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County Counsel proposes ending small claims advisory assistance

Supervisors table county counsel’s request for future decision

A proposal that would eliminate individual small claims assistance from the Plumas County Counsel’s office was tabled at the Tuesday, June 4, Board of Supervisors meeting.

Supervisor Lori Simpson removed the item from the consent agenda for discussion.

County Counsel Craig Settlemire, in his request, recommended that

supervisors allow his office to no longer provide individual small claims advisory services.

Since the early 1990s, it has fallen to the county counsel’s office to assist individuals file their claims in small claims court. This has been an agreement with the courts, Settlemire explained. The reimbursement rate from the courts has varied from a high of $328 in fiscal year 2015-16 to a low of $136 in 2017-18. It averages to $240.40 with an average of 38.1 cases advised per year, according to Settlemire.

Managing small claims cases involves providing information and forms to residents who want to file a small claims action, or to people who have been served as defendants, Settlemire explained. “Such advisory services have typically been provided in the form of in-person meetings or telephone conversations between the small claims litigants and the county counsel’s office paralegal,” Settlemire said.

Included in County Counsel Craig Settlemire’s background materials is a chart showing the number of small claims advisor cases his department has handled and the reimbursement from filing fees to Superior Court for small claims. Chart courtesy of County Counsel

At present, there are Settlemire and two deputy county counsels in the department. The position of paralegal or some similar position is vacant. That makes it necessary for county counsel attorneys to take time away from legal work to handle a small claims request.

“Are we just cutting those people loose?” asked Supervisor Sherrie Thrall.

Simpson said she has been in small claims court and it can be very confusing. Some people just don’t know what to do, she said. And they can’t afford to high an attorney.

“I did contact the courts and told them that reimbursement doesn’t cover the costs to his department,” Settlemire said.

The courts were not interested in offering more funding to county counsel, or taking small claims assistance back, he said. He said that he’d also invited a representative of the courts to attend the Board of Supervisors meeting to further discuss the issue, but that invitation was declined.

Settlemire said that people are still offered services over the internet or by phone.

“I think it’s very important to have a paralegal in your office,” Thrall said about Settlemire’s choice in hiring.

Supervisor Jeff Engel said he didn’t want the personal contact to go away. Engel wasn’t in favor of people needing to rely on phone contact with someone.

Simpson said that many people can’t afford a computer or have the necessary skills to use one effectively.

Simpson recommended that Supervisors move to table the decision until Settlemire fills the current vacancy. She suggested that they wait to see if the new hire could handle small claims cases.

Settlemire said that one week his department might not have a small claims case. And the next week they might have to devote 40 to 50 hours for $240.

The courts are leaving it up to the county to handle small claims cases, he said.

Background

The Code of Civil Procedure sections provide that counties or the superior court provide individual small claims advisor services to small claims litigants, Settlemire explained in his recommendation.

Since this was enacted by the legislature in the early 1990s, Settlemire said the county counsel’s office has services as the small claims advisor.

“A portion of the filing fee for each small claims case is allocated to the small claims advisor program,” Settlemire explained. “Unfortunately, the small number of cases filed in Plumas Superior Court results in insufficient revenue to fund the small claims advisor services.”

While giving examples of how the system has worked during the last five fiscal years, Settlemire shared that during the 12 months ending in April 2017, his department documented over 48 hours of small claims advisor services. For that time they received an average of $18.33 per month or about $4.50 per hour.

Settlemire said there is a Code of Civil Procedure that allows a county to exempt itself from providing this kind of services if there are fewer than 1,000 cases. During the past five fiscal years the highest number was 49, according to Settlemire’s information.

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