MENDOZA v. Mary Ariza, Real Party in Interest.*

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District Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 3, California.

Pat P. MENDOZA, Plaintiff, Petitioner, and Respondent, v. SMALL CLAIMS COURT OF LOS ANGELES JUDICIAL DISTRICT, California, Defendant and Appellant. Mary Ariza, Real Party in Interest.*

Civ. 22134.

Decided: August 28, 1957

Harold W. Kennedy, County Counsel, and Wm. E. Lamoreaux, Asst. County Counsel, Los Angeles, for appellant. Ardy v. Barton, Los Angeles, for respondent.

The question for decision is the constitutionality of the 1955 amendment to section 117 of the Code of Civil Procedure. As amended in 1955 section 117 in relevant part reads:

‘All judges of the justice court, except as otherwise provided in this section, and judges of the municipal court shall exercise the jurisdiction conferred by this chapter, and while sitting in the exercise of said jurisdiction shall be known and referred to as the small claims court; provided, that the jurisdiction of such court, when sitting as a small claims court, shall be confined to cases for the recovery of money only where the amount claimed does not exceed one hundred dollars ($100), except that a municipal court judge sitting as a small claims court shall also have jurisdiction in proceedings in unlawful detainer after default in rent for residential property where the term of tenancy is not greater than month to month, and where the whole amount claimed is one hundred dollars ($100) or less.'1 (New matter added by 1955 amendment is italicized.)

On November 15, 1955, plaintiff commenced a proceeding in unlawful detainer in defendant small claims court by filing an affidavit executed on a form provided by the court pursuant to section 117b of the Code of Civil Procedure. The affidavit states that prior to November 2, 1955, the defendant in that action, Mary Ariza, was the tenant of plaintiff in described premises at a rental of $34.50 a month; on November 2, she was indebted to plaintiff in the sum of $100 as rent for the premises; on that date plaintiff served on her a notice to pay rent or quit, a copy of which was attached to the affidavit; she has not paid any part of the rent demanded and is still in possession of the premises without plaintiff's consent. The clerk of the court issued an order directing the defendant to appear on November 29, 1955.

The proceeding came on for trial November 29, 1955, with plaintiff and defendant present in court. The judge on his own motion continued the cause to December 6, at which time only plaintiff appeared. Thereupon the judge dismissed the proceeding, stating the small claims court had no jurisdiction for the reason the 1955 amendment to section 117 of the Code of Civil Procedure was unconstitutional.2 Plaintiff then commenced this proceeding in the superior court for a writ of mandate to compel the small claims court to try the proceeding in unlawful detainer. Judgment was entered ordering that a peremptory writ issue, from which the small claims court appeals.

Defendant asserts the 1955 amendment to section 117 of the Code of Civil Procedure is a denial of the equal protection of the laws (U.S.Const., Fourteenth Amendment), and that it contravenes article I of the California Constitution, sections 11 and 21, providing that all laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation and that no citizen or class of citizens shall be granted privileges which upon the same terms are not granted to all citizens, and article IV, section 25(3), (33), prohibiting the Legislature from passing local or special laws regulating the practice of courts of justice and in cases where a general law can be made applicable.

Defendant first says the amendment is invalid special legislation in that it grants jurisdiction of proceedings in unlawful detainer to judges of the municipal court sitting as a small claims court only, and denies such jurisdiction to judges of the justice court.

Problems of classification under the California Constitution are similar to those presented by the equal protection of the laws clause of the Constitution of the United States. People v. Western Fruit Growers, 22 Cal.2d 494, 506, 140 P.2d 13. Every presumption is in favor of the validity of the amendment. Sawyer v. Barbour, 142 Cal.App.2d 827, 838, 300 P.2d 187. The legislative classification will not be disturbed unless it is palpably arbitrary in its nature and neither founded on nor supported by reason. Sequoia Nat. Park Stages Co. v. Sequoia & General Grant Nat. Parks Co., 210 Cal. 156, 162, 291 P. 208. A law is general and uniform and affords equal protection in its operation when it applies equally to all persons embraced within the class to which it is addressed if the classification is founded on some natural, intrinsic, or constitutional distinction. Lelande v. Lowery, 26 Cal.2d 224, 232, 157 P.2d 639, 175 A.L.R. 1109; Serve Yourself Gasoline Stations Ass'n v. Brock, 39 Cal.2d 813, 820, 249 P.2d 545.

