The California Court of Appeals has just entered a procedurally complex, but very important case on how a judge should deal with an uninformed self-represented litigant.
The bottom line is that an incarcerated self-represented landlord repeatedly tried to win a summary judgement against tenants, and failed to do so. In reversing the ultimate denial by the trial court, the California Court of Appeals explained:
“The court here was certainly patient with [the landlord], giving him multiple opportunities to prepare and file the necessary papers for entry of his default judgment against [the tenants]. And because he was incarcerated, the court could not suggest that Holloway visit one of the self-help centers located at the courthouse. But the court appears not to have recognized its discretion to give neutral (and accurate) guidance to [the landlord] about the requirements for entry of a default judgment—“reasonable steps, appropriate under the circumstances, . . . to enable the litigant to be heard.” (Cf. Austin v. Valverde (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 546, 550 [“[f]ailure to exercise discretion is itself an abuse of discretion”].) Doing so would have served the interests of justice as well as conserving the resources of the court and its personnel. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment and remand with directions to give [the landlord] a reasonable period of time attempt to file [needed documents listed].” (Bold added)
Put simply, this means that trial courts that seem not to understand that they are allowed to be necessarily helpful are at risk of reversal. While the optics of this seem in stark contrast to the endlessly stated trope that “self-represented litigants are held to the same rules as those with counsel,” of course it is not only fully consistent, but required. Both self-represented and lawyer-represented litigants are entitled to have a judge who understands the scope of discretion that he or she has under a particular rule, and who is willing to take all relevant factors into account in employing that discretion.
While the case is under California Rules, and the California judicial ethics code, it may be useful that the appellate judge cited the ABA Model Code as follows:
(See also ABA Model Code of Jud. Conduct, canon 2, rule 2.2, comment 4 [“[i]t is not a violation of this Rule [regarding impartiality and fairness] for a judge to make reasonable accommodations to ensure pro se litigants the opportunity to have their matters fairly heard”].)
I anticipate that this opinion will have broad reach.
I could not agree more with Jim’s comment, and for me it goes beyond the scenario of defaults. Courts rarely show this level of solicitousness when dealing with unrepresented tenants; in fact, the typical procedure for judges in eviction cases is to send the tenant into the hallway to meet with the landlord’s attorney, unsupervised, where the tenant can be pressured into settling without even a vague understanding of what rights they might have. And upon re-entry into the courtroom, the judge signs off on the “agreement” with basically no review. It pains me to see this level of concern voiced for the first time for the relatively rare instance of an unrepresented landlord.
It’s a helpful decision, Richard. I am struck by the irony of the procedural posture. The court holds that a trial court abused its discretion in its unnecessarily wooden treatment of a litigant seeking a default judgment in a class of litigation (summary eviction or, as they call it in California, “unlawful detainer”) in which default rates are (at least in some jurisdictions) far too high. There is no hint of a duty to defaulting defendants. We will know that we have made real progress in access to civil justice when court systems become disturbed by high default rates among individual (meaning human) defendants.