Small Claim Court

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Did you know that about three quarters of the plaintiffs in small claims court win? That doesn't mean the judges are biased. A more likely reason is that people don't bring a matter to small claims court unless they have a good case. But it does mean that you should consider small claims court as one way to "right wrongs."

Small claims courts vary considerably from state to state and sometimes between cities or counties within a state, but they are all intended to resolve smaller cases quickly and inexpensively. Parties generally are not represented by attorneys, procedures are much less formal than in regular courts, and a judgment is rendered after one short hearing. Appeal rights are limited. Judges tend to do what seems fair in the individual case and not let legal technicalities or precedents produce unfair results. They tend to reward people who have acted reasonably and tried to compromise, and to punish parties that have taken advantage, "stone-walled" or acted unfairly.

Sound good? Here are the sorts of cases often brought to small claims court by individuals:

  • Your landlord won't return your security deposit after you move, perhaps because he claims cleaning or repair expenses
  • An attendant damages your car in a parking garage
  • A store won't replace a defective appliance
  • A (former) friend won't pay a debt
  • You paid a lot of money but the car still isn't fixed

What to Do:

  1. First, try to settle your dispute without resorting to court. To have a sound case you must bend over backwards to be reasonable and open to compromise.
  2. Learn the limits of your local small claims court. Most can award only money, and only up to a certain amount. That is, most courts can't order the laundry to buy you a new suit, only to pay you for the damaged one. If your car suffers $2,000 damage and the court's limit is $1,500, you have to decide whether the speed and low cost of small claims court is worth limiting your recovery to $1,500. Limits range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and are often changed, so be sure to check. Just call the small claims clerk and ask. Most clerks are used to helping individuals, like you, who are unfamiliar with the procedures. Most courts have a pamphlet that explains the process and gives tips on preparing your case.
  3. Decide whom and where to sue. If you're suing a business, it may not be enough to name the store. You may need to sue the owner or the business license holder. If a license isn't displayed, contact the local licensing bureau or county clerk. You can always sue where the defendant lives or does business. You may also be able to sue where the damage occurred or the contract was made. If you can't locate the defendant or he can't pay you even if he wanted to, there's little point in suing. You won't be able to collect.
  4. File your claim. Get the form from the clerk. Don't be intimidated by any legalese you encounter. All you generally need is the defendant's name and address, the amount of your claim and a short explanation of it. The complaint is not the place for anything lengthy. You will have to pay a modest filing fee and a fee for serving (delivering) the complaint to the defendant. Service by certified mail is permissible in some places and is less expensive than service by the sheriff or marshal.
  5. Prepare your case. Your case will probably be heard a few weeks after your complaint is served. The court will notify you of the time and place. If you have witnesses, be sure to have the court subpoena them (order them to appear), even if they're friends. The subpoena will keep them from backing out, will excuse them from work, and may entitle them to paid leave. Outline your presentation and make sure you have the documentation you need. You can get some valuable advice from your Union Plus Legal Service program attorney. Visit the court if you can to familiarize yourself with the place, the procedures, and the judge(s).
  6. Present your case. Many are settled after a complaint is filed, particularly if you're suing a business. The owner, manager, or lawyer often will decide it isn't worth fighting you any longer, especially if you have a strong case. It is also common, particularly when suing an individual, for him or her not to show up. If that happens, you'll usually get a default judgment that your opponent will only be able to overturn if he can prove he didn't know about the hearing.
  7. Let common sense guide your presentation. Be organized, logical and reasonable. Be yourself. Don't try to imitate Perry Mason. Don't show too much anger or frustration. Never interrupt your opponent, a witness, or the judge. Be prepared for the judge to notify you later of his decision rather than at the conclusion of the hearing. Some judges feel that gives the parties time to cool off.
  8. Collect your money. If you've done your research properly, your opponent will be able to satisfy the judgment. If he can't, you probably shouldn't have bothered suing. (Revenge is a bad motive.) Unless you know he will resist, give your opponent a week or so to satisfy the judgment "voluntarily" before writing a polite request. If another ten days pass, ask the court clerk for advice on collecting your money. The terms and procedures vary somewhat, but you generally can either garnish wages or attach property. You may be able to have the court haul the defendant in to disclose his assets, but the procedures are cumbersome. It's better to know beforehand where he works or banks. Usually, you'll have gotten what you wanted long before this stage is reached. If not, you should sooner or later be paid out of either his paycheck or property.

Source: National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services.


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