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Dealing With Court Clerks
I am not a lawyer, I am a judgment broker. This is my opinion and a summary of what I have learned and observed. If you need legal advice, contact a lawyer (see our National Lawyer State Bar List).
"I can't give you legal advice" is something you consistently read and hear at the court clerk's window. This is occasionally maddening when you ask questions that do not seem to need a lawyer to answer - such as how many copies should I make, or where do I sign?, or is this form complete?
I hear stories such as this from judgment enforcers: "I went to the courthouse to learn the specific forms or filing procedures that were preferred, only to be met with ignorance and arrogance. There were NO LEGAL ADVICE GIVEN signs all over the clerk's office."
A judgment enforcer told me: "I explained to the clerk who I was and what I do, and made my inquiry. The clerk told me she doesn't give legal advice and pointed to the signs. I explained that I was not looking for legal advice, rather, I was just inquiring about the proper forms, to which she replied that what I was doing was illegal (legal advice) and I'd better not let an attorney hear what I was doing or I would be brought up on charges of practicing law without a license (more legal advice)."
"I further explained how judgment enforcers work, and that what I was doing was perfectly legal, but wanted to know if this county uses any particular forms for Assignment of Judgment, levying, etc. The clerk said that they do not deal with this on a regular basis and she didn't know, and also told me that this is why lawyers go to school for many years."
Court clerks, although they are usually helpful, are not permitted to give out legal advice to anyone, so many new judgment owners and judgment enforcers hit a dead end when they first deal with court clerks.
You have to play their game. Always keep your cool. If the clerks will not budge, perhaps mail them a letter (on your letterhead) and include a business card. Wait a week; then call and ask what days would be best to come in. When you come back, the clerks will have some idea of whom you are and what you are doing, and will usually be more receptive.
One solution is, if the court has a web site where you can look up cases, and do most of your work at home. Then go to court with a short list of files to look up. In some parts of the country, this is your best option. What can help is to take a letter (with your business letterhead) of introduction with you. In your letter, include:
1) I will not remove any documents from a file.
2) I will not write on or modify any documents.
3) I will not shuffle or rearrange the documents.
4) I will return the file in the same condition that I received it in.
5) I recognize the critical nature and importance of case files.
Court clerks want to know that their efforts are appreciated, that their jobs are tough, and that you would like to know what you can do to make things easier for them, but you do need to review the case files. You should build a long-term successful relationship with them. Do not rush them.
If you conduct yourself as a polite professional, you will most likely find the court clerks warming up to you. If they will not let you look at case files, a polite letter to the court clerk supervisor, explaining what you want to do and your business card, may help.
Sometimes no matter how professional and polite you are, the court clerks will not budge. If you do not know the laws of your state about what you want to file, and what the court clerk should do, you should retreat and learn the laws.
If you know the laws, or if all else fails, you can ask the clerk if you can "demand to file" or "demand file" your document. You can also ask to speak with a supervisor, but if you do, prepare to wait a long time while the clerks discuss the matter with themselves or a judge. It is best to bring a copy of the laws that support what you want to do.
Sometimes the problem is simply a newer clerk that is not familiar with the laws and already-approved court procedures. You can appeal it to the head clerk, and even ask a judge to decide the matter in a hearing, as a last resort. Not all judges interpret the laws the same.
Here is a story about one Los Angeles, CA judgment enforcer, and what they did: They were attempting to renew a judgment at the small claims court in Los Angeles. The clerks were incorrect in their interpretation of the law and adamantly refused to file the documents even though the enforcer showed the laws to the clerk from the legal code book. The enforcer asked the clerk to be put the issue on the calendar so a judge could determine the issue that same day. They said they do not do that in small claims court. The enforcer went to the small claims court at the start of the next session, and signed in, and gave the baliff their paperwork and asked for the judge to give a ruling. The judge ignored the request until hours later when all the regular scheduled matters were heard. The enforcer explained the situation and the law to the judge, and the judge signed the paperwork. Then the judge requested the small claims supervisor to come into the courtroom, and he explained to her how the law works in this situation. Persistance paid off.
Many things can be done over the phone - such as scheduling a motion and/or a hearing. You just call the court (civil division) and tell them you need to schedule a motion hearing. They will ask what type. You tell them what it is for (assignment order, turnover order, wage garnishment on a non-judgment debtor spouse, etc.) They will give you a date, department, and a time. Also, ask if they have any language that needs to be in the notice for tentative rulings. Most courts do.
You can you deal with court clerks by mail or by phone. In person, what counts is how polite you are - multiplied by how often you see the same people. Even in bad courts, there are good clerks. Even in good courts, just like in many jobs, there are sometimes clerks who do not like working, or do not like learning new things.
Courts are changing and downsizing now, and things can be different as day is from night even in the same court house. Clerks who once were friendly can be replaced by clerks who are hostile and the reverse of that. Clerks who were very well versed in post-judgment law can be replaced with clerks who nothing about judgments.
Bring extra copies of everything with you. Sometimes the clerks that will reject your documents in person will endorse and file them if they are mailed into the court. Some have found bringing one to two dozen donuts or premium bagels, perhaps with some good coffee, can go a long way
Also, be aware there is a difference between handing a form to a clerk and having that form filed. Many documents are lodged with the court, but not placed in the court's file folder, and you won't be able to see them if they are not there.
One example is an affidavits of identity, which is not filed until a judge stamps or signs them. For this reason, always bring an extra copy of anything you are filing at the court, and have the clerk stamp the back of the document with a "received" stamp and have them initial your copy. This way, if they lose it later, you can show that you lodged it with the court on the documented date. Otherwise, it is your word against theirs. This is especially important on time sensitive things like judgment renewals close to expiration.
Finally, a tip from the grand master of judgment recovery - the esteemed Mr. Walter Steinmann: "When I find myself in this situation where a particular clerk is nothing but a PITA (Pain in the ___), next time I go to into the office without having showered for several days, eat raw garlic, don't brush my teeth and breath my words rather than speak them. It will take about one minute for them to run get what I want and ask me to step back away from the window. Works every time."
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