|Opinion:||The B&F Corporation v. Cavers, 2022 OK CIV APP 35|
|Subject matter:||Power of Attorney Representative Scope of Authority|
|Date Decided:||September 23, 2022|
|Trial Court:||District Court of Oklahoma County; Judge Pipes|
|Route to this Court:||In the small claims proceeding, Cavers appealed from the trial court’s order prohibiting her attorney-in-fact from appearing in the proceedings and from its order granting judgment to the B&F Corporation d/b/a OK Loan Service.|
|Facts:||Plaintiff (B&F Corporation) filed an Affidavit of small claims, alleging Cavers owed it $198 because she failed to pay on a loan contract. At the hearing, the trial court addressed the preliminary issue of a request by a Mr. Dotson to represent Cavers in the proceeding under a limited Power of Attorney (POA) that he had executed with Ms. Cavers. Through the POA, Cavers appointed Dotson as her attorney-in-fact to act for her in any lawful way in credit and debt matters, claims, and litigation and defend against a legal entity before a court. Mr. Dotson made it clear to the court that he was not an attorney and never represented himself as such.|
The trial court ruled that he misapplied 15 O.S. 2021 §§ 1001-1020, and that under Oklahoma Bar Association, 5 O.S. 2021, ch. 5, app. 1, art. II, § 7(a) that he was not allowed to appear and represent Ms. Cavers.
The next issue turned on the contract itself, to which Ms. Cavers denied the amount listed in the contract that she had signed that was produced at the hearing. She made no payments on the loan because of lost employment, but did not deny that she had a debt with Plaintiff. The trial court granted Plaintiff a $198 judgment award.
|Standard of Review:||To the extent this appeal concerns issues of constitutionally protected rights or of statutory interpretation, the issue is one of law that we review de novo. Troxell v. Okla. Dep’t of Human Servs., 2013 OK 100, ¶ 4. The trial court’s factual determinations and evidentiary rulings, however, are reviewed for an abuse of discretion. “An abuse of discretion occurs when a court bases its decision on an erroneous conclusion of law or where there is no rational basis in evidence for the ruling.” Gowens v. Barstow, 2015 OK 85, ¶ 11. “With respect to determinations of fact in a small claims proceeding, this Court’s standard of review is that ‘[i]f there is any evidence tending to support the findings and judgment of the trial court . . . , the findings and judgment will not be disturbed, even if the record might support a conclusion different from that reached at nisi prius.” Morris v. Behrens, 2021 OK CIV APP 35, ¶ 4.|
|Analysis:||The Court was faced with two primary issues, the first was the trial court’s denial of appearance of the attorney-in-fact. The second was the authentication of the loan contract and the sufficiency of evidence.|
As for the first issue, the Court emphasized that Oklahoma jurisprudence recognizes the ability of citizens to act as pro se litigants who are held to the same rules and standards as practicing attorneys. The Court also acknowledged that small claims court has even looser procedural guidelines and restrictions because of the small claims court’s intended purpose is to effectuate speedy justice between the parties. Black v. Littleton, 1975 OK CIV APP 1, ¶ 6. Ms. Cavers relied on an Attorney General Opinion which concluded that a person holding a Power of Attorney may be authorized by the principal to appear as a substitute for the principal in small claims court and personally prosecute the principal’s case. Question Submitted by: The Hon. Jerry L. Smith, State Senator, Dist. 39, 2003 OK AG 26. However, the AG opinion also acknowledged that a person may not use the Power of Attorney to substitute for a licensed lawyer when the services of such a person are required. 5 O.S. 2001, ch. 1, app. 1, art. II, § 7. Despite the fact that a lack of a legislative response to an AG opinion demonstrates approval by the Legislature, the opinion supported that determining the need for the services of a licensed lawyer is to be done based on the facts of the circumstances. The trial court found that Mr. Dotson’s actions demonstrated the unauthorized practice of law, despite his verbal representations that he was not a lawyer. Ruling in this way did not violate Ms. Cavers’s constitutional rights to representation in a court of law and she had no right to seek the assistance of one not licensed to practice law.
As for the authentication of the loan contract and sufficiency of evidence, the Court pointed to the evidence from trial that Ms. Cavers authenticated the signature on the contract and she agreed that she made a contract with Plaintiff. She only testified that the contract was not for $120, but did not dispute the contract’s validity that was produced at trial.
|Vote:||3-0. Fischer, C.J., Hixon J., and Barnes, P.J. (author) concur.|