The Nevada Supreme Court on Monday refused to make a homebuyer pay more than $11,000 in attorney fees in a case over building defects that began in small claims court.
"It is reasonable to conclude that the Legislature intended to make the small claims court a 'people's court' and to discourage attorneys from appearing," the opinion says. "It would be absurd to award $11,932.50 in attorney's fees on a $2,500 small claims case."
The case was filed by Harry and Sharon York in Reno after they found problems with their $445,000 home. They took Stan Snyder, who sold the house to them, to small claims court where the justice of the peace ruled against them.
Snyder, however, decided that wasn't the end of it and filed for attorneys' fees. The judge said that court was legally limited to $15 in attorney fees for a case, so Snyder took the case to district court when the Yorks appealed.
Judge Connie Steinheimer rejected the Yorks' claim that Snyder knew about and should pay for the defects in their house.
Snyder then repeated his demand for legal fees, but Steinheimer refused, saying any fees in the case must be applied by the Justice Court.
Snyder filed a separate, independent action in district court to try get the legal fees which was rejected by District Judge Janet Berry. So he appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Three members of the Supreme Court agreed with Berry, saying small claims court was created to allow people an inexpensive way of settling money battles.
"No attorney's fees are allowed either party in a small claims action except in cases of shoplifting," the opinion issued Monday says. "Clearly, the policy is to allow persons to recover money due and owing without the expense of hiring an attorney, becoming involved in a lengthy discovery process, or being subjected to a prolonged trial."
According to the opinion, the small claims rules specifically say no lawyer fees and the appeal form specifically states the maximum fees on appeal are $15.
So Snyder won't have to pay the Yorks anything for the alleged defects in the house but they don't have to pay him the $11,932.50 in legal expenses. He gets only the $15.
The opinion was signed by justices Cliff Young, Deborah Agosti and Myron Leavitt.