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A Big Win In Small Claims Court

Simpson v. Islip Terrace Fire District is the rare Small Claims case that merits an entry in our Decisions of Interest. Usually, Small Claims Court is a “People’s Court” where the rules of evidence and civil procedure are relaxed.  Litigants casually tell their stories, and the Judge often asks questions.  Often, neither side is represented by counsel.  In fact, Small Claims is the only court in New York that allows a corporation to “appear” without an attorney.  After a brief trial, the Judge usually issues a simplified monetary decision without elaborating on the Court’s analysis.

Here, both sides had trial counsel.  Mr. Simpson sued his former employer (and our client) the Islip Terrace Fire District, claiming that he was entitled to payment for unused paid time off.  As explained by the Court in a lengthy and well-reasoned decision, the issue concerned the definition of a “work week”.  Plaintiff calculated his unused time off on the basis of his “normal” three-day work week.  Islip Terrace Fire District, however, contended that a “normal” work week was five days.  Plaintiff therefore contended that he was owed more money and sought $2,935.84 in damages.

This was Mr. Simpson’s second lawsuit against Islip Terrace Fire Department.  He prevailed in the first lawsuit and recovered $1,631.04 for four (4) unpaid sick days. 

Scott J. Farrell, Esq., who handled the case for Miller Law Offices, came to Court with a motion to dismiss even though motions are disfavored in Small Claims Court.  He argued that the Plaintiff’s claim was: (i) fatally defective because Plaintiff failed to provide the Fire District with the verified notice of claim as required by statute; and (ii) barred by the doctrine of res judicataRes judicata is Latin for “a matter judged”.  It means that once a case is over (decided, dismissed on the merits, settled, etc.) it cannot be relitigated.

The Judge agreed with us on both counts.  Having failed to give notice of his claim in the manner required by statute, Mr. Simpson could no longer sue the Fire District.  The Judge also agreed that this new lawsuit was barred by New York’s “transactional approach” to res judicata.  As explained by Scott in his motion, the new case need not be identical to the prior one.  The new claim is precluded so long as it arises out of the same factual grouping or transaction and could have been resolved in the prior proceeding.

In a parting shot to both Plaintiff and Defendant, the Judge remarked that the Plaintiff had the stronger case.  However, Plaintiff lost his opportunity because he should have given the required statutory notice and included this claim in his original lawsuit.  Defendant also learned a valuable lesson.  It must be more careful and precise when drafting its employment agreements for like beauty, a work week is in the eye of the beholder! 

It is not usually cost effective for clients to hire Miller Law Offices to defend or prosecute a case in Small Claims Court.  Still, we sometimes appear there – and not just for friends or family.  There are indeed times – like the this one – when a client decides to hire us in a case whose monetary value is not great but the principle is worth it. 

We are pleased to have been able to achieve this victory on behalf of the Fire District, particularly where the facts were (apparently) against us. 

To read the decision, CLICK HERE.

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