Small claims court can quickly settle disputes

Katie Hilbert

John O’Neill is regularly involved in disputes about things like unpaid phone bills and rent.

As a magistrate, it’s his job to be involved.

O’Neill works as a magistrate in the Kent Municipal Court and the Ravenna Municipal Court, hearing the possession part of eviction cases, small claims cases, initial appearance sessions in traffic court and other miscellaneous civil matters that are filed, he said.

The monetary jurisdiction of small claims court is up to $3,000, O’Neill said. When he started 21 years ago, the amount was $500.

“That allows different types of claims to occur in small claims court,” he said. “It allows litigants to resolve their disputes without getting lawyers involved.”

Generally speaking, attorneys are not present during small claims cases, O’Neill explained.

Staci Dobosh, a bookkeeper at the Kent Municipal Court, said the court sees a number of cases where students are filing to try to get their security deposits back from landlords.

“We get so many different kinds of cases,” she said.

Nicole Jones, a bailiff at the Kent Municipal Court and the Ravenna Municipal Court, said they see all kinds of “weird” things in small claims court.

For example, she said she remembers a rent escrow case where someone brought in cockroaches as evidence. In rent escrow cases, tenants try to get landlords to take care of something they haven’t taken care of – like cockroaches.

Jones said they also see “friends that have become not so friendly” in the courtroom. For example, she said, sometimes they will see disputes between roommates. One roommate might move out, and the other roommate will want to get that person’s share of the rent.

Even so, it’s the variety that’s her favorite part of the job, she said.

O’Neill said he feels the same about his job as magistrate.

“It seldom gets boring,” he said,.

He also said he enjoys working with laypeople, rather than just lawyers.

“It’s a little more of a challenge to deal with people who are not used to being in court,” he said.

O’Neill said there are several advantages to small claims court. One of those advantages is speed. Also, he said, small claims court is normally less expensive than resolving a dispute in other ways.

O’Neill said about 20 to 30 cases are assigned each week, but many people don’t show up, so he normally ends up hearing less than 10 actual trials.

“Surprisingly, not everyone is happy with my decisions,” he says with a small smile and a chuckle. “I’m used to that.”

Contact public affairs reporter Katie Hilbert at [email protected]