If you ever have to go to small claims court, you could do worse than prepare yourself for the experience than by watching Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel) and Jo Polniaczek (Nancy McKeon) go through it on The Facts of Life.
Granted, the 1984 episode, “The Rich Aren’t Different” was nothing close to a documentary on the inner workings of our American legal system, but it did a pretty good job of giving a TV audience a small taste of what the experience of small claims court is like.
At least, that's my conclusion based on my own experience of going to small claims court in Los Angeles, way back in 1993.
So, yes, as we tend to do on this blog, we’re going to take a look at a TV show – in this case, The Facts of Life – and analyze it to death and, in this case, see what nuggets of information we can pick up about what it’s like to go to small claims court.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
- How Jo wound up in small claims court on The Facts of Life
- The Subpoena
- You want to prepare to go to small claims court
- Dress the part.
- There is no jury -- or attorneys -- in small claims court.
- Don’t approach the judge.
- But do bring props.
- Bring witnesses, if you can.
- It’s best if you can work things out without going to court.
How Jo wound up in small claims court on The Facts of Life
Before we get into what The Facts of Life got right about small claims court, let’s get into why Jo wound up there in the first place.
The setup was pretty simple. Jo borrowed Blair’s watch without asking and broke it when playing basketball with some friends. Far worse, Jo didn’t seem to care all that much about the fact that she broke it. Because, you know, Blair is rich (like, Scrooge McDuck rich) and has 12 watches. Well, thanks to Jo's aggressive basketball playing, now Blair has 11 watches.
Blair is not amused. “You ruined my watch,” she says.
“No, I didn’t. It’s a stopwatch. It stopped,” Jo says, referring to the fact that Blair’s watch has a stopwatch, among other fancy features. For instance, it plays the Bee Gee’s “Staying Alive.”
(You see, kids, before our smartphones did everything, smart-ish watches were kind of the rage back in 1984. Your watch could play a tune... and it had an alarm... and... well, it could tell time. I'm guessing Blair's watch was inspired by a Seiko watch, The UC-2000, which came out in 1984 and retailed for $300, just like Blair's watch, though we don't learn how much it cost until near the episode.)
Blair is hurt. “You wouldn’t be this casual if it were Tootie or Natalie’s watch,” she says.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Jo agrees. “Because they only have one watch.”
“Oh, is it my fault I have money?” Blair asks.
“No, it’s your father’s fault,” Jo says.
Jo was often pretty level-headed in The Facts of Life, but she really is way out of line.
But The Facts of Life was fairly realistic in showing how the small claims court process works -- and the case of taking a defendant to task over a broken watch is fairly plausible as well. Small claims courts are always about money. Small claims court can't solve a problem like a loud neighbor, where a judge can punish somebody for having their music up too loud (unless you can prove financial damages, like maybe you work out of your apartment and feel you've lost money over the noisy neighbor).
It's always a matter of money when you're going to small claims court. Sometimes it's a case of a landlord trying to collect back rent, or two business partners in a contract dispute, or a driver trying to get another driver to pay for damages, or, sure, a matter of trying to get somebody to fork over the money to pay for a broken wristwatch.
So in this particular episode of Facts of Life, Blair has a young man, presumably a college classmate, subpoena Jo. I’m no lawyer, but in real life, I don’t think small claims court would typically work that way. Now, granted, different states probably handle things differently – any attorneys reading this, please feel free to set me straight in the comments section if I’m wrong – but in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city I live close to, if you're looking to take somebody to small claims court, you’ll file a form with a case number, and the Hamilton County of Clerk of Courts office will mail a form the person being sued.
And while I hesitate to dredge up this unpleasant memory, in 1993, when I was 23, I was sued by somebody in a small claims court in Los Angeles, where I used to live, and I received a summons from the court in the mail.
