QA: St. Clair County Associate Judge Laninya Cason on the 'People's Court'

Ann Knef Jan. 25, 2006, 6:35am

Q: What is the purpose of small claims court?

Judge Laninya Cason: The purpose of small claims court is to provide an expeditious, simplified and inexpensive procedure for litigants to handle cases involving tort or contract for money not exceeding $5,000.

Q: Do people typically represent themselves? If so, do problems arise for the average citizen who doesn't understand how to work in a court of law?

Cason: Yes. Most of the parties who appear in small claims court do so pro se (without the representation of an attorney).

This doesn't present much of a problem because small claims court is very informal. It's really the "people's court." People can come in with whatever problem they may have, big or small, and present their case, in a casual environment.

The rules of evidence and procedure are extremely relaxed so that the pro se litigants can express themselves and present their case without being held to strict evidentiary standards.

However, when there is a pro se litigant on one side and a party represented by an attorney on the other, it can get a little challenging because the represented party usually tries to enforce the rules of evidence and procedure against the pro se litigant, who has no idea how to combat legal jargon.

But once I remind everyone of the purpose of small claims court and how all relevant evidence is considered despite the manner in which it's presented, then we proceed accordingly.

Q: Explain what types of actions are filed in small claims court?

Cason: Any contract or tort claim of $5,000 or less. There are a lot of landlord-tenant actions where the landlord may sue for past due rent or damage to property or the tenant may sue for return of his/her security deposit.

There are also quite a few breach of contract actions where one party failed to fulfill their obligations pursuant to a contract.

Because small claims is dubbed the "peoples court," and is designed for the pro se litigant to prosecute their claims, there is a myriad of subjects that come through the court.

For example, someone may want to be reimbursed for landscaping expenses as a result of the actions of a neighbor's dog, or a person may want a former fiance to return an engagement ring. There are numerous types of actions that are filed in small claims.

Q: Is there a movement to raise the monetary threshold of recovery in small claims to a higher level? If so, is this a good idea?

Cason: Recently the Supreme Court of Illinois announced an increase in the small claim limit from $5,000 to $10,000.

However, St. Clair County will opt not to increase the limit to this amount. Up until 2004, although the statute provides for a $5,000 limit, St. Clair County had a small claims limit of $2,500. It wasn't until mid-2004 that the county increased the limit to $5,000 to adhere to the statute.

Increasing the limit to $10,000 is not necessarily feasible at this time for St. Clair County and might pose an administrative hardship because in addition to the lawsuits filed, the small claims docket handles hundreds of collection actions. This includes collecting judgments rendered from the arbitration docket and the major civil docket.

Increasing the limit to $10,000 would mean that a significant number of cases that would ordinarily be filed on the arbitration docket, would be referred to small claims.

This would really put small claims here in St. Clair County at maximum capacity, if not a small overload.

Moreover, increasing the limit to $10,000 may require some amendments to the statute, especially as it pertains to the relaxed presentation of evidence and procedure. $10,000 is an extended amount of money when you're dealing with pro se litigants who don't really understand the acrimonious effects of a default judgment or the necessity to file certain motions.

I suspect that the increase to $10,000 may cause more attorneys to become involved in small claims actions. If that is the case, there really would be no need to have such an informal atmosphere or to relax the rules of evidence and procedure.

However, St. Clair County does not have to worry about this increase because the limit will remain, for now, $5,000.

Q: Would the community benefit from periodic seminars on how to file small claims?

Cason: Absolutely. In fact, on March 22, 2006, I will be conducting such a seminar at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.

Every year the St. Clair County Bar, in conjunction with the Illinois State Bar Association, holds what is called the People's Law School.

Last year I spoke to residents on the subject of "The Courts and How They Work."

This year the topic will be the same. Residents who want to know how the federal and state court systems operate will benefit greatly from this presentation.

It gives them a chance to ask specific questions about how the criminal and civil courts operate, how cases are appealed, how to file lawsuits and just the general structure of the court system. It is usually publicized in the local newspapers.

Q: In general, are small claims litigants satisfied upon conclusion of their case?

Cason: As with any litigation, there are winners and losers. Because the parties are usually pro se, I try to make sure that they feel like they have thoroughly presented their case and submitted all of the evidence and exhibits that they feel is relevant to the action.

Once I let them express themselves, within reason of course, I fully explain to them how the law applies to the facts and evidence presented.

I try to make it seem obvious enough so that even the losers can understand and appreciate the verdict. However, that doesn't work all of the time and you have your irate persons who storm out of the courtroom in dismay.

That just comes with the territory. But the small claims concept is good because it is a venue for everyday, common problems and disputes, which don't involve much money, to be resolved without the hassle, expense and necessity of hiring an attorney.

Q: Can you describe a courtroom anecdote in which you were inspired, amused, saddened or surprised?

Cason: There are all sorts of good stories to tell in small claims.

I guess the most surprising one involved two neighbors suing and counter-suing one another for a tree that was allegedly dropping leaves or encroaching on the other's property or something of that nature.

I just thought that the exhibits would be limited to pictures or drawing, but low and behold, here walks in the plaintiff with the entire six- or seven-foot tree.

I thought that was pretty surprising as well as amusing and it was written about in the newspaper.

Judge Laninya A. Cason is an Associate Circuit Judge for the 20th Judicial Circuit in the State of Illinois. Cason was sworn in to the bench on Feb. 3, 2003, and became one of the youngest sitting judges in the State of Illinois.

Judge Cason is a native of East St. Louis, where she graduated from Lincoln Senior High School in 1988. She attended the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she received her bachelor of science degree in finance in 1992 and a masters in education in 1993.

In 1994, Judge Cason joined the national law firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson as a summer associate while attending law school. In 1996, she became a full time attorney at the firm and was elected to Partner in 2002, establishing herself as the first African American female partner since the inception of the firm in 1934.

During her tenure as a lawyer, Judge Cason concentrated her practice in general civil defense litigation, including personal injury, municipal law, contract law, workers compensation and product liability law. She also served as one of the defense counsel for the City of East St. Louis.

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