Statutes (including codes, rules, etc.) provide solid foundations for a claim or defense. Passed by a legislature or other governing body, statutes are formal law. They address the needs of citizens. They tell us how to behave. They resolve issues between people. They even standardize litigation and other processes.
Unfortunately, it’s sometimes difficult to explain to a judge how a statute applies to your set of facts. Without case law to make sense of written laws, statutes can just lay there doing nothing to help you.
In litigation, your job is to persuade a judge to rule in your favor in hearings and at trial. That is, fill in the gaps left by the statute and draw a picture for the judge. To do this…
- find cases with facts similar to yours;
- based on the statute you want to use;
- where an appellate court in your jurisdiction ruled;
- where the ruling was for the person arguing your position;
- apply or compare this to your own set of facts; and
- argue the point to a judge.
The degree to which you can do this can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Here’s one example.
Allen and Charlotte, two college students living together in an apartment near campus, were served with an eviction notice. Their landlord accused them of deducting unauthorized and unnecessary repairs to the apartment from the rent. The corporate landlord wanted all the money due, or wanted them to move.
Allen and Charlotte claimed the repairs were necessary and found some support in the law for what they’d done. Rather than pay or move out, they appeared in small claims court to defend themselves. They’d done the research and knew that their case was strong. They were sure they’d win.
In court, Allen and Charlotte watched landlords and/or their attorneys win case after case. They thought they’d win because they weren’t like the other hapless tenants. They had statutes on their side. When their case was called, the judge listened to both sides, including the questioning of Allen and Charlotte by the landlord’s attorney.
Then, the judge compared the one-sheet complaint form from the landlord’s lawyer with the three pages of perfectly formatted defenses from Allen and Charlotte and said, “I see three months of partial payment of rent.” He ruled in favor of the landlord.
Allen and Charlotte were confused and furious. They had the law on their side. They had statutes, codes and even appellate cases, but they’d lost.
Unwilling to give up, they read up on appealing an eviction judgment. To stay in their apartment and appeal the judgment, they needed a bond in the amount of $2500 plus the monthly rent. They borrowed the money from friends and family.
With full bond in hand, they appealed their eviction two weeks after the judgment.
The appellate court quickly ruled against them. It ruled that Allen and Charlotte had missed the deadline for appealing an eviction. The landlord-tenant statute limited the time for appealing an eviction to 10 days. Normally, the time to appeal a judgment was 30 days, but because eviction cases demanded expedient decisions, the time was shorter.
Allen and Charlotte still refused to give up. Allen was very good at legal research. That night, Charlotte told him, “We need a case that says when a bond is placed in the court’s registry and the landlord is getting rent from it, there is no reason for the 10-day expediency rule for an eviction appeal.”
An optimistic Allen said, “If it’s there, I’ll find it. And if I do, I hope this court follows the law.”
Allen was up all night, but he hit the jackpot. He found a case with a set of facts similar to theirs. The tenant in that case had put up a bond and was paying into the court’s registry while appealing an eviction. The tenant argued successfully that the purpose of the 10-day rule was to assure that the landlord wouldn’t miss rent payments. If the money was paid into the registry and the landlord was getting rent, that part of the statute was not applicable in his case. The appellate court agreed. The tenant was able to write his appeal with a 30-day time clock rather than a 10-day one.
Allen and Charlotte saw the case as tailor-made for them. It was the only one among the hundreds Allen searched that created an exception to the well-settled eviction statute. Charlotte wrote a motion for reconsideration that cited the new case. She pointed out that it was directly on point and was a legal authority that required the court to change its mind.
Two days later, the appellate court reversed its previous decision and later heard the appeal. Allen and Charlotte eventually won their case, withdrew their bond money from the registry (minus the monthly rents), and paid their friends back. They were able to stay in their apartment.
If not for their determination to fill in the gaps where the statute left off, Allen and Charlotte might have lost their money and their apartment.
Judges on all levels interpret what the law means and apply it to cases. Where statutes leave gaps in the application of a law, always look for cases. They can be your best friends.
Related Link: Legal Research Links