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A Guide to Navigating Small Claims Court

by Angela Wu

A Guide to Navigating Small Claims Court

Is your security deposit languishing in your landlord’s bank account? Have you given up on getting your “friendly” no-interest loan repaid? Maybe your neighbor recently damaged your property or your contractor did a shoddy job on your porch. If you have a legal claim but going to trial seems too expensive or time-consuming, then small claims court may be your answer.

Overview

Small monetary disputes are handled in the state court system, which contains different levels of courts. There are generally three levels: a low-level court, an intermediate court of appeals, and at the top, a state supreme court.1 Within the low-level courts, there are more specialized courts, such as bankruptcy court, housing court, and small claims court.

Small claims courts are designed for low-value disputes, using streamlined and informal procedures that allow you to represent yourself with relative ease. You generally represent yourself in small claims court, and some states do not even allow the option of having an attorney represent you.2

To qualify for small claims, the dollar amount of your claim has to fall below a certain monetary cap, which varies by state, but ranges from $2,500 to $25,000.3

Small claims cases are resolved faster than other types of cases. Trials are quickly assigned for a date within six months of filing, and the actual hearing usually lasts less than a day.

Who Can File: Any individual, partnership, association, or corporation can sue for monetary damages against another individual or business. As the plaintiff, you file a complaint with the clerk at the courthouse and the court will “serve” the defendant for you, or officially notify them of the lawsuit. Common types of disputes include money debts, personal injury, property damage, and breaches of contract.

Who Cannot File: You cannot use small claims court for divorce, guardianship, name changes, bankruptcy, or emergency relief, where you need the judge to issue an order immediately.4  You cannot file a small claims suit against the federal government, a federal agency, or a federal employee for actions during his or her employment. Some states do not allow claims based on libel, slander, or false arrest. You also cannot file if the dollar value of your claim is above a certain amount, which depends on the state you’re in.

Before You File

Here are some things to consider before filing a complaint and becoming a plaintiff in a small claims case:

1. Understand the Drawbacks. The major drawback to small claims court is that decisions are binding. As the plaintiff who is suing, there is no right to a jury trial or option to appeal the decision later. Only the losing defendant has the right to appeal. As the losing plaintiff, you will forfeit any money spent on filling a complaint as well as any legal rights to the money you were pursuing in the first place.5 If you file your complaint outside of small claims, you will be able appeal if you are either the losing plaintiff or defendant.

Another drawback that applies to all suits that go to court, whether small claims or otherwise, is the lack of privacy. Anything said or submitted in court becomes available to the public. Your case can only be sealed by a judge’s special order.

2. Pursue Alternatives. You may want to try mediation or other dispute resolution channels before going to court. They can be scheduled sooner than a small claims dispute, are less expensive, remain private, and can be less damaging to a relationship you may wish to maintain.

-        Talk it Out. Sometimes, a conversation with the other party is all it takes to resolve a dispute.

-        Mediation. A next step is mediation. In mediation, a neutral mediator will help you and the other party find a mutually satisfactory resolution. The process is non-binding, which means that a court cannot enforce such agreements. But the fact that both parties want to honor the agreement means that they usually stick to it. Many small claims courts offer free mediation before going before a judge. Counties and non-profits also provide this service at low or no cost.

-        ArbitrationUnlike mediation, arbitration is binding and can cost more, but nevertheless can take place sooner than small claims court and remain private. (You can find a comparison of arbitration and mediation here.) Just as in small claims court, the arbitrator issues a binding decision if the parties do not come to agreement. Arbitration can be a good option if both you and your defendant want a private, quick, and fair agreement, or if the disputed amount exceeds the monetary cap allowed by your state’s small claims rules. Many counties will have resources that can direct you to an arbitrator. Arbitration costs can be included in the settlement.

Taking anyone to court is an important decision. You must balance a host of factors, such as how this will affect your relationship with the defendant, whether you have the time and money to invest into the case, and your chances of winning or losing, depending on your evidence. But while suing someone is never a decision to take lightly, representing yourself effectively in small claims court is very doable.

Of course, not everyone you have a dispute with is open to alternative dispute resolution. In these cases, small claims court might be your best option.

3. Make Sure You Qualify. Each state has different monetary caps and statues of limitations, in addition to other state-specific regulations.6 The best way to find this information is to search the internet for the small claims rules in your county or call your local courthouse.