In my case, I was turning left onto Coldwater Canyon Ave., leaving Magnolia Boulevard, in an intersection, following several slow moving cars as the light was turning yellow. I was going about a mile an hour. The guy racing to make the yellow light, who ultimately crashed into my rear bumper, was probably going about fifty.
My Oldsmobile went spinning around like a vinyl record, but I wasn't hurt.
As I later learned, the car he was driving wasn't his. He was borrowing it from a friend, who was currently out of state. When she returned and found her car banged up, I'm guessing she was underinsured because she decided to sue me. Which always amazed me, since she was never at the scene of the accident and had no way of knowing who was actually at fault. And this guy apparently had been in other scrapes with cars. His first words to me when we approached each other was, "Not again!"
But back to Jo. She receives the subpoena and says to Tootie, “What a great kidder.”
Only Blair, of course, isn’t kidding. Jo is going to small claims court.
You want to prepare to go to small claims court
It should be pretty obvious that you don't want to go into small claims court completely winging it, but kudos to The Facts of Life scriptwriters of the "The Rich Aren't Different" episode (J.P. Duffy, Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, all of them sadly no longer with us) for having Jo be rattled enough to try and prepare for her time in court. Jo recruits Tootie to be her lawyer. Meanwhile, Mindy Cohn, who played Natalie, was stuck in some minor subplot involving a young boy who was tutoring Mrs. Garrett, who at this point in the series had returned to college. Mrs. Garrett had even less to do in this particular episode.
So Tootie collects a bunch of stuffed animals to serve as the jury and tries her best to prepare Jo for being questioned by the judge.
Jo, a tough girl from the Bronx, admits to Tootie that she is a little scared. “Where I come from, you go to court, you go to jail,” Jo says.
Dress the part.
Part of preparing to go to small claims court should be deciding what to wear. This is a serious occasion, and you want to treat it as one. I remember when I went to my small claims court hearing, I bought a tie for the occasion and wore a suit. I started to feel kind of hopeful that I might come out of this okay when I saw the person suing me, and her friend, the driver who ran into me, dressed in T-shirts and sweatpants. I heard somebody with them whisper, “You should have dressed up!”
Well, in Jo and Blair’s case, they both wore blazers and looked very professional. Tootie, there as Jo’s attorney, was also smartly dressed.
There is no jury -- or attorneys -- in small claims court.
I’m happy to say that this Facts of Life episode got the nuts and bolts of the small claims court process right. When Jo asks where the jury is, the bailiff says, “There is no jury in small claims court.”
And later, the judge asks who Tootie is, since she is standing at the podium right next to Jo.
“I’m her lawyer, sort of," Tootie says.
“Lawyers are not allowed in small claims court,” the judge says.
“I’m her friend,” Tootie says, quickly.
“Sort of,” Jo wisecracks.
Jo obviously doesn’t mean it, but the look on her face suggests that she is considering the fact that maybe Tootie doesn’t know all that much about law. In fact, when the series ended in 1988, Tootie was going off to acting school, and in a 2001 reunion movie, we learn that she became a morning show talk show host. But based on this particular episode, you do get these sense that as an adult, Tootie would have actually made a pretty good attorney.
Don’t approach the judge.
In the world of The Facts of Life and probably every sitcom ever, it’s fine to approach the judge. In real life, I'm not so sure.
Mrs. Garrett, after rushing into small claims court, is aghast that Blair is suing Jo, and then she sidles up to the judge’s desk for some chit-chat. He quickly suggests she sit back down, and Mrs. Garrett obliges. And then Blair takes her watch – “Exhibit A,” she calls it – up to the judge’s desk.
He took a look at it, and Blair went back to her podium. Of course, these were the 1980s, slightly simpler times, and this was TV.
I can tell you that about 30 years ago when I had photos of my wrecked car, and I approached the judge, planning on handing them to him, everybody reacted as though my Polaroids were deadly weapons. The judge recoiled. The bailiff put his hand on his gun, and I think if I had walked another step further, I might have been tackled to the ground by some of the court’s staff members. I wound up handing my pictures to the bailiff, who gave them to the judge.
