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Staking claims

As economy sinks, courts fill with cases involving $2,000 or less

In Brockton court, Ron Fredey (standing) of the Greater Brockton Center for Dispute Resolution asks if any are willing to mediate their claim. In Brockton court, Ron Fredey (standing) of the Greater Brockton Center for Dispute Resolution asks if any are willing to mediate their claim. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / February 19, 2009
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The grim-faced tenant behind on his rent had cut a deal with his landlord on making payments. Now they're standing in Brockton small claims court, before Billy Martin, the first assistant clerk magistrate, who peers at the paperwork, makes sure everyone agrees on the terms, and waves them out of the courtroom.

The case takes less than two minutes. One down, 27 to go before lunch.

These days, it's important to keep up the pace. Small-claims cases in the Brockton court climbed 14 percent from 2007 to 2008, to more than 4,000. Last month, the number of cases zoomed up nearly 70 percent from a year earlier, and would be on pace to exceed 5,000 for the year.

Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the soaring number of cases is an early warning of how the cratering economy is rubbing raw the financial wounds of more and more people. Small businessmen, from landlords to lenders, are increasingly turning to the court to collect debts.

There's no high drama here - no murders or rapes - just a daily dose of mini-dramas, where the stakes are $2,000 or less.

The tenant, a Whitman resident who asked that his name be withheld for this article, agrees to pay his regular rent of $900, plus an extra $300 a month to catch up on back rent. In the hallway outside the courtroom, the divorced father of two wonders how he'll do it.

His full-time job covered child support and he was living on overtime wages. Now there's no overtime.

"I have to figure something out," maybe getting a second job, he says.

Over the course of two days in small claims, clerk magistrates go through about 60 cases. The pace is fast and continuances are frowned on.

Many people fail to show. On one day, out of 28 cases, 20 have either only one party or no parties show up. If only the plaintiff shows up, the likely result is a default judgment against the defendant, and a court order that can be used to seize assets.

If only the defendant shows up, the case is dismissed. For plaintiffs, there is no right to appeal or jury trial. If both parties show, free mediation is encouraged. If that doesn't work, a quick magistrate trial can be over in minutes.

From the time a case is filed until the court date is roughly seven or eight weeks - lightning fast, in the world of courts. By comparison, claims over $2,000 go to civil court and can take a year or more to get to trial.

The 57-year-old Martin sets an informal but no-nonsense tone. As he enters the court, there is no call for everyone to rise, as there is before a judge, and no court officer.

The 31-year court veteran with a graying mustache sits at a desk and begins to read a list of names to see who is there and who isn't. He keeps flipping through a lapful of red file folders, checking documents.

"There you go," he says to one man in a debt-collection case. "You owe $580 and agree to pay $100 a month." A date is set to make sure payments are made.

The courtroom is small, with eight worn benches in a ground-floor room. Light pours in from floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, which look out on a parking lot. An interior window is painted with an upside down umbrella of flowers in oranges, blues, and reds, an incongruously cheerful reminder the room once was used for children whose parents were in court.

Tuesdays mostly involve disputes, such as a homeowner unhappy with a roofer's work.

Thursdays are generally collections days. Companies that specialize in buying debt from other companies, such as credit card firms, come for payment.

"Over and over, people tell me big, sad stories on why they didn't pay their debt," said Martin, between cases. But his duty is to look only at the facts. "Emotion has nothing to do with it."

Outside the court, he's a sports fan who enjoys a laugh. Bobble-head dolls of David Ortiz and others decorate his small office. He introduces himself as "Billy Martin, like the once and not-so-future manager of the Yankees," referring to the late manager. "I didn't like him," he adds, as an afterthought.

In court, tensions can boil over. On another day, Assistant Magistrate Eric Donovan listens to claims and counterclaims in a professional services dispute that has a woman and two men standing in a tense semicircle before his desk. At one point, Donovan leaves to copy documents.

With Donovan gone, one man turns toward the woman.

"You're a liar," he snaps.

The woman accuses him of steering business to a friend.

"In my 35 years, I've never met anyone who stiffed me," the man huffs.

Donovan returns, and it's back to business.

Courts have their own language and byzantine rules.

An upset woman has mistakenly filed a claim listing herself as defendant rather than plaintiff, and is told to start again.

A husband, sued by his wife, is upset that he had never been formally notified about when to show up in court. The official notice had been mailed to a house where he no longer lived.

"But you're here," observes Donovan.

Edna Gayle of Brockton worked hard to reach an agreement with a tenant who owed about $1,400. Over the course of a morning, Gayle and the tenant troop back and forth to the magistrate, hammering out details.

Gayle sympathizes with her tenant, to a degree. "We're all just hanging on to survive," says Gayle. "But people lose their homes when tenants don't pay."

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.

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