Despite what I do for a living, oddly, I watch very little TV. There was a time, a long time ago, when saying that would make me appear snobbish, but nowadays, with the television landscape regularly flaunting tremendous talent and achievement, saying that makes me feel almost the opposite; what is wrong with me that I am utterly out of touch with Empire, don’t know a thing about Girls, and still have never seen one minute of Scandal? Compounding my sin, my daughter and I have formed a secret TV-watching cabal built around choices that could arguably be described as….well, let’s just say somewhat seamier than Empire and Girls and Scandal.

Still, I celebrate my choices. Okay, perhaps “celebrate” is a bit strong (the overcompensation of a guilty conscience?), but I have happily come to realize that the time I’ve spent in our TV-watching cabal has not been for nought because, as it turns out, all I really need to know I did not learn in kindergarten, some of it I learned it on TV. Yes, I have actually learned valuable lessons from the handful of unheralded shows I have been watching, and now I feel compelled to share them, so what follows is the first installment of a series entitled Lessons from My TV: What I’ve Learned from

We start with What I’ve Learned from The People’s Court, the syndicated small claims court reality show helmed by the stunning and stringent Judge Marilyn Milian and her stunning and steadfast bailiff Douglas McIntosh.

Only loan that which you can afford to be without…forever.
Polonius famously said, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be/For loan oft loses both itself and friend…” (I.iii.75) There is no way to even approximate the number of cases Judge Milian presides over that are some variation on this theme. There is, however, a pointed lesson I get every time I watch a new one: If you lend someone a car or your favorite sweater or some money, it is very possible, perhaps even likely, that you will not get the car or the sweater or the money back, despite how long you’ve been friends, how closely you are related, how deeply in love you are, or how well intentioned the borrower is when the deal is struck.

Therefore, unless you can afford to replace the car, buy another sweater, or pay your bills given what’s left in your checking account, Just Say, “No.” You may still lose the friend, but in a far less contentious and drawn out manner so that in time you might be able to reconcile. Either way, everyone will be better off in the long run, even if it is uncomfortable and difficult to do in the moment.

Take pictures before and after…
A car repair, an apartment rental, an accident, an attack, a custom-made anything! As Judge Milian is quick to point out, today nearly everyone has a phone that takes pictures, so snap a few shots. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in your court case it could be worth a thousand bucks. At the very least it will serve as tangible evidence of any claims you make if you wind up in front of a judge.

Write down your intent.
Small claims cases are decided by a “preponderance of the evidence,” – see, I told you I was learning things! – which means that to win a case you need only prove that it is more likely than not that what you are saying is true. It also means that you do not need to be a lawyer or write down fancy lawyer terms (like “preponderance of the evidence”) to make your intention clear.

If you and your brother plan to split the rent on an apartment 50/50, write that down. If your favorite aunt is supposed to pay you back for the airline ticket you charged to your credit card for your joint holiday abroad, write that down. (Although, remember, if you can’t afford to pay your bills unless she does pay you back, consider going alone.) And for goodness’ sake, do not conduct business with anyone without a written agreement that you each get a copy of because, as the good judge says, “There is a name for people who conduct their business with oral agreements. They’re called litigants.”

That being said, there is a comforting postscript to this point. Emails and texts can provide legitimate and sufficient evidence in a civil case, so if you have a legal issue with someone and you didn’t write things down in the first place, begin corresponding electronically, rather than verbally, as soon as you get wind that a problem may be at hand.

If a landlord keeps a security deposit without forwarding a written, itemized list of the damages within 30 days, the tenant may be entitled to recover double or treble damages depending on the state in which it occurs.
Yup, your state might entitle you to recover two or three times your original deposit! It’s their way of making landlords think two or three times about wrongfully keeping your money. Great to know, right? So, if you find yourself some day dealing with a landlord who unreasonably withholds your security deposit once your lease ends, google your state’s statute prior to filing a case to see if you are entitled to sue for more than the amount you originally deposited. Now that’s a good reason to take pictures of a rental before you move in and when you vacate!

Lots of people are not learning the right thing.
Every People’s Court case concludes with a brief interview conducted by Curt Chaplin. Often, he will ask the litigants what they have learned from their ordeal, and all too often they will respond that they have learned to never again lend money to a relative, never again help out a neighbor, never again trust a friend. What I have learned is that is not the lesson. That is never the lesson!

And that has taught me this: In general, sweeping absolutes are wildly off the mark. It is worthwhile during or after a conflict to focus more on my role in the disagreement than the other guy’s, to consider how I could have done a kindness without sacrificing a relationship that was valuable and meaningful. That is a good lesson, in fact, good enough to warrant another visit to The People’s Court, which I think is about to begin, as Harvey Levin says, “Right now!”

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