The mere fact that a classification is founded on some natural, intrinsic, or constitutional distinction does not necessarily justify a special rule. There must be some relation between the difference in class and the difference in the rule involved. Ex parte Jentzsch, 112 Cal. 468, 474, 44 P. 803, 32 L.R.A. 664. The classification must have an appropriate relation to the object of the legislation. Werner v. Southern California Associated Newspapers, 35 Cal.2d 121, 131, 216 P.2d 825, 13 A.L.R.2d 252. A statute cannot be limited to a special class without reason. Del Mar Canning Co. v. Payne, 29 Cal.2d 380, 382, 175 P.2d 231.

A statute is unconstitutional ‘if it confers particular privileges upon a class arbitrarily selected from a large number of persons all of whom stand in the same relation to the privileges granted and between whom and the persons not so favored no reasonable distinction or substantial difference can be found justifying the inclusion of the one and the exclusion of the other.’ Franchise Motor Freight Ass'n v. Seavey, 196 Cal. 77, 81, 235 P. 1000, 1002.

An examination of the history, nature, and purpose of the small claims court is essential to a proper determination of the constitutionality of the 1955 amendment to section 117. The small claims court was first established in this state in 1921 as sections 927–927p of the Code of Civil Procedure. Stats.1921, c. 125, p. 117. Section 927 then provided, ‘All justices of the peace shall exercise the jurisdiction conferred by this title and while sitting in the exercise of said jurisdiction shall be known and referred to as the small claims court; * * *.’ When the municipal courts were established the statute was amended to provide that judges of those courts also should exercise the jurisdiction conferred. Stats.1933, c. 743, p. 1817. In 1933 sections 927 et seq. were repealed and the subject matter of those sections made chapter V-A of the Code of Civil Procedure, being sections 117 et seq. Stats.1933, c. 743, p. 1817. In 1949 the jurisdictional amount was increased from $50 to $100. Stats.1949, c. 451, p. 795.

In creating the small claims court the Legislature intended to provide a method of procedure for small claims of all kinds, which would obviate the expense and delay due to ordinary methods of litigation. The court was created primarily to avoid wasteful litigation and to reduce to a minimum the expense of trial in causes where the demands are small. Leuschen v. Small Claims Court, 191 Cal. 133, 138, 215 P. 391; Hughes v. Municipal Court, 200 Cal. 215, 218, 252 P. 575; Sanderson v. Niemann, 17 Cal.2d 563, at page 573, 110 P.2d 1025, at page 1030, says:

‘The theory behind its organization is that only by escaping from the complexity and delay of the normal course of litigation could anything be gained in a legal proceeding which may involve a small sum. Consequently, the small claims court functions informally and expeditiously. The chief characteristics of its proceedings are that there are no attorneys, no pleadings and no legal rules of evidence; there are no juries, and no formal findings are made on the issues presented. At the hearings the presentation of evidence may be sharply curtailed, and the proceedings are often terminated in a short space of time. The awards—although made in accordance with substantive law-are often based on the application of common sense; and the spirit of compromise and conciliation attends the proceedings.’

The small claims court is not a separate, independent judicial tribunal. Hughes v. Municipal Court, 200 Cal. 215, at page 219, 252 P. 575, at page 576, states:

‘The legislature by providing the small claims court procedure did not set up a separate, independent judicial tribunal to be presided over by a judge elected or appointed exclusively to perform the duties prescribed by the small claims court statute, but made it the duty of the several justices of the peace of the state to enforce its provisions. In other words, additional duties were imposed by statute upon the justices of the peace * * *.

