Small claims court sees smaller cases

Jarom Hullinger of Grand Junction was miffed when he paid $50 in advance last year for a half-cord of firewood, then never received his purchase.

Instead of playing the role of the victim, Hullinger, 27, decided to do something about it. He filed a small-claims case against Chris Foster of Whitewater, the man with whom he made the deal.

“Just for the simple fact that a handshake still means something,” Hullinger said by phone, explaining why he sued.

After filing the claim in Mesa County District Court and paying the corresponding $31 filing fee, Hullinger got his $50 back and the filing fee when the parties went to mediation.

“He paid me, then told me if I wanted wood to give him a call after that,” Hullinger said. “It worked surprisingly well.”

While the number of Mesa County small claims cases remained fairly constant in recent history — about 600 per year — the dollar amounts that plaintiffs are suing for seem to be decreasing, and the cases are becoming more petty.

In a tight economy with money scarce, people who feel they’ve been ripped off may be more likely to try to get back what they think is theirs, court clerks said. Also, considering the area’s high unemployment rate, people have more time to fill out the necessary paperwork.

Increasingly, more plaintiffs are deemed to be indigent and qualify to have the filing fees waived. Filing fees are $31 for claims under $500, and $55 for claims over $500.

“People have a lot more time on their hands,” deputy court clerk Lorri Stone said. “Now, many more people qualify not to pay the fees. They’re finding out that this is the way they’re going to collect, because they need the money.”

Plaintiffs can sue in small claims court for up to $7,500 to recover money and property or require contracts or covenants to be upheld.

All cases are slated for mediation, or meetings with both parties in the presence of a mediator. The majority of cases are solved this way, but if they’re not, the cases head to trial.

A sampling of recent Mesa County cases represents a broad spectrum of issues. As usual, there was an abundance of claims from rental product companies and owners of storage units suing customers for nonpayment. There also were the common claims of small companies, mostly building contractors, suing customers for nonpayment after work was completed, or customers suing contractors when promised work wasn’t completed.

But other cases go beyond the norm:

One Grand Junction man appears to be suing his ex-wife right up to $7,500 limit for “slandering my name” among other complaints.

A Clifton woman is suing another woman for $390 of overdraft fees to her checking account when the other woman allegedly charged services to their shared Verizon Wireless account. Both women share the same last name and phone number.

Another man sued Chili’s Restaurant, 584 24 1/2 Road, and won $603.70 in salary for a week of work after being laid off.

Two plaintiffs sued and won $405 after selling a hair extension kit and an eyelash extension kit to a woman on a payment plan that was not paid up.

Alan Baier of Collbran is suing Justin Harrell for $1,200.74 after selling a vehicle to him on credit and not receiving any payments.

“I just get tired of people messing with me,” Baier said by phone.

Filing a small-claims case was simple, Baier said, and taking the action makes him feel better about the situation with the prospect he could get back the money he believes he is owed.

“It took me less than five minutes to fill out the paperwork,” Baier said. “I wish more people would do it.”


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