4. Ask: Do you have a good case? The goal is to make it as easy as possible for the judge. Present your case in a clear and concise way that will leave a judge no choice but to find that you were wronged and deserve monetary damages. You do not want to leave any room for speculation or “he-said, she-said.”

Be prepared to demonstrate (1) that you have a contract with the other party, whether written, oral, or arising from a situation where a reasonable person would infer a contractual promise; (2) that you performed your part of the contract but the other party did not; and (3) that you suffered economic loss for the other party’s nonperformance.

Many cases come down to reasonable expectations and whether those have been breached through negligence. For example, if you want to sue for faulty construction work or a bad dental job, you should show that they not only violated your expectations, but the expectations of any reasonable person in hiring someone to do that job.

In gathering evidence, be organized and thorough. Bring any relevant contracts, documents or receipts, print photographs and email correspondence, and find witnesses to give statements on your behalf or appear before the court. If the contract was only oral, having witnesses becomes especially significant.

5. Ask: Does the defendant have the money? Just because you win a claim in small claims court doesn’t mean you’ll collect any money. Insolvent or bankrupt defendants cannot be forced to pay if they can prove before the court that they are “judgment proof.” Judgment proof means that the defendant has no income or property that you or a creditor can legally collect. This typically means that the defendant has no assets in a bank account, no real estate, is not working or working at a very low-paying job, and does not have any source of income that is not exempt from creditors.7

If you have a solvent defendant who refuses to pay, you can file with the court to garnish their wages, take from their bank accounts, or put a lien on their real estate or vehicles. Beware of any pre-existing liens on the defendant’s property that might have priority over your lien or any risk that the defendant might soon file for bankruptcy.8 Also know that federal law limits the amount that you or a creditor can take from someone’s paycheck, with some state laws offering even more protection to debtors.9

As you can see, collecting on a judgment can be more work than you expected.10 Fortunately, judgments can be collected up to anywhere from ten to twenty years from the date they were entered, depending on the state. If your defendant has no money now but will have future income, you may be able to collect.

What to Expect 

If you use your common sense and stay organized, representing yourself in court doesn’t have to be intimidating. Most states or counties have detailed FAQs on their small claims court websites to help you, and the clerks at the courthouses are generally available to help over the phone or in-person. In general, here is what to expect:

Filing a Complaint:

-        The Demand Letter. Before you actually file, write a “demand letter.” This is a short, clear letter that explains the events that led to this action, why you are entitled to damages, the dollar amount you are demanding, and a statement that if there is no response within a certain reasonable time period (say 30 days), you will go to small claims court. This can be quite effective and if there is still no response, will serve as another piece of evidence in your favor. Mail it both by certified mail and return receipt requested.

-       Who to Sue. You must know the individual’s full name and address. If you are suing a business, find the legal name of the business and its headquarters address. If the business is out-of-state, you can still sue if it is incorporated in your state, caused damages to you or breached a contract to be performed in your state, or has a physical facility or does regular business in your state.

-       Where to Sue. In choosing the appropriate courthouse or “venue” in which to file your complaint, you need to find the courthouse with “jurisdiction” over the matter. Normally, this will be the county where the defendant lives or works. Sometimes, the county where the events giving rise to the action, where the disputed contract was formed, or where the disputed property is located will also be proper. The clerk at the courthouse can advise you as to proper venue.

-       How Much to Sue For. Depending on the state, damage awards for certain types of claims can be doubled or tripled or even uncapped.11 You can only sue for damages that can be quantified in money. This can include property damage and loss, doctor’s bills, repairs, lost wages from the incident, and consequential damages, which are damages that resulted indirectly from the defendant’s wrongful actions.12 Some states also allow recovery for mental distress or pain and suffering with sufficient proof.13 Remember to add in your filing costs. You can only be awarded, at most, for the amount that you ask for, so it is better to overestimate!

-       Filing. Each state will have slightly different forms and process for filing a complaint. Usually, you can print out the complaint form online or pick up a copy at the courthouse. It is a short, standard form that will ask you who your defendant is, their address, a short statement of events, and the damages you are seeking. The courthouse will then assign a trial date and attempt to serve your defendant with a summons. It is crucial that you have up-to-date addresses for your defendant. Filing fees range from $30 to $75, with some states varying the fee depending on the amount sought on your complaint. A few places have a separate service fee that is not more than $100. If the court does not succeed in serving the defendant, you will not get your filing fee back.