‘Sections 927–927p of the Code of Civil Procedure, in defining the jurisdiction conferred by the statute adding said code sections, provides that ‘All justices of the peace shall exercise the jurisdiction conferred by this title and while sitting in the exercise of said jurisdiction shall be known and referred to as the small claims court.’ Section 927. Thus it will be seen that a separate, formally constituted court was not created, but a certain procedure was merely adopted as to small demands, and the justices of the peace were required to conform to it in actions where the demand was $50 or less. The justice's courts always had jurisdiction of the subject matter of the actions affected by the small claims court procedure. The practical effect of the statute was to lay additional burdens upon the justices of the peace as to matters of procedure. We think it apparent that it was not the intention of the legislature to establish a separate court of justice in the sense that courts are ordinarily constituted. * * *

‘From an examination of the entire subject it is reasonable to conclude that it was the intention of the legislature that the procedure which as a matter of fact creates the small claims court should continue in effect and apply uniformly throughout the state. Any other conclusion would manifestly lead to absurd results.’ (Emphasis added.)

Superior Wheeler Cake Corp. v. Superior Court, 203 Cal. 384, at page 386, 264 P. 488, says:

‘A word of explanation as to the structure and operation of the small claims court will be profitable at this point. The court is presided over by a justice of the peace and is a summary method of expediting causes where the amount involved is $50 and less and arises upon a claim against a party residing in the township where the action is filed. The ordinary jurisdiction of the justice's court is in nowise changed. A cumulative remedy only is given to the plaintiff in certain classes of cases.’

Prior to the 1955 amendment the jurisdiction of the small claims court as to subject matter was expressly limited to actions for the recovery of money only. From the establishment of the small claims court judges of the justice court have been empowered to exercise that jurisdiction. Under the statute as amended in 1955 judges of the justice court and judges of the municipal court may act if the action is for the recovery of money only. But only judges of the municipal court, not judges of the justice court, may act if the proceeding is in unlawful detainer.

In general the statutory provisions regulating proceedings in unlawful detainer are found in sections 1161 through 1179a of the Code of Civil Procedure. The proceeding is at law. Lovett v. Bell, 30 Cal.2d 8, 12, 180 P.2d 335. The relief authorized in some particulars is penal in nature. Markham v. Fralick, 2 Cal.2d 221, 226, 39 P.2d 804; Chase v. Peters, 37 Cal.App. 358, 360, 174 P. 116. It is a summary proceeding designed especially for the purpose of providing a speedy means of recovering possession of realty, which is the main relief to be granted. Recovery of monetary damages in the form of rents or damages is only incidental to the main relief—recovery of possession. If a case for the recovery of possession is not made out, no monetary relief may be granted. Markham v. Fralick, supra, 2 Cal.2d 227, 39 P.2d 806 cases collected 23 West's Cal.Dig. 364, 30; 30 Cal.Jur.2d 488, § 348.

The Legislature is authorized by the Constitution to ‘provide by general law for the regulation, government, procedure and jurisdiction’ of justice courts. Const. art. VI, § 11. A judge of a justice court may exercise original jurisdiction in ordinary proceedings in unlawful detainer in a justice court; and he may determine any question properly involved therein. Section 112 of the Code of Civil Procedure provides:

‘Justice courts shall have original jurisdiction of civil cases and proceedings as follows: * * *

‘(b) In all proceedings in * * * unlawful detainer where the rental value is seventy-five dollars ($75) or less per month, and where the whole amount of damages claimed is five hundred dollars ($500) or less, and in such proceedings any competent evidence may be given and any question properly involved therein may be determined * * *.’

A judge of a justice court may try title to realty when properly involved in a proceeding in unlawful detainer. Garcia v. Venegas, 106 Cal.App.2d 364, 371, 235 P.2d 89; Hewitt v. Justice's Court, 131 Cal.App. 439, 442–443, 21 P.2d 641. A judge of the municipal court also exercises original jurisdiction in proceedings in unlawful detainer in a municipal court. Section 89 of the Code of Civil Procedure provides:

‘Municipal courts shall have original jurisdiction of civil cases and proceedings as follows: * * *

‘(d) In all proceedings in * * * unlawful detainer, where the rental value is three hundred dollars ($300) or less per month, and where the whole amount of damages claimed is three thousand dollars ($3,000) or less.’

And ‘Insofar as the jurisdiction of municipal and justice courts is the same, such jurisdiction is concurrent.’ Code Civ.Proc., § 83.

