(Left to right) Santiago Reich, Professor Andrew S. Pollis and Marvin DeLeon at the Eighth District Court of Appeals
Not showing up for court will no longer be a means for defendants to avoid jury trials, thanks to the work of two Case Western Reserve University School of Law students in our Civil Litigation Clinic who successfully argued this before the Eighth District Court of Appeals.
Third-year law students Marvin DeLeon and Santiago Reich represented a woman who hired a repairman to do work on her home. She filed a complaint against him in March 2015 for failing to make repairs for the work he was hired to do, damaging her home, stalking her daughter and engaging in misconduct while he was working.
The repairman failed to answer the complaint or appear in court, prompting the woman to seek a default judgment. She requested a jury trial for her damages.
“She has a fundamental right to a jury trial under Article 1, Section 5 of the Ohio Constitution,” DeLeon said.
The trial court granted her default judgment, but denied the request for a jury trial. Instead, the court scheduled a hearing on the damages, a scenario that plays out all too often, the students said.
“Judges have an incentive not to grant a jury trial,” Reich said.
He explained that busy courts have many trials going on and want to get through them. If they can schedule a hearing, they may take that course of action to quickly resolve matters, especially in such cases where defendants fail to appear.
During the hearing in April 2016, the court awarded the woman $70,376. Most of the amount was for treble and actual damages. The Court also awarded her $5,000 for mental anguish.
When it came to punitive damages, though, the court awarded her only $1. Those types of damages are meant to punish defendants and require additional evidence. Because the defendant didn’t show up in court, there was no need for a jury trial, the court ruled.
“The fact our client was only awarded $1 in punitive damages is the reason why this was even able to be appealed,” Reich said.
The appellate court determined that a defendant’s failure to appear in court doesn’t mean a client can’t have a right to a jury trial, if requested. It is a “properly preserved fundamental constitutional right,” the opinion states.
“She definitely wants her day in court to tell her side of the story,” DeLeon said. “Now she is going to get it.”
For the students, the case has been a valuable learning experience, and it was the first time they had participated in oral arguments at the appellate level before. DeLeon said he was very nervous to appear before the appeals court for the first time, but Reich has a different take on DeLeon’s performance:
“He killed it,” Reich said.
Because Reich and DeLeon are graduating this year, the jury trial next year will be argued by another team of students from the law school’s Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center. The students serve under the guidance of Professor Andrew S. Pollis, who oversees civil litigation at the clinic.