Filing a Small Claims Case
Small claims court provides people with a legal solution to pursue claims worth $10,000 or less. The procedures are more informal and less complicated than pursuing a lawsuit in county or district courts. Many people successfully represent themselves in small claims court, and this article provides a brief overview of what to expect. Only monetary remedies of $10,000 or less, excluding reimbursed court costs, are allowed in small claims court. Claims worth more than that, or claims asking for other legal remedies, such as injunctions resulting in a judge’s order to a defendant to perform a certain action, are unavailable. If you want an injunction or want what is known as “specific performance” then you cannot file your lawsuit in small claims court. For example, if you pay a mechanic $1,500 to fix your transmission and then find out he didn’t fix it, you can use small claims court to sue for your $1,500 but not to force the mechanic to actually fix your car.
Determining where to file your small claims case.
The first step is to determine where to file your case. Generally, you may file in one of two areas: either the county where the defendant lives or makes its business headquarters, or the county where the incident concerning your lawsuit occurred. The venue, or court, will be the justice of the peace court. Some counties have just one justice of the peace court, but larger counties may have many of them, each with its own precinct. Some counties make precinct maps available online, but if you cannot find one then you can also call up any of the justice of the peace courts in that county and ask them to help you. If you provide them with an address, they should be able to tell you if their court or another court is appropriate to file your lawsuit.
Filling out and filing a petition.
To start your lawsuit, you’ll file a petition and sometimes a mandatory information sheet. The information sheet is similar to a cover sheet and tells court personnel at a glance what type of lawsuit you are filing. When writing your petition, try to keep your statements factual and free of emotional or colorful language. Be as specific as possible, and include any relevant dates, amounts, locations, and times from the incident or contract that form the basis of your claim. When you file your petition, you will be responsible for the filing fees, although in some cases a winning plaintiff can seek reimbursement from the defendant for those costs after a judgment. Ask the court clerk if you are unsure what your total filing fees will be.
Having the defendant served.
Most plaintiffs in small claims court choose to have the court handle serving the defendant. Since inadequate notice to the defendant can be used to the defendant’s benefit later on, it’s very important that you provide correct information, to the best of your knowledge, on where the defendant can be located. Once you have filed your petition, it will be served to the defendant along with a citation. The citation is an order signed by the judge, and tells the defendant when the defendant has to file a written answer. The answer is the defendant’s chance to assert defenses and privileges, which are any reasons why he or she believes your lawsuit should not be successful.
Preparing for, and attending, your hearing.
The court will not generally set a hearing on your case until after the defendant has been served. Around two weeks after you’ve filed your lawsuit, call the court clerk and ask if a trial date has been set. Make sure you have the date and time correct—this is extremely important. You must be in court at this time. Sometimes a defendant will fail to show up, and if so, you can win on what’s known as a default judgment simply because you showed up and the other guy did not. When you do show up for your hearing, bring anyone who you will want to call as a witness and bring all of your supporting documentation.
What comes after the hearing.
If you win your hearing, there is still work to be done. An upcoming post here will cover ways to collect on a small claims court judgment awarded in your favor. Another post will cover your rights to an appeal if you lose. Remember, even though you can represent yourself, and many small claimants are successful in doing so, there are some situations where attorney representation is preferable, and there are some types of claims that cannot be pursued in small claims courts at all. If you are in doubt, give the office of Mejias Lindsay PLLC a call to discuss your case.