Thus both judges of the justice court acting in the exercise of the ordinary jurisdiction of a justice court, and judges of the municipal court acting in the exercise of the ordinary jurisdiction of a municipal court, have jurisdiction in proceedings in unlawful detainer where the rental value is $75 or less a month, and the whole amount claimed is $500 or less. Under the 1955 amendment to section 117 only a judge of a municipal court sitting as a small claims court, not a judge of a justice court sitting as a small claims court, may exercise jurisdiction in a proceeding in unlawful detainer where the tenancy is not greater than month to month, and where the whole amount claimed is $100 or less.

Section 170.5 of the Code of Civil Procedure, enacted in 1937, gave a litigant in the superior and municipal courts, but not a litigant in a justice court having jurisdiction of like suits, a right to peremptorily challenge a judge assigned to try the case. Holding the statute unconstitutional, the court in Austin v. Lambert, 11 Cal.2d 73, at page 81, 77 P.2d 849, at page 854, 115 A.L.R. 849, stated:

‘There is substance in the objection to the section that it violates section 11 of article I of our Constitution which provides that ‘All laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation’. The section provides that litigants in municipal and superior courts shall have the right peremptorily to challenge a judge of said courts, but makes no provision for a similar challenge by litigants in justices courts exercising the same powers and jurisdiction as municipal courts. In a justice's court having jurisdiction of a civil case involving $1,000, no such challenge is allowed, while in a municipal court where the matter involved is also of the value of $1,000 such a challenge is allowed.'

Cullen v. Glendora Water Co., 113 Cal. 503, 39 P. 769, 45 P. 822, 1047, was a special proceeding under an act supplemental to the Wright act for obtaining a decree of court approving and confirming the regularity of the issue of the bonds of an irrigation district. Section 4 of the act, St.1889, p. 213, required a motion for a new trial to be made on the minutes of the court. A motion for a new trial was made on a bill of exceptions. The appeal was in part from an order denying a motion for a new trial, which at that time was an appealable order. Holding the provision in section 4 requiring a motion for new trial to be made on the minutes of the court repugnant to the third subdivision of section 25 of article IV of the Constitution, which declares that the Legislature shall not pass local or special laws ‘regulating the practice of courts of justice,’ the court stated (113 Cal. at page 512, 39 P. at page 770):

‘While section 4 of the supplemental act provides that ‘the rules of pleading and practice provided by the Code of Civil Procedure, which are not inconsistent with the provisions of this act, are applicable to the special proceeding herein provided for,’ it further provides that ‘a motion for a new trial must be made on the minutes of the court.’ The inevitable effect of this last-mentioned provision is not only to deny the right to move for a new trial either on a statement of the case or on a bill of exceptions, as permitted by the Code in all other cases, but also to preclude a motion for new trial on any one of the first four grounds upon which the code allows such motion to be made, namely: * * *. [I]t is obviously apparent that the main object of this special proceeding, as expressed in the act authorizing it, may be thwarted and even defeated by restricting the motion for new trial as required by section 4 of said act; since it is plain that either party to a proceeding of this class may be prevented from having a fair trial by irregularity in the proceedings of the court, or adverse party, or abuse of discretion; or by misconduct of a jury in case of trial by jury; or by accident or surprise; and that material evidence may be discovered after the trial which could not, with reasonable diligence, have been discovered and produced at the trial; and also that the motion for new trial may sometimes be more conveniently, more clear-by, and more effectively presented by a statement or bill of exceptions than upon the minutes of the court. It therefore appears that there is no reasonable ground for the distinction between the special mode of moving for new trials provided by section 4 of the act in question, and that provided by the unquestionably general law,—the Code of Civil Procedure. The distinction, as we have seen, suggests no reason why the general mode provided by the Code of Civil Procedure should not be applied to motions for new trials in this special proceeding for the confirmation of bonds of irrigation districts, but the contrary. It follows, I think, that the distinct part of the fourth section of the act in question, which provides that ‘a motion for a new trial must be made upon the minutes of the court,’ is a special law ‘regulating the practice of courts of justice’ in a matter to which an existing general law is appropriately applicable; and is, therefore, repugnant to section 25, article 4, of the constitution. Darcy v. City of San Jose, 104 Cal. 642, 38 P. 500; City of Pasadena v. Stimson, 91 Cal. 238, 27 P. 604; Dougherty v. Austin, 94 Cal. 601, 28 P. 834, 29 P. 1092 [16 L.R.A. 161].'

