- Georgia's Magistrate Courts: A Different Playing Field
- March 1, 2010
- Law Firm: Drew Eckl & Farnham, LLP - Atlanta Office
As attorneys and claims professionals we are all familiar with the day to day workings of Georgia’s State and Superior Courts: the system of complaints, answers, motions practice, written discovery, depositions, jury trials and a “final resolution” on the merits. The expense and procedure involved with pursuing claims in these Courts often make it impractical to resolve smaller cases and in most cases a pro se litigant is at a significant disadvantage. As a result, many smaller claims are filed in Magistrate Court, Georgia’s answer to the “small claims” courts established in other states. The question becomes, once this Magistrate Court file lands on my desk, what should I expect?
The Court and the Players
Magistrate Courts have authority over tort and contract claims to a jurisdictional limit of $15,000.00. Magistrate Courts also have jurisdiction over evictions, garnishments, abandoned vehicles, foreclosures on personal property, and a limited ranges of criminal issues including warrant applications, probable cause hearings and some bond hearings. Parties are not required to have counsel in Magistrate Court and unlike other “higher” courts in Georgia, corporations are allowed to represent themselves rather than hire counsel.
Not all Magistrate Court judges are attorneys. State law only requires that the Judge be twenty five years old and possess a high school diploma or the equivalent, although more stringent requirements may be imposed by local law. As a result of these standards, while most magistrate judges are familiar with the principles of tort and contract law, we have occasionally encountered judges who were not as familiar with the law as one would hope or who may have been more interested in administering “justice by fairness” than strictly adhering to statutes or case law.
The Magistrate Court Litigation Process
A Magistrate Court Plaintiff initiates his case by filing a “Statement of Claim” which by statute must contain “reasonable notice of the basis for each claim,” the Defendant’s name, address, and must be verified by the plaintiff under oath or affirmation. The Defendant’s Answer, to be filed within thirty days after service of process, must only “admit or deny” the plaintiff’s claim. If either the Plaintiff or Defendant asks the Court for assistance with their pleading, the Court is required to reduce the Statement of Claim to writing, which can put the Court in an awkward position: the judges and clerks are not supposed to provide legal advice to either party but are still required to help draft the pleadings. Perhaps to avoid this situation, some Magistrate Courts have implemented an “e-filing” system permitting claimants to complete their pleadings by filling out internet web pages.
The statutes governing Magistrate Court contain provisions regarding default and counterclaims which are substantially similar to those in the “higher courts.” Importantly, if the amount of a counterclaim is greater than $15,000.000 then the Magistrate Court’s jurisdictional limit applies and the case must be transferred to a court with proper jurisdiction.
Compulsory discovery in most Georgia courts is governed by the Georgia Civil Practice Act, which authorizes interrogatories, requests for production, depositions, etc. The Civil Practice Act does not apply in Magistrate Court and as a result, although it is much less expensive to litigate in Magistrate Court, trials are significantly less predictable. However, but this does not mean that the parties cannot investigate their claims or engage in informal discovery: Counsel may call witnesses and ask Plaintiff or third parties to provide documents supporting a claim for liability or damages. Often, plaintiffs will forward at least some documentation in order to facilitate settlement discussions. Care should be used not to suggest that a response is mandatory: there is no requirement that a party or non-party provide documents in the absence of a subpoena duces tecum.
The Rules -- or Lack Thereof
Trials in Magistrate Court are typically “fast tracked” and often appear on a calendar within sixty days of the filing of an Answer. There are no jury trials: judges typically hear the evidence and rule from the bench, although they occasionally take cases under advisement. Magistrate Court judges are instructed by statute to conduct the trial in “such manner as to do substantial justice between the parties according to the rules of substantive law” and to liberally construe rules and regulations that relate to pleading, practice, and procedure. Trial is not governed by the Civil Practice Act.
This does not mean, however, that there are no rules in Magistrate Court. As discussed above, magistrate court does have a procedural scheme, albeit one that is somewhat simplified from the “higher courts.”
Moreover, the rules of evidence are not contained within the Civil Practice Act and are therefore supposed to be applied by the Magistrate Judge. Counsel can and should assure that plaintiff is required to lay a foundation for particularly harmful evidence or expert “hearsay” such as medical record, but there is a balance to be considered between holding the pro se plaintiff to their standard and taking advantage of them. As a practical matter, most pro se plaintiffs will be unprepared to lay a proper foundation for even the most basic evidence. However Judges are often protective of pro se litigants and a fight to exclude evidence which would obviously be admitted if plaintiff knew the proper foundational questions will be perceived as bullying and a waste of time. Additionally, most magistrate courts provide plaintiffs with some type of resource (pamphlets, a website, etc.) that explain how to present their evidence. Defense counsel should be familiar with the materials distributed by the local court and how plaintiff could have accessed those materials if they chose, in order to rebut any argument that the plaintiff was unaware of the rules.
Bringing Order to Chaos: Can We Apply the Civil Practice Act and When?
There is case law for the proposition that a Magistrate Judge may apply the Civil Practice Act where doing so would “do substantial justice” but unsurprisingly, there is little case law elaborating on what specific rules may be applied: in the end, it is up to the judge. However we have had success persuading Magistrate Courts that some defenses which may appear procedural do, in fact, further the interest of “substantial justice.” Specifically, we have had success persuading trial courts to dismiss claims of professional negligence which are not accompanied by the expert affidavit required by O.C.G.A. § 9-11-9.1. The affidavit requirement is a provision of the Civil Practice Act which provides that certain professionals (doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc.) may not be sued for malpractice unless the Complaint is accompanied by an affidavit from another member of their profession setting forth at least one act of negligence against the Defendant. We have argued that the affidavit requirement, although procedural, does “substantial justice” because it was implemented in order to protect professionals from frivolous claims and the accompanying consequences such as increased insurance premiums, etc. (Without expert testimony at trial, the plaintiff should not be able to prevail anyway but the possible consequences of any adverse verdict could make it safer to have the case dismissed than take it to trial.)
Upon Further Review: Appeal of Magistrate Court Rulings
Any magistrate court judgment may be appealed to the State or Superior Court within thirty days, meaning that the trial court loser can take the case to State Court and litigate from “scratch.” A divided Georgia Supreme Court recently explained in Long v. Greenwood Homes 285 Ga. 460, 679 S.E.2d 712 (2009) that an “appeal” from the magistrate court essentially wipes the magistrate proceeding from the books and the appeal is to be treated as a “re-filing” of the case in State or Superior Court. Therefore, when a plaintiff appealed a magistrate court verdict and dismissed the action, it was treated not as the dismissal of an “appeal” but rather a dismissal of the litigation, permitting her to refile the entire case within six months!
In the end, Magistrate Court is simply a different “creature” than State or Superior Courts. Costs are low, dockets move fast and although there is less predictability at trial this is balanced by the availability of a de novo appeal in the event of an adverse outcome. Provided that counsel pays attention to the fast docket, the keys to success at trial remain the same: know the facts, know the law and come to trial prepared.