Judge James takes names for small claims

by Jordan Green

The rent-to-own assistant manager takes a seat along the aisle in Judge Michael S. James’ courtroom before the magistrate judge commences an afternoon of small-claims cases. Dressed in an oversized flannel shirt, he glances sheepishly down the row. He catches the eye of a woman who smiles mischievously and mouths, ‘“What are you doing here?’” He shrugs.

The woman is there to lend moral support to a friend who has run afoul of American General Finance, a company that specializes in financing cars and other consumer goods.

Judging by the caseload on a recent Thursday afternoon the vast majority of small claims in Judge James’ court appear to be cases of landlords trying to collect from tenants ‘—’ chief among them the Greensboro Housing Authority ‘— or lenders trying to collect from debtors. Almost always, the plaintiffs provide the documentation to show that the defendant has violated an agreement. Usually, the question is how much leniency to allow the defendant so they can catch up on their payments. It’s straightforward contract law, but once in awhile a claim to recover money or personal property involving less institutional parties will come before the judge.

‘“It would appear that we have a day’s worth of work ahead of us,’” says Judge James, carrying a can of Dr. Pepper as he approaches the bench from his office in the back.

It’s about 2 p.m. No one rises. No bailiffs glare at members of the gallery for letting the doors slam as they pass in and out during the session. The judge, a heavyset, bearded fellow who sometimes glances over dark glasses to appraise the contending parties and speaks in wry measures of casual legalese, doesn’t appear to mind.

Judge James calls out the names of a handful of plaintiffs, who don’t respond, before coming to the Greensboro Housing Authority.

A Ms. Johnson swears in and takes a seat next to the city-employed housing manager. After getting some preliminary formalities out of the way, the judge brings the case to a close.

‘“Ms. Johnson, the complaint is that you’re behind in your rent,’” he says. ‘“What do you plan to do?’”

‘“Pay it,’” she says.

‘“I rule for the plaintiff,’” he rejoins. ‘“Get it straightened out. Off you go.’”

‘“Thank you, Judge,’” she says. The tenant leans over to whisper to the housing manager, prompting the judge to instruct her to save the conversation for outside the courtroom.

The judge looks up and announces: ‘“I’d like to draw your attention to Marta. She’s an exchange student from Poland here to learn about our court system, how to pay your rent.’”

He runs through about a half dozen more cases that involve Housing Authority claims against tenants. Some end in continuances to allow the tenant to catch up with their rent payments. In other cases, no defendant steps forward and Judge James rules to allow the Housing Authority to repossess the property.

Another public housing tenant tells the judge that she withheld rent in January because the Housing Authority charged her a maintenance fee to cover a damaged smoke detector that was not her responsibility. The maintenance fee is $38.

‘“We have no problem paying the rent; it’s the smoke detector fee,’” the tenant says, raising her voice. ‘“We didn’t do that.’”

The judge taps his pen against the bench.

‘“We’re paying the rent on Friday,’” the woman continues. ‘“She’s punishing me for the smoke detector.’”

Judge James leans forward and imparts his decision.

‘“Rent has not been paid for January,’” he says. ‘“That’s a breach of contract. I’m going to rule in favor of the Greensboro Housing Authority.’”

‘“Can I appeal this?’” the woman asks. ‘“I want to appeal this.’”

The judge replies that her appeal is duly noted, and advises her she’ll need to hire a lawyer to take the case to district court.

Later, in private, Judge James will say, ‘“We try to resolve as many of the cases here as possible. Small claims is a court designed to tell your side of the story without being legally trained.’”

Seeking redress for perceived wrongs in small-claims court costs the plaintiff a $65 filing fee, and $15 to cover the sheriff department’s costs for serving summonses to each defendant. If the plaintiff wins, the defendant is often required to cover back the filing and summons fees. The ceiling for small-claims court is $5,000. Trying a case in district court is, of course, a more expensive proposition.

Claims filed by tenants against landlords to force them to make repairs represent a small share of the cases that come through small claims court, Judge James says.

The judge does not look kindly upon rent strikes by tenants to pressure landlords to keep housing in good repair.

‘“If you’ve got a leaky roof you can file a complaint against the landlord for rent abatement,’” he says. ‘“You just can’t be disobedient, and not pay the rent.’”

By mid session, Judge James’ voice has taken on a mildly exasperated tone, though not without humor.

Another Housing Authority tenant, a Mr. Garrett, is alleged to have failed to pay his $62 monthly rent.

‘“What would you say to that,’” the judge asks.

‘“It’s true,’” Garrett says.

‘“What are your intentions?’”

‘“To pay it tomorrow.’” Then the tenant adds: ‘“I do say that I am behind.’”

‘“I’m exhausted,’” the judge says.

In another case, plaintiff Clayton Homes fails to appear. The defendant, a Mrs. Mendez, comes forward almost eagerly. Judge James beckons her to approach the bench since she seems to have a slight difficulty understanding English. He explains that the modular and manufactured home company alleges that she’s behind on rent for her house lot.

