Indiana court allows appointment in small claims case

06/03/2013, Legislation, Other subject area

The Indiana Court of Appeals said a trial court's appointment of counsel in small claims case was not improper. In the case, a woman filed a small claims action against a company and received a default judgment. The defendant moved (via counsel) to vacate the default judgment based on lack of jurisdiction, but the motion was denied. The defendant appealed, and "the small claims court sua sponte set a hearing to determine whether [plaintiff] needed the court to appoint appellate counsel."  The defendant objected, arguing that the Indiana statute providing for appointment of counsel in any civil case requires the party seeking counsel to request counsel and demonstrate efforts to find counsel. Here's what the court said in response:


We summarily reject KOA's suggestion that our small claims courts cannot sua sponte set a hearing to determine the propriety of appointing counsel for a small claims litigant who is faced with the daunting task of moving from the informal small claims forum to the complexities of appellate law. Here, the court held a hearing to address whether Matheison had sufficient means to defend the appeal. This hearing was informal, of course, but that is in the nature of all small claims proceedings … As recognized below by the small claims court, Rule 2.2 of our Code of Judicial Conduct provides: "A judge shall uphold and apply the law, and shall perform all duties of judicial office fairly and impartially." Comment 4 to this rule explains further: "It is not a violation of this Rule for a judge to make reasonable accommodations to ensure pro se litigants the opportunity to have their matters fairly heard." This was precisely the course taken by the small claims court, which acted within its discretion by appointing appellate counsel. Finally, we are compelled to observe the obvious fact that KOA suffered no cognizable harm by the appointment of counsel. This equitable action by the court simply allowed KOA's opponent to be fairly heard on appeal.

Cite: KOA Properties LLC v. Matheison, 984 N.E.2d 1255 (Ind. App. 2013)

Appointment of Counsel: discretionary Qualified: no