But do bring props.
Blair producing the broken watch likely helped her case. I know that the photos of my car helped with mine. Whatever evidence you have on hand that can help prove your case, the judge needs to see. Remember, there’s no jury in small claims court, only a judge.
Bring witnesses, if you can.
If you have a witness can help prove your case, bring ‘em along. Freed from her minor subplot, Natalie comes to the court as Blair's witness, but she is a reluctant one. Meanwhile, Tootie argues that Natalie is Jo’s witness. But Natalie agrees to testify, and she is asked if she swears to tell the truth.
“What is the truth?” Natalie asks, suddenly philosophical and dreading this discussion. “One man’s truth is another man’s—”
But then on the bailiff’s look, Natalie realizes that the court isn't a place to kid around and says, “I swear, I swear.”
“Were you or were you not present when this watch was taken to a basketball game?” Blair asks.
Objection! In real life, it’s almost a certainty that the judge would have asked that -- and chastised Blair for asking the questions.
Objection overruled! This is a sitcom. Let Natalie talk.
“I was there,” Natalie says to Blair and then turns her attention to the judge. “But look, your honor, they’re both my friends. I can’t take sides. I’d feel like a traitor.”
“Did she have the watch?” the judge asks.
“Absolutely,” Natalie says.
It’s best if you can work things out without going to court.
Sure, we all know that, but The Facts of Life does an admirable job of showing what can be accomplished if you just talk things out.
“Ever since this whole thing started,” Blair tells the judge, referring to Jo, “she’s treated me like a name from the social register, some rich stereotype.”
“Well?” Jo asks. She clearly thinks if the stereotype fits...
“OK, I’m rich,” Blair says. “OK, my name is in the register. But my things still deserve respect.”
“Oh, I see,” Jo says, getting really peeved. "We’re here in a courtroom wasting everybody’s time because I didn’t show proper respect for your watch?”
“No,” Blair says. “We’re here because you didn’t show respect for me.”
“What?” Jo asks, incredulous, even though Blair has just made an excellent point. And it’s here that the judge calls for a recess, probably also not something that would happen in real life – over a broken watch? At any rate, the judge's decision for everybody to get some lunch turns out to be a good idea since Jo and Blair start actually talking.
Jo soon realizes that Blair is right, and Blair concedes that she can be a little... much, although she doesn't quite put it that way, and they quickly become friends again. Jo even agrees to replace the watch until she learns that it’s a $300 watch.
“That hunk of plastic cost $300?” Jo asks. “Would you settle for a cup of coffee?”
Ah, yes, if only all of our problems, especially those that are worthy of small claims court, could be solved within 30 minutes.
As it turned out in my small claims court case, the judge mailed out his ruling several days later, and since I had countersued – on the advice of somebody who I spoke to at small claims court – he threw out both lawsuits. I had kind of expected it. The judge told me that I shouldn’t have been making the left hand turn in the intersection – okay, but frankly, I still think I did nothing wrong – and he told the guy who crashed into me that he was going too fast (my photos of my rear bumper proved that). But having both cases thrown out, to me, was a win.
And Jo and Blair won, too, restoring their friendship for only the cost of a filing in small claims court for Blair, and a cup of coffee that Jo spent. (In many states, you can file a claim for under $100, and so in 1980s dollars, Blair probably wasn't out much.)
Blair had cause to be irritated at Jo, but she was smart to patch things up. Broken watches can be repaired and replaced. Broken friendships are not fixed so easily.
Where to watch The Facts of Life (at the time of this writing): The Facts of Life can be found on PlutoTV. Only two seasons, but better than nothing. I know I have seen episodes recently on cable TV, and I guess it's a given that you can purchase episodes to rent on iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.
Articles similar to this The Facts of Life story: Nothing too similar that I can think of, but The TV Professor does have a legal-themed, small government-themed blog post, in this look at how TV characters have fought city hall.