A landlord filed a claim for ejection and past-due rent. No judge appeared at the small claims trial, so a court reporter took down argument from the parties. No witnesses were sworn and no evidence was introduced. Following the hearing, the court reporter filled out a pre-signed form requiring the tenant to vacate the premises. Later, the trial court heard evidence on damages and ordered the tenant to pay damages to the landlord. The tenant then appealed, arguing the initial hearing held without a judge violated due process. The Court concluded the hearing did not satisfy due process because it lacked a neutral decision-maker and did not afford the tenant her right to present evidence and defend against the ejectment.
The record in this case suggested that ejectment hearings may often be conducted without judicial officers. Further, the fact that the court reporter had a pre-signed ejectment order suggests that, at least in that court, a presumption in favor of ejectment exists. The Court of Appeals explicitly disapproved of these circumstances.
Attorneys that handle landlord-tenant issues, and, for that matter, any small claims matters, should take note of this decision and ensure that small claims hearings comply with due process.
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