This week, I had the distinct privilege of attending small claims court for the first time. (Maybe it wasn't so much a privilege, but an obligation?) My clients' case - like every case that seeks a formal resolution - involved a misunderstanding between two parties who, not surprisingly, had opposing points of views and highly divergent expectations. (That's not good.)
I want to preface this story by saying that there were no bad guys in this scenario, just Buyers and Sellers that had failed to find a meeting of the minds; thus, had been unable to reach a satisfactory settlement.
Unlike criminal court (where my husband practices his lofty brand of law),small claims court doesn't require "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," but a "preponderance of guilt."
"Preponderance" as defined by Webster's dictionary means "superiority in weight or significance." Did we have superiority in weight and significance? I think we did, but that's up to the judge to decide. I'm certain the defendants felt much the same.
The court begins with the attending participants being sworn in by a court clerk (just like on TV) and then the judge appears. In this instance, a kind, elderly statesman who listened attentively, asked pointed questions and nodded at appropriate moments.
Before now, my only familiarity with civil court proceedings has largely been what I've seen on Judge Judy, which doesn't seem particularly "civil" to me. (No, I'm not a regular viewer, but it is a bit like watching a train wreck once you stumble upon it.) Usually, the injured party holds up a bounced check from her boyfriend (now EX-boyfriend!) who has invariably stiffed her on rent that's past due, or on the car that's now been repossessed, while everybody points, shouts, and screams irrationally (including the judge), and levels unfounded accusations.
In real life, that's not how it works.
This case involved an LLC, a Builder, a Seller, my Buyers, two Realtors, a beautiful home, a hard-won transaction, and binders of documents with Post-It notes, outlining emails, quotes, conversations, bids, and detailed drawings. More importantly, it involved well-intentioned, reasonable adults on both sides, who calmly and clearly explained their separate positions. (What a concept.) The Buyers claimed an omission of a material fact, and the Seller testified there was no implied promise or suggestion . . .
"Material facts" are perhaps, what this case hinges upon and what ALL Sellers need to be mindful of moving forward. Within the body of the Seller Property Questionnaire, "material facts" are described as "anything that may affect the value and desirability of the Property." It goes on to say that "material facts may be perceived differently by the Buyers and the Sellers,"as was undeniable in this case. BUT perhaps more to our point, the Seller Property Questionnaire also requires Sellers to "help eliminate misunderstandings about the condition of the Property."
Therein lies the crux of the problem. We definitely had a "misunderstanding" between the parties - even though it may not have been intentional. (I'm not sure that matters.)
So what's going to happen?
That remains to be seen. We should get a judgement within a few weeks. Personally, I believe the judge will likely split the difference down the middle, and then we'll all live comfortably with the result: smarter, sharper, and much more well-informed next time around. (First-world problems.)
At least, both parties will have had their day in court. Real Estate is nothing, if not an ongoing education and a great big FAT metaphor for life! (But of course you knew that already if you've been a loyal reader for very long.)
Hear ye, hear ye!
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Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 15 years and has published more than 500 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.