Small Claims court provides people with an inexpensive way to litigate low-dollar civil disputes quickly, inexpensively and without the need for a lawyer. Most of the time, Small Claims judges are members of the local bar and are themselves practicing lawyers.
Not every type of dispute can be litigated in Small Claims. For example, in many jurisdictions you are not legally allowed to bring a Small Claims action for medical or legal malpractice, or for any divorce claims such as enforcing alimony or child support payments, or for claims arising out of probate. A few jurisdictions also prohibit cases based on libel, slander and false arrest.
In order to bring a Small Claims action, you must be at least 18 years of age. You do not need to be a documented citizen to bring a legal action in Small Claims. The most common types of Small Claims disputes include: breach of contract matters, nonpayment for work performed, damage to property, return of security deposits and claims involving loss or damage to real or personal property.
The major limitation to litigating your case in Small Claims is that the maximum you may recover in terms of dollars is set by state statute. The limit for most states is between five and ten thousand dollars. This means that even if a plaintiff were able to prove damages against the defendant in excess of the jurisdictional award limit, the plaintiff will only be able to recover up to the jurisdictional limit. In these types of situations, the plaintiff might have been better off filing the case in municipal or superior court where the jurisdictional limits are much higher.
In order to bring a small claims action the person bringing the action must file a written complaint in compliance with local Small Claims court rules. The person who is bringing the claim is known as the plaintiff. The person or legal entity, against which the claims are made, is called the defendant. When filing a complaint, the plaintiff has the burden of proof to establish the basic facts such as the defendant’s names, address and a description of the case, the amount in controversy and the factual and legal basis for the claim.
If the defendant is a corporation, solo proprietor or partnership, the complaint should properly identify the legal form of the business. Once the filing fee has been paid by the plaintiff and the defendant has been properly served with a copy of the small claims complaint, the defendant must respond to the plaintiff’s complaint either by denying all or some of plaintiffs claims, asserting a defense to some or all of the plaintiffs claims, and if legally supportable, the defendant is permitted to file a cross complain against the plaintiff. The next step is to get ready for the hearing.
Although the rules of evidence are fairly relaxed, you will do much better if you have a basic understanding of the rule of relevancy. That is, only relevant evidence is admissible in trying to prove or disprove a fact of consequence in the dispute. This can be interpreted quite broadly in Small Claims matters. Notwithstanding, you will do much better at the hearing if you stick with the facts, present only relevant evidence, and conduct yourself as professionally as humanly possible.
One of the major goals is not to alienate the Small Claims judge with matters that do not directly pertain to your dispute. Judges like to dispose of matters quickly – even in Small Claims court. So be prepared to have any witnesses and records you need to prove your case at the hearing. Prepare your questions in advance. Bring original records of any transactions that may help you prove your case. Examples of the types of evidence that is produced in Small Claims matters include: contracts, canceled checks, sales receipts, change orders, leases, repair or replacement estimates – any tangible thing that can prove your side of the case.
Just because you win the Small Claims case does not necessarily mean you will get paid on your claim. What it does mean is that you will have an official written judgment in your favor stating the exact amount owed to you on the judgment by the defendant. You, as the judgment holder, will still need to execute on the judgment by attaching the defendants wages or levying against the defendants bank account. Collecting on a judgment can be very tricky and you do not want to violate the defendant’s rights in the process.
If you lose the Small Claims matter, most jurisdictions allow for some form of appeal. An appeal however must be based on an error in the application of the law to the facts and not on the factual merits of the case.
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