COURT ETIQUETTE AND PROCEDURES
Most property managers and management will at some time in their career end up in court. Despite the best efforts to settle cases, sometimes court is inevitable and unavoidable. The case may be a simple three minute Motion to Dismiss or a complicated and convoluted eviction with a counterclaim and many witnesses. In some cases the judge will take complete control of the proceedings from the start and simply start asking questions. Some judges closely follow the rules of civil procedure, and court is conducted in a very formal fashion. Some judges do not even hold open court and prefer to deal with the cases in their chambers where the parties all sit around a large conference table. In all cases, the judge is in charge and must be afforded absolute respect. Even if the judge seems relaxed, joking and casual, the parties should remember that the judge will be making a decision, and all court is a serious matter. Sometime court is like what you may see on the daytime court shows, but most of the time, it is NOT like Judge Judy or the People’s Court. Someone may leave that courtroom very unhappy.
Who Must Go To Court
The parties and witnesses who should or must come to court will depend upon the type of case. In an eviction action for nonpayment of rent, the person who is most familiar with the rent records and receipts will need to be in court. This is usually just the property manager or the management, but it can get far more complicated if the resident brings up a defense that he did not receive a Three Day Notice, or that he had made an agreement with your leasing agent, assistant or someone else employed by your company. If other people are involved or had contact with the resident, bring them to court. You can never have too many witnesses with you in court, but failing to bring a necessary witness can doom a case. In a security deposit dispute case, you may have to being in vendors, experts, people who did the work on a unit and all your physical evidence and documentation. Your attorney will tell you who must come to court, what you need, and witnesses may be subpoenaed to try to make sure they actually come to court.
Arriving To Court
We strongly urge you to carefully map out the courthouse and get good directions if you are not familiar with the court location. Many counties have built new or additional courthouses, and it is quite possible that you are assuming you are going to the same courthouse that was there 5 years ago when you last had court. Once you get directions, ARRIVE EARLY. We almost always arrive 30 minutes before court. Many courthouses have severe parking problems and tight security which could result in you being late. Some small courthouses have one x-ray machine and metal detector; others have high tech systems that surpass airport security. You don’t want to accidentally go to the wrong courthouse that is a 35 minute drive from the correct one.
What To Bring and NOT To Bring
Your attorney will tell you exactly what to bring to court. Most likely it will be the resident’s actual file if it is a nonpayment of rent case and copies of the lease and notices. You should organize the file so you can easily take out original documents in the event the judge wants to see something in your file, or if there is a dispute about the authenticity of a copy. There are certain things you should leave at home. Knives, guns, mace, pepper spray and other prohibited items have been brought to court by our clients. They were in a pocket book (or sock) and forgotten. Clear out anything from your pockets, purse or pocketbook before you leave for court and imagine you will be going through an airport screening checkpoint. Leave your switchblade and 9MM at home.
What to Wear
Don’t wear shorts! Even if shorts are part of your work uniform, they should NEVER be worn in court. Females can sometimes get away with it, but why take a chance? Some judges are so strict about this that the bailiff, a sheriff’s deputy, will make you leave the courtroom if you dare to wear shorts. Dress respectfully. A jacket and tie is not necessary unless you are the attorney, but a well dressed client is nice to have by our side.
Many of our clients expect that we will testify for them and do all the talking. While that would be nice and easy, and we try to keep you from having to say too much, our client usually must testify. You will need to know the date you gave the Three Day Notice, how it was delivered, who served it, how much rent was on the Three Day Notice, what the amount on the Three Day Notice represents, when the lease was entered into, when it expires or expired, when you last accepted rent, how much is the total amount owed and just about any other fact regarding the case. If you come across as confused or uncertain, the judge may get angry FAST. You need to prepare before court. Your attorney can be 100% prepared, but if you don’t know the facts of your case, the judge may be unsympathetic or even angry at you. Don’t give the judge an excuse to let the resident win a case or continue or delay the case to a later date. Your attorney will most likely have a sheet with all the information on it in one place. You should do this as well and create your own “cheat sheet” you can look at rather than fumbling through the file. No matter how organized you are, when the judge starts talking, everyone will get nervous, and the most organized person might instantly become disorganized.
