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Small Claims Court

How to file claims too low for lawyers to handle.

Small claims courts hear disputes involving claims for relatively small amounts of money, usually less than $5,000. Because of the small amounts involved, small claims courts use simplified procedures which generally allow the parties to appear in court without benefit of counsel. Unlike regular civil trials in which months or even years may pass before a trial date arrives, most small claims cases are scheduled to be heard within several weeks after the plaintiff files suit. And while other trials may take days, weeks, or even months to complete, the actual court hearing of a small claims case rarely takes more than a few minutes.

Many small claims courts hear cases after normal working hours so that the parties involved in the suit don't have to take a day off from work in order to appear in court. And while small claims cases are usually heard by a judge, in some jurisdictions they may also be heard by a referee, someone who may or may not be trained as an attorney.

While small claims court procedures vary from state to state, they do share some basic similarities. A person who wants to file a small claims suit should go to the local courthouse. In some locations, you must complete a form provided by the court for your complaint, but other jurisdictions aren't so strict, and as long as the complaint is stated clearly enough so that the defendant will know what claim you are bringing, it will be attached to a summons to be served to the defendant. A clerk of the court will help you complete the paperwork necessary to serve a summons on the defending party.

You will have to pay a filing fee, usually around $20 or so, and you may have to pay an extra fee for delivery of the summons to the defendant. In some jurisdictions, however, process can be served by any adult who's not a party to the suit, or by certified mail, so you may be able to have a friend serve the summons at no charge, or have it delivered by the post office at a minimal cost. If a friend acts as your process server, be sure to have him complete and sign the Proof of Service form and return it to the court. Otherwise, the defendant may later deny ever receiving notice of the summons, and that can delay you in collecting any default judgment awarded by the court.

When the defendant receives the summons, he may be required to file an answer to the complaint, but in many small claims courts all he must do to contest the claim is appear in court on the day of the trial to present the other side of the story. In many cases, being served with a summons to appear in small claims court will prompt a settlement offer that may be acceptable to both parties, and so the case can be dismissed before the trial.

If you and the defendant are unable to settle the matter before the date set for the court hearing, you should appear in the courtroom in advance of the time your trial is scheduled. In fact, many experts suggest attending a small claims court session a few days before your own trial is scheduled, so you can familiarize yourself with the court procedures and the judge's methods of handling cases. For example, some judges take very active roles in questioning the parties and their witnesses, while others pretty much let each party make their own case without a lot of questioning.

Before you go to court, it's a good idea to practice your presentation a few times. Small claims court dockets are usually crowded, and the judge may have to hear dozens of cases in a single session. You want to present your case as succinctly as possible, without going into issues that don't really concern the court. For example, if you have a breach of warranty case, it doesn't really matter to the judge that the customer service clerk you spoke to was rude or unfriendly, or that you weren't allowed to speak to the manager because he was out to lunch when you called. All that matters in a case like this is:

  1. You purchased an item with a warranty;

  2. The item had a defect that was covered by the warranty;

  3. The warranty was still in force when you brought it in for repairs;

  4. The merchant or manufacturer refused to honor the warranty, and

  5. You were damaged by the refusal, since you lost the value of the merchandise and incurred additional expense getting it repaired or replaced.

In addition, you will want to present yourself as a reasonable person seeking a reasonable solution. As a result, it's a good idea to be neatly dressed when you appear in small claims court, although you don't have to get out your best suit or dress for the occasion. Always be courteous to the judge, to your opponent, and to the opponent's witnesses. Shouting, using profanity, or interrupting the judge or other witnesses is a sure way to damage your case, and could even lead to a citation for contempt of court.

When your case is called, as the plaintiff you will have the opportunity to present your evidence to the judge first. If you have witnesses who will be appearing on your behalf, they will be given a chance to testify as to their knowledge about the matter in dispute. You should also have copies of any photographs, papers, invoices, or other correspondence which may help to bolster your case.

Once the court has heard your side of the case, the defendant will be given an opportunity to present his version of the dispute. In most small claims courts, the plaintiff will then get a chance to speak last and rebut any statements made by the defendant. Once the judge has gathered all of the information from both sides, he will render a decision, usually within a few days of the trial. If the court decides the case in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant will be ordered to pay some or all of the amount you have claimed, and may be required to reimburse you for court costs and filing fees in addition to the damages you claimed. But if the judgment is in favor of the defendant, you will not be entitled to receive any payment.

In most cases, you should expect to receive payment of any judgment within a week or two after the court issues its ruling. But if you don't have your money at the end of this period, there are some steps you can do to get the judgment paid.

First, you should send a copy of the judgment to the defendant along with a letter demanding payment. If the amount in question is a substantial one, you may be willing to let him pay the judgment in installments. If you agree to this arrangement, however, be sure to put the agreement in writing, and have the defendant sign it.

If the defendant refuses to pay, you may return to court and request a court order of execution, which commands the county sheriff or other law enforcement official to attach property belonging to the defendant, or to garnish wages. You can often find out where the defendant works and the locations of property such as bank and brokerage accounts, because the defendant will be required by the court to fill out a form listing his assets at the time the judgment is entered against him, and return it to you within a specified period of time. A losing defendant who refuses to complete this form can be guilty of contempt of court, unless he pays you the full amount of the judgment before the time period for returning the form expires.

If you are the loser in a small claims court case, you should be sure to obtain a form known as a "Satisfaction of Judgment" from the clerk of the small claims court. When you pay the amount you owe to the plaintiff, be sure that the plaintiff signs this form. You will then make a copy of the form for your records and file the original with the court, so there is a record of the payment in the event of a later dispute.

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