637 F.2d 898 (3rd Cir. 1980), 80-1159, Lecates v. Justice of Peace Court No. 4 of State of Del.

Docket Nº:80-1159.
Citation:637 F.2d 898
Party Name:Richard M. LECATES, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Appellant, v. JUSTICE OF the PEACE COURT NO. 4 OF the STATE OF DELAWARE; Justice of the Peace Horace W. Short, individually, in his official capacity, and as a representative of all Justices of the Peace of the State of Delaware and Sussex Trust Company, a corporation
Case Date:December 30, 1980
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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637 F.2d 898 (3rd Cir. 1980)

Richard M. LECATES, individually and on behalf of all others

similarly situated, Appellant,

v.

JUSTICE OF the PEACE COURT NO. 4 OF the STATE OF DELAWARE;

Justice of the Peace Horace W. Short, individually, in his

official capacity, and as a representative of all Justices

of the Peace of the State of Delaware and Sussex Trust

Company, a corporation of the State of Delaware, real party

in interest.

No. 80-1159.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

December 30, 1980

Argued Sept. 19, 1980.

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Gary A. Myers (argued), Staff Atty., Community Legal Aid Society, Inc., Georgetown, Del., for appellant.

Donald L. Bruton (argued), Deputy Atty. Gen., Dept. of Justice, Wilmington, Del., for appellees.

Before ADAMS, HUNTER and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

ADAMS, Circuit Judge.

The State of Delaware maintains a two-tier trial court system. It is comprised of

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courts of record, presided over by legally trained judges, and justice of the peace courts, staffed by magistrates with no legal training. An unsuccessful party in a justice of the peace court is entitled to a trial de novo in Superior Court, but a losing defendant must first post a surety bond in order to obtain such a trial. In this appeal an indigent defendant in a civil suit contends that the nonwaivable bond requirement operates to deny indigents due process of law as well as equal protection of the laws, because the poor are unable to obtain the full extent of judicial process and constitutional protections afforded more affluent litigants. The district court rejected these contentions and entered judgment for defendants. We reverse, because we conclude that Delaware's failure to permit an indigent defendant to proceed without posting a bond denies such a person due process of law.

I.

Appellant Richard Lecates borrowed $2,400 from Sussex Trust Company, executing a promissory note for repayment in monthly installments, with his Chevrolet automobile serving as collateral. Lecates subsequently was laid-off from his job, and as a result defaulted on the monthly payments. Sussex Trust repossessed the Chevrolet and sold it for $900 under an installment sales contract. The repossession of the vehicle and its resale allegedly were consummated in violation of the Uniform Commercial Code (the UCC), in that the bank failed to notify Lecates of either the intended disposition of the collateral or the actual sale. Del.Code tit. 6, § 9-504(3). After the first purchaser failed to meet installments, Sussex Trust again repossessed and sold the car to an automobile dealer for its salvage value of $300. The second sale was also conducted without notice to Lecates.

Sussex Trust wrote to Lecates demanding payment of the deficiency of $1,860, and then instituted a civil debt action in Justice of the Peace Court No. 4 in Seaford, Delaware, seeking a judgment for $1,500. 1

In Delaware, justice of the peace (JP) courts, the lowest level of the judicial system, are not courts of record; proceedings are neither recorded nor accompanied by published precedential opinions. Justice of the peace courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the Superior Court and the Court of Common Pleas over debt actions involving $1,500 or less. Del.Code tit. 10, § 9301. There are significant differences in the procedural protections available to defendants in the various tribunals, however.

The JP court is a far more informal tribunal for adjudicating disputes than the courts of record, and consequently, it is often more expeditious and less expensive. Actions are commenced by filing a praecipe, which is followed by a summons served on the defendant. Del.Code tit. 10, §§ 9521-22. In the courts of record, a plaintiff must also file a complaint identifying the basis of the claim for relief, which the defendant is entitled to answer. A JP defendant may request a bill of particulars detailing the facts supporting the claim, but this is the sole discovery device permitted in the JP courts. 2 A full panoply of discovery procedures, including interrogatories, depositions, and requests for production of documents, is available to the parties in Superior Court and the Court of Common Pleas. There is no provision for a jury trial before a justice of the peace, J.P.Civ.R. 14, whereas in Superior Court a jury trial may be obtained upon a timely demand. Del.Code tit. 10, § 563. If a defendant in the Court of

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Common Pleas desires a jury, he or she simply removes the case to Superior Court, paying a small filing fee. Del.Code tit. 10, § 1320(b), (d). This filing fee is waivable for indigents. Super.Ct. Rule 112; CCP Rule 110.

