Preparing A Claim
all the information and evidence before you file.
The small claims process
can be broken down into four basic parts: preparation, filling out the
Initial Claim form, filing the Initial Claim form, and having your
hearing in small claims court.
Above all, never be
reluctant to call the court clerk to obtain new information or verify
current beliefs. When you call, state who you are and what your
objective is. For example: "Hello this is Ms. Demonet, I am an
individual, nonincorporated person, and I live in Downtown Brooklyn;
the party I want to sue in small claims court is an incorporated
entity who resides in Queens. What is the closest court to me in which
I can file an Initial Claim form, and what is the fee for
Before filing your
claim, verify the following information:
That the person you
are suing is not a minor – i.e., under 18 years old;
That the person you
are suing is the person who is responsible for the payment of your
bill or can be held coresponsible for the payment of your bill;
The correct name and
address where the person you are suing works or where the person
lives; you must have at least one of these two items, otherwise
the Initial Claim form cannot be filed. (A post office box number
is not acceptable.)
PLANNING TIP One
approach that I have used successfully is a search of the voter
registration records: Every county has an office for its board of
elections, which keeps a record of the name, address, and birth
date of every registered voter in that county. Under the Freedom
of Information Act you are legally entitled to have this
information. You can go to the office of the Superintendent of the
Board of Elections (or mail in your request, cost $1 to $3) and
ask for the current address of the plaintiff.
employer's name and address. You must have this item, or obtain it
later, to garnish the debtor's wages.
The correct name of
the person you intend to sue.
If you are suing an
individual, be certain you use the correct first and last name.
Nicknames and initials are not accepted. On the other hand, if you
are suing a corporation you may wish to sue both the corporation
and its manager-owner.
If you are suing an
(unincorporated) proprietorship, you would sue John Smith d/b/a
(doing business as) Smith Hardware. The name of the person under
which an unincorporated proprietorship is registered can be found
in the county clerk's office in which the business is located. All
legitimate business owners must register their businesses. The
owner must file an X201 Business Certificate, also known as a
d/b/a/ or assumed name certificate, in which he provides the name
of the principal owner(s) and the real name under which the
business operates. For example in the county clerk's office in
Brooklyn you can use the computers they provide at no cost to
access the information on the business certificate if you have
either the name of the business or its address. The clerk's office
started computerizing this information beginning March 1992. If
however a business was opened prior to this time, it was
registered by name in alphabetical order in large registry books,
which makes it a bit more difficult to gather the real name of the
business and its owner. You must first get an index number from
the large registry book and then go to another nearby room to pull
the business certificate to see it.
When you sue a
corporation or partnership, keep in mind that some of them use
assumed names and that obtaining the correct name of the entity
will make later proceeding much easier.
you sue a corporation, you must first obtain the name under which
the corporation is registered. This information is readily
available from the Secretary of State, who keeps records of all
corporations doing business in the state.
That the court you
want to sue in has the jurisdiction, or power to hear the case,
and whether there are other more convenient courts that you could
Be sure of the
That you have the
debtor's correct Social Security number (very helpful, especially
in beginning the garnishment process and locating the place of
employment and other useful information)
That you have a
proper Statement of Claim (cause of action): See for a list of
most, if not all, of the causes of action in small claims court
That you have
assembled the proof that you are going to place before the judge
or arbitrator to substantiate your claim of monies owed to you.
A winning case can be
Signed contract or
documents showing the agreed upon fee for the service or cost of
the goods; lacking a valid contract, a written version of your
oral agreement with the defendant
ledger card (statement of the account) showing payments made and
the balance due
Canceled checks and
checks returned for insufficient funds, account closed, etc.
Treatment or account
All bills and
receipts that were incurred as well as any other documents that
are relevant to the case (e.g., letters to and from the plaintiff
Witnesses who are
willing to come to court to give relevant testimony on your behalf
as well as witnesses who may be unwilling to be present
An itemized bill or
invoice, receipted or marked paid; or itemized estimates from at
least two other places of business for plaintiffs who are seeking
reimbursement for replacement of goods or repair of the damage or
The item or object
If possible, the
plaintiff should make efforts to identify the reasons why the
defendant is refusing to pay the bill or otherwise compensate him.
This will help the plaintiff determine what is the best proof to
document his claim. In my early case presentations at hearings before
the arbitrator I would bring far more than was needed. Slowly I
learned that arbitrators were not inclined to examine dental models, X
rays, and photographic documentation. In plaintiff-defendant cases
where workmanship is at issue, if the defendant actually comes to the
hearing to contest your claim, he must support his claim in a
substantive way. That cannot be done by simply making allegations or
offering letters obtained from so-called experts. The experts must be
present to give testimony. In essence each provider of a service must
decide the nature of the proof required to support his case. Rarely,
if ever, will that proof need to be of a technical nature, at least
not in small claims court.
Finally, it is wise to
have recently sent a request for payment of services; regular mail
will do. Certified, return receipt will prove they received it.
WARNING If you
are an incorporated entity or business, it is mandatory that you first
mail (certified, return receipt requested) a "demand letter"
to the debtor. In the demand letter you make your request for payment
and state your intention to sue if you are not paid; then you may file
the Initial Claim form. The demand letter must be sent at least 10
days before filing the Initial Claim form. A letter that is sent more
than 180 days before filing the claim is not valid. There is an
affidavit on the back of the Initial Claim form that you must sign
attesting to the fact that you have sent a demand letter.
Once you have found out
the information listed above and have assembled your supporting
evidence you are prepared to initiate your claim.
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