And now for the post.
I've had several people e-mail me with questions about Florida's lawsuit procedures in civil "small claims" court cases. In response, this post is intended to shed a little light on one particular area of Florida Small Claims Court: Mediation. If you are suing or have been sued in a Florida Court I hope this post is helpful.
Three Separate Divisions
As a general rule, Florida's Civil lawsuits are handled by one of three separate divisions, most often depending on the amount of money involved in the case: (1) the Circuit Civil Division, (2) the County Civil Division, or (3) the Small Claims Division. Cases where the amount sought in the suit is $5,000 or less usually belong in the Small Claims Division.
Small Claims Mediation (Pre-Trial)
It is always interesting to me to see the expression on a defendant's face when he or she first finds out that most of the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure DO NOT APPLY in Small Claims court. To begin with, discovery (i.e. depositions, interrogatories, production requests, etc.) is generally either extremely limited or altogether prohibited. If you file suit in Small Claims court thinking you are going to be involved in a full-blown, knock-down, drag-out fight you need to think again. "A pound of flesh nearest the heart" has very little place in Small Claims court. Short, sweet and to the point is what Small Claims is all about.
The Nuts and Bolts of the Small Claims Process
It has been my experience that Small Claims court is primarily designed to help the two parties work their case out prior to trial. This design is typified by the process itself. Once suit is filed the Small Claims court (often the same judge who runs County Civil) sets a Mediation, or Pre-Trial, date. The Pre-Trial date requires both parties to show up on a set date, sit down with a mediator and try to work things out.
In practice it works like this. Suit is filed and the defendant is served with the papers. The suit papers contain a Pre-Trial date instructing both parties to appear before the Court on a certain date. There are usually a number of other cases and parties scheduled to appear on the same date and at the same time. The judge will then call roll (yes, just like elementary school) and the parties answer "present," "here," or some other respectful reply to the judge. If both parties to a case appear, the judge will assign the case to a mediator. The parties will go into a separate room in the Courthouse and try to work their case out. If the case cannot be worked out, the parties will then return to the Courtroom. The judge then assigns a trial date (usually within 30-60 days). The judge will not take testimony at Pre-Trial and no witnesses are required.
Some Words of Caution
The following things should be avoided with regard to Pre-Trials:
(1) Do not leave your cell phone turned on while in the Courtroom. I saw a guy get stared down, yelled at, held in contempt of court, handcuffed and taken to jail all because of his cell phone. In all honesty, if the guy had not answered the phone in open court only the first two would have happened. The judge was clearly not running for re-election;
(2) Do not answer "Uh-huh" when the judge calls your name. You guessed it-stared down and yelled at;
(3) Do not tell the judge "Judge, you don't know what the H--- you're talking about." The judge will likely skip staring you down and yelling at you and just send you straight to jail; and
(4) Do not miss the Pre-Trial. If you miss the Pre-Trial the judge will dismiss the case (if you are the Plaintiff) or enter a judgment against you (if you are the Defendant).