Addressing the Court
One of the first things that will happen at the start of the case will be for the judge to ask all parties who will testify to raise their right hand and “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Raise your right hand and clearly say “I will” or whatever the judge asks you to say. There is no need to shout this, but failure to say it loud enough for the judge to hear will sometimes anger the judge. You and any witnesses who might testify need to do this, even if you are not sure you will be called as a witness. The judge will often not know whether you are the resident or the manager, so when asked your name, clearly state “Mary Smith – manager of Mountain View Apartments”. Whenever you speak to the judge, refer to him or her as “your honor”: “Yes, your honor”, “No, your honor”, “I do not know, your honor”. Practice this a bit before you go to court.
Behavior During the Proceeding
Speak only when you are asked to speak. Even if the resident says something completely bizarre or tells an outright lie, you must stay quiet, not roll your eyes, laugh, shake your head or act out in any way. There is a strong tendency to want to respond when someone is lying about you or saying something utterly outrageous. Don’t do it. You or your attorney will address the issue. While the resident may be lying, never call the resident a liar. Your attorney will do that for you in the “attorney sort of way”.
Do you want your phone confiscated by the bailiff or really annoy the judge? Then leave your phone on. Despite verbal requests and signs in the courtroom to put the phones on “vibrate” or “silent”, they end up going off and disturbing the judge. We ask that you turn your phones or Blackberry off completely. You can survive an hour without it. Turn it off and hope the resident forgets to turn his or hers off.
The judge may go straight to you and ask you questions or allow the attorney to proceed in a more formal manner with an opening statement. You never know for sure, but usually your attorney will know how a judge generally will proceed and will prepare you accordingly. After your attorney gives an opening statement, you will usually be the first witness, and your attorney will ask you things like your name, where you are employed and if you are familiar with the rent records and receipts. Short and clear answers are all you need to give. Let your attorney direct the questioning. Speak loudly enough so the judge can hear you. Never annoy the judge.
Just as your attorney can take testimony from the resident and cross-examine the resident, the resident can cross-examine you. The resident may question you on something you said in response to your attorney’s question to you. This is where a hearing or trial can get completely out of control. This is not time for a conversation or argument with the resident. Just answer the resident’s questions, and if the question is improper, you can pause and your attorney will object. The judge will then direct you to either answer or ignore the question.
If you win the case, which is frequently the case in eviction actions, do not smile and thank the judge. Just put away your papers and follow your attorney out the door. The resident may be angry and make a scene; ignore it all. Your attorney will simply say, “Thank you for your time, your honor” and walk out the door. The judge is not “happy” the resident is being evicted, although you may be, and the judge does not need you to thank him or her for evicting the resident. Try to allow the resident to walk ahead of you, so you do not end up in the elevator with the resident you just evicted, or end up in an altercation outside of the courtroom. If the Judge gives an adverse ruling, do not argue with the Judge or in any way show disdain for the ruling.
Failing to Show Up For Court
As hard as this may be to believe, sometimes our clients decide not to show up for court. Something comes up at the last minute or for some reason our client decides it is not necessary to come to court. A lesser issue is when our client decides to send someone else in his or her place that has little to no knowledge about the case. Is this fatal? It sure can be. We often are able to use the resident’s testimony to win the case, but if the resident‘s testimony is adverse on a key factual issue, there is often no way for the attorney to refute the resident’s distortions or lies. If you have a real emergency, call your attorney immediately, and often the case can be re-set. Always take court seriously. A judge can dismiss a case or worse yet; find for the resident if you do not show up. If the resident has an attorney, you may and most likely will be liable for the resident’s attorney’s fees if you lose.
It is always advisable for the attorney to have your cell number and for you to have your attorney’s cell number in case there is some reason you will be late to court. Communication is the key, and the judge will usually be willing to hold the case off or take other cases before you in the event you are having a problem getting to the courthouse.
- The Curable Noncompliance Examined PART 1
- THE CURABLE NONCOMPLIANCE EXAMINED PART 2
- THE WRIT OF POSSESSION – WHAT IT IS
- THE WRIT OF POSSESSION AND THE FULL UNIT
- WORK ORDER COMPANY POLICY AND THE LAW