‘“El dinero,’” he says, ‘“You gonna have to get this straightened out. You need to tell Alejandro, ‘Pay the money.’ He makes a gesture of counting imaginary bills with both hands as she nods.

‘“I’m going to dismiss this,’” he says. ‘“They are not here. You are. But you have to pay the money.’”

‘“Thank you.’”

‘“Uh huh. Adios.’”

In some cases the terms of a written agreement between two parties clearly favors the plaintiff, but the defendant manages to come off in a sympathetic light.

A smartly dressed Ms. Fench, representing American General Finance, comes forward, along with the borrower, Ms. Powell. As the two are sworn in, Powell raises her left hand instead of her right ‘— a faux pas that doesn’t seem to bother the judge.

Fench recites her facts: that Powell took out a loan of more than $2,000 on Jan. 5, 2004, that Fench’s monthly payments were set at $95, and that American General Finance received its last payment from Powell on June 30, 2005.

‘“What would you say?’” Judge James asks Powell.

‘“I paid what I could,’” Powell says. ‘“I got laid off from my job last year. That’s no excuse, but that’s what happened.’”

Then the plaintiff and defendant parry on whether each has made good-faith efforts to communicate and work out a reasonable arrangement to repay the debt.

‘“You’re not disputing that you’re behind,’” the judge says. ‘“It’s this financial crisis that you’ve had.’”

Powell nods.

The judge tells her she owes about $1,300.

‘“I encourage you to get in touch with the office and make partial payment,’” he says. ‘“If you can make partial payment, and assuredly, you can probably avoid the sheriff coming, or a collection agency ‘— which you don’t want.’”

By the time Judge James hears the last case, a complaint to recover personal property, the court has mostly emptied save for the plaintiff and defendant.

The plaintiff’s strawberry blond hair falls from her head in cascades. She addresses the judge in a sweet voice and tells a Job’s tale of earnest effort thwarted by mishap and misdeed. The defendant, a grey-haired used computer salesman named Mr. Wheeler regards her with a look of long-suffering annoyance.

She and her boyfriend had been together for about five years, Ms. Sweat-Cook says. A community college student in Davidson County who is unable to study in a traditional classroom setting because of a disability, Sweat-Cook said she and her boyfriend came to Wheeler’s shop in Greensboro last June to look for a laptop computer. They put down a deposit for a Dell.

When the two returned to make the final payment and take home the computer Wheeler told them he had been robbed and many of his computers had been stolen, including the Dell.

There was a domestic dispute between the woman and her boyfriend, whose name is Mr. Macy. At some point the boyfriend returned alone to the computer shop and got $25 of the deposit money back from Wheeler. In September Wheeler offered Sweat-Cook a Presario Compaq.

In November the defendant says she started having problems with the picture flickering on the laptop, which contained her financial aid information. She took it back to Wheeler for repair. In the meantime, she and Mr. Macy separated.

‘“I went with my grandchildren to pick up my computer, and he said he bought the computer from my boyfriend,’” Sweat-Cook says. ‘“He got very belligerent and told me and my grandchildren to get the F out of his store. We did, and I called the police to file a complaint.’”

Before Wheeler gives his side of the story, the judge allows a cross-examination.

‘“Any questions of Ms. Cook, Mr. Wheeler?’”

‘“May I see the receipt?’” he asks.

She hands it to him, and he returns it to her.

‘“Whose name is on it?’”

‘“That’s my boyfriend,’” Sweat-Cook says. ‘“But you know we came in together, and I gave you the money.’”

Wheeler’s account matches the defendant’s but adds some details that cast the case in a different light.

When Sweat-Cook brought the computer in for repair the warranty had expired, Wheeler says. The computer was left at his shop for about a month and a half, past the 30-day limit after which repair items become the property of the storeowner.

‘“He came in on January sixteenth and said, ‘I’m leaving town. What will you give me for the computer?’ Wheeler says. ‘“I said, ‘I won’t give you anything for the computer. It belongs to me now.’ He asked me if he could sell me some other items. I said, ‘I’ll buy the power supply for fifty dollars.””

‘“I try to run a straight business, your honor,’” Wheeler adds. ‘“All I can go on’….’”

‘“Hold on, Mr. Wheeler,’” Judge James interrupts. ‘“That sounds like a closing argument. I need some more information.’”

After questioning the two some more, the judge renders his verdict, addressing Sweat-Cook.

‘“It appears that his business practices were up front and legitimate practices,’” he says. ‘“You got to show that you are the legitimate owner of the computer. Case dismissed.’”

She calls after him as he retreats to his office: ‘“Thank you, Judge.’”

He laughs, and says, ‘“I don’t hear that often.’”

In the privacy of his office the judge says the case appeared pretty straightforward from the start, but he thought there was a possibility Sweat-Cook and Wheeler might have been romantically involved. He saved it for the last in case it held any surprises.

‘“It wasn’t a real tough case to decide,’” he says. ‘“I regretted it for Ms. Sweat-Cook, but unfortunately the evidence she presented worked against her. I got the sense that she had a controlling former boyfriend who wasn’t real good for her.’”

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