Judgments entered by justice of the peace courts may be appealed to the Superior Court for a trial de novo. Del.Code tit. 10, §§ 9570, 9573, and the institution of an action in Superior Court renders the JP proceedings a nullity. If the appellant was the defendant before the justice of the peace, however, he or she must post a bond executed by a surety, which makes the surety equally liable on any judgment rendered in Superior Court. A bond may also be posted by an individual other than the appellant who owns a sufficient amount of real property. Del.Code tit. 10, §§ 9571-72. At a minimum, the value of the bond must be equal to the amount of the judgment plus costs, but it may be higher at the discretion of the magistrate. A defendant cannot satisfy the requirement by posting cash or property, because the appeal bond statute seeks to accomplish more than to protect the judgment below it is also designed to assure that any judgment entered against the appellant in excess of the bond amount will be satisfied. Trala v. Melmar Indus., Inc., 254 A.2d 249 (Del.Super.Ct.1969). The bond requirement cannot be waived by a magistrate. State ex rel. Caulk v. Nichols, 281 A.2d 24 (Del.1972). A losing plaintiff in JP court is not required to post a surety bond in order to appeal; he or she must pay only the Superior Court costs. Del.Code tit. 10, § 9571.

Appellate review of judgments entered in the Court of Common Pleas lies in the Superior Court, and is on the record rather than de novo. Del.Code tit. 10, § 1318. Superior Court decisions may be appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court. Del.Const. art. IV, § 11(1)(a).

Another major difference between the two tiers of the Delaware trial court system is the nature of the judges that preside over each tribunal. Justices of the Peace, appointed for four year terms, need not be lawyers admitted to the bar or persons trained in the law. Indeed, at least until 1976, the year of Lecates' trial, no justice of the peace had been a lawyer. Judges of the Superior Court and Court of Common Pleas, on the other hand, are required by the state constitution to have a formal legal education and to be members of the state bar. Del.Const. art. IV, § 2.

The action by Sussex Trust against Lecates was tried before Justice of the Peace Short in August, 1976. Justice Short was a new appointee, whose formal education ended at high school. Prior to his appointment he had been a state trooper, a town alderman, and a shipping clerk. Devoid of legal training, he had no knowledge of the tools of legal research or the role of precedent. On a few occasions, he had visited a law library, but simply to "browse through." His method of conducting legal research was to pose hypothetical questions to another JP or to a Common Pleas judge.

At the proceeding before Justice Short, Lecates requested a jury trial. After this request was refused, Lecates' attorney moved to dismiss the claim asserted by Sussex Trust on the ground that the bank's violations of the Uniform Commercial Code barred it from recovering a deficiency. 3 Justice Short, by his own admission utterly unfamiliar with the U.C.C. or the precepts of secured transactions, denied the motion and refused to entertain briefs on the legal question. Instead, he proceeded to enter judgment in favor of Sussex Trust. Denying the request that Lecates' bond be waived because of his indigency, on the ground that he had no power to do so, Justice Short set the bond at $1,500.

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Lecates' indigency is well-established. From May through October of 1976, Lecates' only income was $25-30 per week. His family relied on food stamps and the Salvation Army for the basic necessities of life. Lecates had no collateral to post for a bond, because he was already delinquent on house and car payments, and he had to sell many items of furniture to meet utility and other bills. By reason of his indigency 4 Lecates was unsuccessful in his efforts to secure a surety bond. Of the ten agencies approached, some declined to act as surety because they did not issue bonds for JP appeals, and others refused because Lecates lacked funds or any other assets to guarantee payment. Consequently, Lecates was unable to obtain a trial by jury presided over by a lawyer-judge in the Superior Court.

Lecates then filed this action for injunctive and declaratory relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that the surety bond requirement deprived him, a pauper, of due process by foreclosing access to the regular court system. He also contended that the bond requirement violated his right to equal protection because similarly situated indigent defendants in the courts of record automatically received the full extent of procedural protections.

The district court dismissed Lecates' claims, concluding that it was bound by the Supreme Court's summary disposition in 1972 of State ex rel. Caulk v. Nichols, 5 a case in which the Delaware Supreme Court rejected an equal protection challenge to the identical Delaware statute. Determining, however, that the United States Supreme Court in Caulk had not...

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