In a previous post I talked about the law related to who can appear on behalf of a party in a small claims case. To briefly reiterate, small claims law makes two exceptions to the general rule requiring parties to be represented by an attorney if they do not choose to represent themselves. One exception allows corporations to appear in small claims court through an agent. See Duke Power Co. v. Daniels, 86 NC App 469 (1987). The other exception, applicable only in summary ejectment actions, allows agents with actual knowledge of the relevant facts to sign the summary ejectment complaint and (presumably) represent the plaintiff/owner in the small claims action. See GS 7A-216 and 7A-223. Both exceptions are well-established and reasonably straightforward, subject to a few somewhat uncertain points I addressed in my previous post.
Who Can Appear on Behalf of a Party in Small Claims Court?
Established law in North Carolina, and throughout the country, provides that parties to a lawsuit may represent themselves or be represented by an attorney. Representation by anyone else is generally prohibited as the unauthorized practice of law. GS 84-4. In small claims court, there are two exceptions to this general rule, and the specifics about how, whether, and when those exceptions apply are a frequent source of questions that appear in my email in-box. Let’s see if we can find a calm, clear space in that jungle!
Minimum Notice Requirements in Small Claims Actions
It’s not hard to understand why every state in the United States offers its residents a small claims court. Small claims courts offer two advantages increasingly hard to come by in the court system: they’re cheap, and they’re fast. In 2009 the North Carolina General Assembly took steps to ensure that small claims cases aren’t decided too fast by enacting minimum notice requirements. Prior to this legislation, a small claims defendant might be served Monday evening for a trial held Tuesday morning. The legislation enacted two separate amendments establishing different minimum notice requirements for (1) summary ejectment actions, and (2) all other small claims cases. As we shall see, despite their differences, the guiding principles for magistrates implementing the legislation are the same for both types of lawsuits.
Small Claims Procedure for Magistrates: Judgments, Orders, and the Difference between Them
When a magistrate has heard evidence in a case and makes a decision based on that evidence, the formal document reflecting that decision is a judgment of the court. Form judgments for each kind of small claims case are provided by the AOC (designated as CVM forms), and they provide a valuable guide to the finding and conclusions required for a proper judgment. While the AOC forms are convenient, the law does not require their use, and some counties routinely utilize different forms. The AOC forms do reflect thoughtful decisions about what should be included in a judgment, however, and a small claims magistrate is advised to investigate further before deciding to routinely deviate from or ignore some portion of the judgment form.
Special Rules for Summary Ejectment Actions
In my last post, I outlined the most significant procedural differences between general civil actions and actions brought in small claims court, which are governed in large part by GS Ch. 7A, Art. 19. Overall, the procedure in small claims court is simpler, faster, and cheaper. The substantive rules and procedures for summary ejectment, the most common small claims action, are highly specialized and allow for even faster relief. Summary ejectment is a legal action brought by a landlord seeking to remove a breaching tenant from possession of rental property. North Carolina joins a large number of states in offering landlords this carefully crafted remedy, which may at first appear unusual in its provision of frank preferential treatment to a particular group of litigants seeking a particular remedy. The US Supreme Court approved such specialized treatment many years ago, however, pointing out that providing an expedited procedure for these cases makes sense in the larger context of laws prohibiting the common law practice of self-help eviction. “The objective of achieving rapid and peaceful settlement of possessory disputes between landlord and tenant has ample historical explanation and support. It is not beyond the State’s power to implement that purpose by enacting special provisions applicable only to possessory disputes between landlord and tenant.” Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56, 72, 92 S. Ct. 862, 873, 31 L. Ed. 2d 36 (1972). In this blog entry, I’ll identify the most significant distinctions between the usual procedural rules applicable to small claims court and those applicable only to actions for summary ejectment.