Who Can Use the Small Claims Departments?
Any party over 18 years of age can file a suit in the small claims department. A party may attend in person or through a non-attorney employee. No attorneys or collection agencies are allowed in small claims actions and the use of juries is prohibited.
When to Use the Small Claims Departments
Small claims departments are for money debts, personal injury, property damages, or recovery of personal property valued up to $5,000. Some examples of when you may use the small claims departments are:
- When you landlord refuses to return your security deposit.
- When a laundry loses or damages you clothing.
- When an appliance you bought does not work and the store won't refund your money.
- When someone owes you money on bad checks or past-due bills.
Which Small Claims Department Should You Use?
You must file your small claims suit in the small claims department in the county where the defendant resides or in the county where the dispute arose. For example, if you are suing on a bad check or for payment of labor, you can file your claim either in the county where the bad check was passed or where the labor was contracted for or performed.
How to Start a Suit
If you are filing a small claim, you are called the "plaintiff." If you are being sued in small claims court, you are called the "defendant." In order to start an action in the small claims department, you must file a "complaint" which explains who you are suing, for how much money, and why you claim the money is due. To start your small claims suit, you fill out the small claims form which you get from the court clerk. The complaint must have complete names and addresses, the amount you are seeking, when it became due, and a brief statement of why the amount is owed. The bill must be one owing originally and directly to you. The court clerk will explain the various ways the complaint may be served upon the defendant.
How Much Does it Cost?
There is a $69 filing fee to start a small claims action. This fee must be paid to the clerk of the court before the claim can be started. There is also a fee for serving notice of the complaint upon the defendant. This fee varies depending upon the actual cost of the service. If you win your suit, you are entitled to recover from the defendant the costs of filing the suit and service of the complaint in addition to your original claim. In most cases, the Judge will award you the costs of bringing the suit in your final judgment if you win your case.
Getting Ready for Trial
If you are the defendant and you do not wish to contest the plaintiff's claim, you may make and out-of-court settlement with the plaintiff before the date set for trial. If this is done, the plaintiff should let the court know and file a dismissal form with the court before the trial date. This helps clear the court calendars. If you are the defendant and you agree that you owe the money claimed to the plaintiff and agree with the amount of money the plaintiff has claimed, you do not need to appear in court. Unless a dismissal has been filed by the plaintiff, the judge may go ahead and award a judgment to the plaintiff in your absence by default. If this happens, you will also have to pay the filing fee and service costs so it is better for the defendant to settle out of court with the plaintiff in return for a dismissal of the claim.
Remember, you have to show up at the trial or you will lose the case. If there is some important reason why you can't make it on the day of your trial, call the court clerk and try to arrange a "continuance" to another date.
What to Do at the Trial
There are no juries or attorneys at the trial. It is just a simple, informal hearing before the judge. Try to get to the court early so that you will have time to find the small claims courtroom. If the person you are suing does not show up for the trial, you will probably win your suit by default. If he or she does show up, then the judge will hold a hearing and will have to decide which of the two parties should win the case. When your case is called, you should try to be relaxed and explain, when called upon by the judge, exactly why the person you are suing owes you money. The judge will probably help you by asking questions and you should try to answer the questions clearly and directly. There are usually a large number of small claims cases to be heard and you will have a limited time to present your views.
Collecting Your Money
If the case is decided in your favor, the judge can order the person you sued to pay you the money that is owed. The judge's decision in the case is called a "judgment." If the court has awarded a judgment in your favor, you should ask the defendant to pay you immediately. If the defendant isn't present you should let the defendant know that a judgment has been awarded and request payment.
If the defendant refuses to pay you the money after you have won a judgment and the time for appeal has passed, you may obtain a writ of execution from the court clerk and cause the sheriff of the county to seize any property or wages of the defendant not exempt from execution. A private attorney may assist you with this procedure.
Can You Appeal a Case if You Lose?
Either party may appeal the decision of the small claims department. if you decide to appeal, you must file your appeal within 30 days and the appeal will be heard by a lawyer magistrate, in the magistrate division, as a new trial. At the magistrate court level, you can be represented by an attorney if you desire.