By: Rudy Serra
Q: MY EMPLOYER WITHHELD MONEY from my pay for damage to a company vehicle. I sued in Small Claims Court, but the judge wouldn’t listen to me. Can you help me? How do I appeal?
A: The short answer is that you probably cannot appeal. It is probably too late for a lawyer to help you in district court. You may want to contact the Michigan Employment Security Commission.
The rules that govern small claims court say that: “A judgment of the small claims division may be modified or vacated in the same manner as judgments in other civil actions, except that an appeal may not be taken.”
In most cases, you could appeal to the circuit court, but not in small claims. The exact application of this rule varies slightly from place to place. In the state’s largest court (the 36th District Court in Detroit) and in other districts, the judges employ one or more magistrates. I explained the difference between a judge and magistrate at state and federal levels in an earlier column.
Courts with magistrates often assign a hearing on small claim matters to a magistrate. In such cases, there is often a local rule under which the decision of the magistrate can be appealed to the district judge. Aside from that situation, the judgment of the court in a small claims case cannot be appealed.
The rule does allow a small claim decision to be “vacated” or “modified.” If you have new evidence, such as receipts that contradict your former employer or photographs that show there was no damage, you may be able to get the judge to reconsider.
This is difficult because there is a separate rule for “reconsideration” of a decision on a motion, and it requires that you make a request within seven days. Technically, it should not apply in small claims, but it is a good reason to make any request to modify the decision quickly.
Regarding the help of a lawyer, you are probably going to be on your own. The rules do not allow attorneys to represent clients in small claim cases. The judge is supposed to be informal, to enable a non-lawyer to get the help they need. If you want a lawyer, all you have to do is hire one who is willing to help, and then tell the judge you want to “remove” your case from the Small Claim Division and have it filed in regular District Court.
Unfortunately, you cannot wait until your small claim is decided, and then remove it. You are not entitled to an appointed lawyer. You have to hire your own. If you consult with a lawyer, they will probably tell you it is too late for them to do much to help you. You should have requested “removal” at your hearing.
You may want to consider filing a complaint against your former boss with the Michigan Employment Security Division. They are an administrative agency and not a court. They might be able to help you. If you signed an agreement to any responsible for the kind of damage you caused, you may be stuck. Even if you did, the MESC could decide that the agreement is illegal. It may be worth the inquiry.
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