Going to Court

This applies to both plaintiffs and defendants:

-        Dress Up. Dress in a suit or something appropriate for the setting. No t-shirts, shorts, flip-flops, or hats.

-        Bring Your Paperwork. Bring your notice of hearing (that gave you your trial date) and all your supporting evidence, organized for easy reference. Have copies that you can leave with the judge.

-        Plan Your Time. Arrive early and prepare to stay late. Give yourself 30 minutes to go through the metal detectors and find the courtroom. Some courthouses require that you leave your cellphone at security. Depending on how many other cases there are and how long they take, you might have to stay at the courthouse the entire day. Most courthouses will have places to buy snacks and rest.

-        Listen. When you arrive at your courtroom, the presiding judge will begin by listing all the cases to be heard that day. Stand up when he or she calls your name.

-        Address the Judge Correctly. When your case is called, go up to the presiding judge and introduce yourself. Call the judge “Your Honor.”

-        Present Your Case. The judge will ask you and the other party for the relevant information and facts. After hearing both sides’ presentations, the judge might ask clarifying questions. (Note that if your opposing party does not show up, they have “defaulted,” which means a win for you.)

-        Wait for a Decision. The judge will either issue a decision from the bench or give notice of decision by mail.

***

Taking anyone to court is an important decision. You must balance a host of factors, such as how this will affect your relationship with the defendant, whether you have the time and money to invest into the case, and your chances of winning or losing, depending on your evidence. But while suing someone is never a decision to take lightly, representing yourself effectively in small claims court is very doable.

 

  1. The names of these courts vary by state. For example, in California, they are called, in order, the Superior Courts, Courts of Appeal, and the state Supreme Court. In contrast, New York calls the low-level courts the Supreme Courts, followed by the Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals at the top.
  2. For example, California does not allow you to have an attorney in small claims court.
  3. You can find a guide to state-specific small claims limits here, but check the relevant court’s website for up-to-date information.
  4. An example of “emergency relief” is an injunction to stop someone from doing something you claim is illegal.
  5. Another situation where you retain the right to appeal is if you are the plaintiff but the defendant files a “counter-claim” against you. This occurs when the defendant receives notice of your suit against them but files another suit in court, claiming damages from you. If you lose on the counter-claim, you can appeal the decision even if you are the plaintiff who filed the original complaint. For example, if you sue your neighbor in small claims court for running over your dog, your neighbor is now the defendant. However, your neighbor can file a counter-claim against you for the damage your dog did to his lawn. If you lose on the lawn dispute, you can appeal.
  6. If the monetary amount you are seeking exceeds your state’s cap, you can still waive part of it in order to proceed in small claims court.
  7. Income exempt from creditors include those from unemployment benefits, social security, child support, veteran’s benefits, and other public benefits.
  8. If the court enters a judgment in your favor and you become the defendant’s creditor, then with a few exceptions, any obligations towards you will be wiped out if the defendant files for bankruptcy. See 11 U.S.C. § 523 for a list of all exceptions to dischargeable debts in bankruptcy.
  9. Federal law provides that creditors cannot take more than 25% of someone’s disposable income, or the amount that their income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less. See 42 U.S.C. § 1673. Check your state’s laws.
  10. Note that lost income or transportation costs associated with going to trial cannot be reimbursed.
  11. For example, in Massachusetts, you can get double or treble damages for unfair or deceptive business practices and landlord/tenant cases, and damages in auto accident cases have no monetary limits.
  12. For example, if shoddy repairs were made on your car, causing you to have to rent a car, the cost of the car rental would be consequential damages.
  13. However, proving emotional distress can be enormously difficult. Small claims court adheres to the state’s standard for emotional distress and the bar is usually high. For instance, you might need to prove that the conduct of the defendant was intentionally meant to inflict emotional harm or present medical testimony that demonstrates your pain and suffering following from the events leading to your claim. Courts will be able to award up to the small claims limit or the state’s jurisdictional limit, whichever is the smaller. If you have a good case for emotional distress, such as one with medical proof or real adverse consequences resulting from the incident (e.g. losing one’s job), you may wish to go through the normal court process in the low-level courts instead, where there is no cap.

Angela Wu is a Legal Researcher at Shake and a student at the New York University School of Law. On weekends, you can find her rock climbing at Brooklyn Boulders or writing about art and education law.