effectively present their cases, but also in their treatment by the court.
In preparation for the trial, I attempted to subpoena an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to get authentication of an e-mail sent by the defendant to me. The Stored Communications Act (SCA) states that e-mail service providers generally cannot respond to a subpoena for e-mail in civil cases without the consent of the account holder. Although I was the account holder, the ISP in question refused to comply with the subpoena and asked for a court order, which I was unable to procure. In regular civil cases, there is a mechanism for requesting such an order, but small claims provides no mechanism for doing this.
I've read some semi-coherent online posts alleging that the entire Santa Barbara court system is corrupt. Let me be absolutely clear—I am not aware of anything that would justify such allegations and do not believe that they are true. A single corrupt individual is not the same as a corrupt system. That said, it does seem as though the system is poorly run and lacks reasonable safeguards.
For further information about this case, or to share your experiences, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or Phillip.M.Feldman@gmail.com
Last update: 5 May, 2013