Common Mistakes Made In And Around Courtrooms

by Judge Gerald A. Williams

North Valley Justice of the Peace

Legal advice, like medical advice, is often preventive. Frequently the best recommendation is some variation of, “Don’t do that.” It is, however, worth sharing the most common mistakes I see litigants make in the courtroom. Unfortunately, many of them are made by tenants who otherwise would have had at least a good argument against their landlord.

First Mistake: Not Showing Up. Almost always, bad things will happen if you ignore or miss your court date. This is especially true if you miss something that results in a warrant being issued for your arrest. The most common excuse is, “I forgot.” Others claim that they inputted the wrong date into their phone. One of my personal favorites is, “I got deported.”

Second Mistake: Tenants Who “Rent Strike.” Often a tenant, in some type of dispute with a landlord, will decide to stop paying rent until the problem is resolved. This is always the wrong thing to do. The landlord will simply file an eviction action for nonpayment of rent and will likely win. Tenants have significant rights under Arizona law if they do what is required. A.R.S. §§ 33-1363 & 33-1364 provide the authority for what to do if the landlord is not fixing something. An explanation of these laws and sample letters are available at:

Third Mistake: Tenants Who Stop Rent Due To Foreclosure. This one is often very problematic because if the residence is sold at a trustee’s sale, the tenant at some point will be required to move. However, trustee’s sales often get delayed or don’t happen at all and they will always take longer than an eviction action for nonpayment of rent. There is a new federal statute, called the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009, that provides additional protections in this area.

Fourth Mistake: Tenants Who Forget To Ask For Their Security Deposit Back. If a tenant requests the security deposit back after he or she has moved out, the landlord must, within 14 days, either give it back or mail an itemized list of everything subtracted from the deposit for property damage. If the landlord does not do so, the tenant can file a lawsuit and recover treble damages. Sample requests are available at the same web page mentioned earlier.

Fifth Mistake: Believing That A Verbal Promise Modifies A Written Contract. The reason we have written contracts is so that both sides, at least in theory, understand the terms of the agreement. Under a legal doctrine called the “parol evidence rule,” if the actual language of the contract is clear, then testimony about oral modifications to it cannot be admitted as evidence.

Sixth Mistake: Believing That Contracts Come With A Grace Period. The right to change your mind and cancel a contract within three days only applies to a very few contracts. For example, A.R.S. § 44-1706 requires that a contract with an organization, claiming that it can improve a buyer’s credit record, history or rating, can be cancelled without penalty for up to three days.

As with anything in life, often the most prepared person with the best information wins in the courtroom. Judges and court clerks are prohibited from giving legal advice; so if you have questions, a good place to start is the Maricopa County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at (602) 257-4434. Through that service, you can meet with an attorney for 30 minutes for $35. While no attorney is going to take your case for only $35, often people just need someone to explain their choices. For the cost of an iPod card, that’s not a bad deal.

Judge Williams is the presiding justice of the peace for the Northwest Regional Court Center. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus


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