Dorsey v. Superior Court – No Attorneys Fees in Small Claims Cases
As the jurisdiction of small claims court has increased (now up to $10,000), attorneys are called on more frequently to assist on appeal. (Ground rule – attorneys are not permitted to assist at the original trial, only on appeal.)
In Dorsey v. Superior Court (Oct. 22, 2015) __ Cal.App.4th __, “The small claims court dispute [ ] arose out of a condominium lease, which contain[ed] a prevailing party attorney fee provision. [The trial court] entered judgment in favor of the tenants [ ] against the landlord [ ] in the principal amount of $1,560.”
This is where it gets interesting. “After judgment, [the tenant] sought $11,497.50 in attorney fees as the prevailing parties under the attorney fee provision in the lease. [The landlord] opposed the motion, asserting Code of Civil Procedure section 116.780(c) trumped the contractual attorney fees provision, limiting any award to $150. The superior court awarded Crosier $10,373.”
Explained the court, “Small claims court exists so people with meritorious claims for small amounts may have those claims adjudicated without spending more on attorney fees than the claims are worth.”
Note – English law has recognized “small claims” jurisdiction for at least five centuries. As the court discussed, “The small claims court system has been refined over hundreds of years with recurring attention from the courts, legal commentators, and the Legislature.” It’s not like California invented small claims court.
Continued the court, “Section 116.780(c) reflects a legislative determination that a small claims appeal should require no more than minimal attorney time. The small claims appeal procedure was intended to be integral to the legislative scheme for expeditious and cost-effective resolution of small claims.
“Therefore, as we explain, section 116.780(c) must be construed to override contractual attorney fee provisions and limit the attorney fee award here to $150.”
The court also discussed the unusual procedure of the case. “The superior court’s judgment on a small claims appeal is ‘final and not appealable’ … However, if law is to be made settling a significant issue of small claims procedure, ‘the appellate courts must have jurisdiction to entertain petitions for extraordinary review in appropriate circumstances.’ Writ relief is appropriate here to review this significant issue in small claims law and to ensure uniform interpretation of the governing statutes.”
Bottom line – The court can award attorney’s fees up to $150.00 in small claims court. Dorsey v. Superior Court (Oct. 22, 2015) __ Cal.App.4th __