Doing my Job

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January 24, 2005 // UPDATED 1:51 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Sharron Salwei, District Court Clerk

Sharron Salwei is one of nine District Court clerks who rotate through the Conciliation Court's Resource Center, helping people filing claims for out-of-pocket losses of $7,500 or less.

Salwei said she might help a young woman file a claim to recover a $500 loan she once gave a now-ex-boyfriend. A recent immigrant might file to recover the damage deposit a landlord withheld - or a landlord might try to recover back rent and damages. A business might sue another business for an unpaid bill.

Conciliation Court is a "pro se" court, which means people making a claim don't need a lawyer, they do it on their own. The Resource Center has all the paperwork to file claims, counter claims, motions and appeals.

If the process is confusing, Salwei is there to help explain it.

Conciliation Court handles roughly 15,000 cases a year, many from debt collectors who know the routine. Approximately 10 to 20 people a day come for help to Salwei's windowless office, Room 308 City Hall, 350 S. 5th St.

People often want to tell the long version of their story and how someone wronged them, Salwei said. That is not important; the claim form actually has a small space to describe the event. "You need to explain the money. You need to get to the bottom line," she said.

Some people can't fill out the forms themselves. They might be new immigrants and can't write English, she said. Some elderly claimants' arthritis is so bad they cannot write legibly. If the Resource Center is not too busy (early in the morning is best) Salwei will help.

"I ask them to tell me what happened," she said. "Then I write it on scratch paper and we go over it again. Then I write it here [on the form] and put 'scribed by' and my initials."

She tells complainants they need to check with the Minnesota Secretary of State's office to get the correct legal name of the company they are suing. (If they file a claim but use the wrong name, the claim is no good even if they win.)

Salwei has to spend time explaining to people what they can't do, too.

A complainant might call Xcel Energy with a bill dispute and end up talking to a company representative - for example some guy named Gary. Salwei has to explain to them they can't sue Gary, even if they are mad at Gary; they have to sue Xcel.

On a recent day, a man came in who wanted to sue his ex-wife over a phone bill, she said. She had to tell him family court had jurisdiction over the divorce and the phone bill, too. If he had paid the $55 to file a conciliation claim, he would have lost his money.

Other people come in and they are frustrated because someone owes them money and they can't find them, she said. They think - somehow - the courts will help.

"We are not going to go find people," Salwei said. "We have to be impartial. Furthermore, if you don't know where [the person who owes you money] is, I'm sure we are never going to find him."