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Big Impact and Little Payouts in Austin's Small Claims Courts

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT
A judge awarded Veronica Avila Zavala $6,900 of the $12,000 she claimed a fake attorney stole from her, but has so far only received $900.

Most probably couldn't articulate what a justice of the peace exactly does.

Television shows like “Judge Judy” and “The People’s Court” often trivialize the role of justices of the peace and the small claims courts they preside over.

Five small courtrooms of the Travis County justices of the peace handle settlements of $10,000 or less. In the grand scheme of things, the settlements are miniscule, hence the moniker of “small claims," but for some the rulings in these courts have huge implications.

Judge Raul Gonzalez presides over precinct four. He hears cases ranging from evictions to car crashes to some criminal misdemeanors.

People are not required to have an attorney, though some do. Gregory Valdespino is a regular in Judge Gonzalez' courtroom.

Stocky with a long white beard, it’s easy to see why he volunteers to play Santa Clause in the winter. He even wears a Christmas-themed tie in the summers, just to remind himself that winter will be here soon enough.

He's one among the many colorful characters that stream through the courtroom every day. Dozens, if not hundreds, of cases are heard daily. Last year, Travis County justices presided over more than 100,000 active cases.

"Everyday is tough," says Judge Gonzalez. "Some days more than others."

Because few people have attorneys, the cases are not well-crafted.

"Often, I'm kind of balancing the fine line between being a fact-finder and the decision-maker," says Gonzalez. Few people have the evidence that proves their case. More often than not, nobody’s happy when they leave the court. While they can appeal, the overwhelming majority do not.

Last year, out of more those 100,000-plus active cases, only 13 appealed their ruling.

"There is an assumption that because a person of authority approved a judgment. Then, the story is over,” says attorney Wayne Krause-Yeng. “But, in fact, the story has just begun."

In 2008 Krause-Yeng shared a home with a roommate. For months, the roommate neglected to pay her utility bills. Krause-Yeng took her to court and was awarded a $900 judgment. He still hasn't seen a single penny.

He shrugs, chuckling as he recalls the story. That sort of personal courtroom record isn’t becoming of a lawyer, he says. After all, he's savvy to the system’s inner-workings. But, there's more to the yarn than that.

His former roommate left him hanging. She even left Texas. Krause-Yeng says he didn't know her address and without information like that, he says, it's nearly impossible to collect on a judgment. Even for an attorney as experienced as himself.

Veronica Avila Zavala isn’t particularly court-savvy. She’s illiterate and is an undocumented immigrant. But, unlike Krause-Yeng she has her own small claims court story.

A few months ago Judge Gonzalez awarded her nearly $7,000.

For her, it was a triumph, but it all started when her husband was about to be deported.

A woman, she says, tricked her into believing she could get Avila Zavala's husband released.

Avila Zavala paid the woman $12,000, but didn’t keep any receipts because it was, at the time, a deal between friends. Her money was stolen, and she could only prove she was owed $6,900.

Judge Gonzalez' ruled in favor of Avila Zavala, but she says she’s only received $900 so far. For months, she hasn’t received any money and fears her cash is gone.

Like Avila Zavala, less than 20 percent of people typically get paid what they're owed.

Judge Gonzalez says it's in part because Texas law guarantees the protection of property like a home or a car.

So, unlike what we see on TV shows, in real life a judgment is only a judgment; not a guarantee that the person will be made whole.

Shows focus on how "justice" was served, but never on how ineffective the system is, which Krause-Yeng says is part of the problem.

"If you aggregate the number of people who don't end up getting what is owed to them,” Krause-Yeng says. “This is a real serious systemic problem.”

A Purdue University study dating back to the 1960's shows courts back then the same problems that small claim courts face today.

It took too long to get a hearing and people presenting their cases were often unable to dig up all the necessary evidence. But, in those days, less than 30 percent of people ever got paid what they were owed, unlike the nearly 20 percent these days.

If folks are owed money, however, Krause-Yeng suggests using bank levies, which collects debtor’s money directly from their banks, and wage garnishments, which collect the money from their employer, to try and

He admits it takes time, a lot of legal documentation and, of course, money – just a few of the reasons why sometimes it’s less of a hassle to just let go.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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