Also see Ex parte Clancy, 90 Cal. 553, 557–558, 27 P. 411; City of Tulare v. Hevren, 126 Cal. 226, 229–232, 58 P. 530; Ventura County Harbor Dist. v. Board of Supervisors, 211 Cal. 271, 273–280, 295 P. 6.

In California, as we have seen, and in nearly all of the states, judges of justice courts, formerly called justices of the peace in this state, are given jurisdiction in proceedings in unlawful detainer based on nonpayment of rent of limited amount. 3 Cowdery's Justice Treatise, 326, § 1603. And in California, justices' courts have had jurisdiction of certain actions of forcible entry and detainer since 1880. Amendments to the Codes, 1880, Code Civ.Proc. p. 35, § 113. ‘The office of the justice of the peace is regarded as of great importance by the people generally, as it is strictly local in its character. It opens the doors of justice near at home, affords a cheap and speedy remedy at law for minor grievances, and renders substantial aid in the prevention and punishment of crime.’ Hillyer's Justices' Code, 2d Ed., p. 1, § 2. Traditionally, judges of justice courts have exercised jurisdiction in causes involving small amounts. They have done so simply, informally, and expeditiously—the functions of the small claims court. And as Sanderson v. Niemann, 17 Cal.2d 563, 110 P.2d 1025, 1030, says of the small claims court, ‘The awards—although made in accordance with substantive law—are often based on the application of common sense; and the spirit of compromise and conciliation attends the proceedings.’

We think it patent that a discrimination results by withholding from a plaintiff, with a claim for unpaid rent where the tenancy is not greater than month to month and the whole amount claimed is $100 or less, the right prosecute his claim in a small claims court when a judge of a justice court is exercising the jurisdiction, and yet giving him such right when a judge of a municipal court is exercising the identical jurisdiction. The statute does not operate uniformly on all persons in the same class. We can find no basis in reason for the classification.

There is no reasonable ground for distinction between a judge of a justice court exercising jurisdiction in proceedings in unlawful detainer where the whole amount claimed is $100 or less, when sitting as a judge of a small claims court, and his exercising exactly the same jurisdiction while sitting as a judge of a justice court. No necessity has been suggested, and we know of none, for denying judges of the justice court jurisdiction of proceedings in unlawful detainer in the small claims court where the tenancy is not greater than month to month, and where the whole amount claimed is $100 or less, and at the same time giving them such jurisdiction when exercising the ordinary jurisdiction of a justice court. We have not been told, and we cannot surmise, why a judge of a justice court is qualified to exercise such jurisdiction when sitting as such, and why he is not so qualified when sitting in the small claims court. The classification is palpably arbitrary. It does not bear substantial relation to any legitimate legislative objective. The difference created is not reasonably related to the purposes or functions of the small claims statute.

We can conceive of no set of facts which will sustain the constitutionality of the amendment. It does not apply alike in every part of the state to all actions embraced in the class. In those parts in which municipal courts exist, judges of such courts sitting as small claims courts may exercise the jurisdiction granted. In those parts in which municipal courts do not exist, judges of the justice court sitting as small claims courts may not exercise the granted jurisdiction; and a plaintiff in a proceeding in unlawful detainer where the tenancy is not greater than month to month, and where the whole amount claimed is less than $100, is relegated to the ordinary jurisdiction, procedure, and expense of the justice court. We find no natural, inherent, or constitutional basis, either reasonable or substantial, for the distinction between the proceedings included in the amendment and those excluded. None has been suggested. We think it clear beyond reasonable doubt that no sound reason for the classification exists.

We hold the 1955 amendment to section 117 of the Code of Civil Procedure is a special law regulating the practice of courts of justice, and it is a special law in a case where a general law can be made applicable; it is inoperative and void. In view of our conclusion we need not deal with other grounds of unconstitutionality asserted by defendant.

Reversed.

FOOTNOTES

1.  The jurisdictional maximum was increased to $150 by the 1957 Legislature. (Stats.1957, c. 1201, effective September 11, 1957.)

2.  The reasons for the judge's conclusion are to be found in an opinion published in the ‘Los Angeles Daily Journal Report Section’ of January 16, 1956, p. 17.

VALLEÉ. Justice.

SHINN, P. J., and PARKER WOOD, J., concur.