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FORUM FOR SMALL CLAIMS; THOUSANDS TURN TO DISTRICT ATTORNEY ADVISER FOR HELP IN DEALING WITH COURT DISPUTES.

Byline: Don Holland Daily News Staff Writer

When Dennyse Fox won her first small-claims case for her company, Allied Fasteners in Camarillo, the taste of victory was sweet.

With persistence - and justice - on her side, Fox won a $4,600 small-claims judgment against a deadbeat customer. But she soon found out how fleeting victory can be.

``You can win,'' she said. ``But it's a whole separate thing in trying to collect.''

So like 6,600 others last year, Fox turned to the Ventura County district attorney's small-claims court adviser for help. Staffers coached her through a few more legal hoops and turned her on to an asset locator, who for a fee, tracked down a little-known checking account that eventually coughed up the $4,600.

``The small-claims adviser was a big help for me,'' said Fox, who is becoming an old hand at small-claims matters. ``Without them, I would still be trying to collect my money, because there were avenues I wouldn't have known about . . . I felt she really went above and beyond the call of duty.''

Some of the most common small-claims filings involve auto repairs, landlord-tenant disputes and troubles with mail order companies, said Melodianne Duffy, who supervises the small-claims adviser program and its sister program, the small-claims mediation service. Both services are free.

Although Small Claims Court is designed for the little guy, many litigants don't properly file their paperwork, which can scuttle an otherwise solid claim.

``If more people came to us first to run their paperwork past us before they file, there would be more people who would be successful,'' said Duffy. ``That's an absolute certainty.''

Although small-claims advisers won't represent you in court or fill out paperwork for you, they will coach you through the intricacies of Small Claims Court. There's a $5,000 limit on small-claims damages. And plaintiffs generally cannot sue parties outside California. The two notable exceptions are car crash cases involving out-of-state drivers and landlord disputes where the owner lives outside California.

``The small-claims adviser program is set up to provide neutral advice either to a plaintiff or a defendant,'' said Gregory Brose, supervising attorney for the District Attorney's Consumer and Environmental Protection Division. ``It doesn't matter what side you're on.''

National retailers and even local lawyers have turned to the small-claims service.

In the past two years, there has been a sharp rise in Internet-related complaints, which generally can be handled through small-claims actions.

California law now provides that sales via the Internet are governed by the same laws that cover mail order transactions, Brose said.

``We have seen a dramatic increase (in complaints),'' Brose said. ``Consumers have to be very careful in making sales transactions on the Internet.''

The best way to protect yourself is to deal with reputable companies and to make sure sensitive information, like credit card numbers, is secure. Brose also recommends checking out online merchants by visiting a consumer Web site at http://usenet.miningco.com.

Although every county is required to offer a small-claims adviser service, the District Attorney's Office initiated the program in 1981 and linked it with small-claims mediation.

Many small-claims litigants who are bound and determined to have their day in court end up in the voluntary mediation program. About half of all cases that go to mediation end in a resolution, said Brose.

``There are very few (district attorney's) offices that have a consumer mediation unit like we do that provides an actual dispute-resolution forum as well as an informational forum for consumers,'' Brose said.

Many state regulatory agencies, including the Bureau of Automotive Repair, offer mediation services and investigate customer complaints, which often yield complaint reports that can be used in court to support a customer's small-claims case.

Most automobile makers contract with the Better Business Bureau to arbitrate customer complaints. Although the bureau's arbitration rulings are binding on the auto makers, they are not binding on customers.

``My experience has been that a lot of (businesses) will take very positive steps to maintain goodwill and will be very responsive to a complaint that is factual, that is presented in a neutral, nonaggressive fashion and is well documented,'' Brose said.

In one case, a woman filed a small-claims suit after she suspected the chicken wings she was served at a restaurant weren't really chicken wings.

``She knew from the number of bones that she wasn't getting what she was paying for,'' said Duffy.

When she arrived at the courthouse to file her small-claims suit, neatly attached to her paperwork was a baggie containing the suspect chicken bones. The restaurant responded with gift certificates for another meal and explained their technique of cutting chicken parts.

For more information call the district attorney's small-claims court adviser at (800) 660-5474, Ext. 5054 or visit their Web site at www.ventura.org/vcda.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

PHOTO Gregory Brose and Melodianne Duffy are ready to offer their advice on small claims matters.

Don Holland/Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 18, 1999
Words:824
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