October 12, 2017

Court Highlights Confusion On How To Appeal From A Marion County Small Claims Judgment; Schwab v. Morrissey

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

Small claims courts have an important role, as they let people resolve their disputes in a quick and easy way. In Marion County, if someone is unhappy with the outcome of a small claims decision, then they must appeal it to the Marion County superior court to be tried de novo. But the rules for instituting such an appeal are not clear, and the Court held that this lack of clarity should not be used against a litigant.

Schwab sued the Morrisseys in small claims court in Marion County regarding misrepresentations they allegedly made when selling her an air conditioner. After a bench trial, the court found in the Morrisseys’ favor. About two months later, Schwab filed a complaint in superior court in which she repled her claims from the small claims court case.

The Morrisseys moved to dismiss, arguing that Schwab failed to follow the Marion County rules for filing an appeal of a small claims court judgment. They contended that Schwab should have filed a “petition to appeal,” rather than simply repleading her claims. Schwab disagreed, but the trial court found for the Morrisseys, reasoning that to find “otherwise would eviscerate the Marion County Local Rules on Small Claims Court cases and render Small Claims courts ineffective.” Schwab appealed.

The Court noted that the question of whether Schwab complied with the local rules was a question of law, and examined those rules. They said that an appeal from small claims in the Marion County superior court “shall be replead [sic] in its entirety commencing with the plaintiff below filing a new complaint.” They further said that any such appeal must be made within 60 days from the entry of judgment. The Rules do not describe a “petition to appeal” or how a cause of action comes to the superior court from the small claims court.

[I]t is not clear from the face of the local rule itself that an appeal of the small claims court judgment is initiated in the superior court in any way other than through the filing of a complaint. … [T]he local rule says nothing about a petition to appeal.

The Court spelled out the gaps in the rules in detail:

The only action the plain language of the rule specifically requires of the appealing party is that he or she file in the superior court a new complaint repleading “in its entirety” the claims that were raised in the small claims court action. Such a complaint is to be “filed within 20 days of the date the case is docketed and filed in the Marion Superior Court,” but the rule does not specify how the case is docketed and filed to begin with. The appeal must also be filed within sixty days from the date of entry of the small claims court judgment. However, again, the rule does not state how the appeal is initiated.

Given these gaps in the rules, Schwab could not be blamed for initiating her appeal as she did, and the trial court erred when finding otherwise.

Lessons:

A litigant will not be blamed if they do their best to comply with a poorly written procedural rule.

P.S. Per I.C. § 33-34-3-15.1, appeals of all small claims judgments in Indiana entered after June 30, 2018 shall be taken to the Court of Appeals.