Take 'Em to Court: Suing in Small Claims Court

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The purpose of small claims court is to allow people to bring relatively minor claims before a judge without incurring considerable expense in the form of attorney's fees and court costs. By its very nature, small claims court is a simple, inexpensive and reasonably fast alternative to a full-blown lawsuit.

So, why do people end up in small claims court? These are just a few of the reasons why people typically go to small claims court to resolve their problems:

  1. To recover a security deposit: If your landlord fails to return your security deposit to you after you have vacated his property, you may have to take him to small claims court.
  1. To recover unpaid rent after a tenant vacates a property: If you still owe back rent when you vacate your landlord's property, your landlord may take YOU to small claims court.
  1. To recover for medical bills after an injury accident: Say you trip over a toy your neighbors' bratty kid left in the middle of your driveway, break your ankle and have to go to the emergency room. If your neighbors refuse to pay the emergency room bill, you may have to take them to small claims court.
  1. To recover money spent to repair or replace damaged or destroyed personal property: If your neighbors' bratty kid throws a tantrum, hurls a toy at your brand new Mercedes and scratches the paint, and the neighbors refuse to pay for repair of the scratch, you may have to take them to small claims court.
  1. To recover a relatively small, unpaid debt: If your neighbors borrow $500 to enroll their bratty kid in anger management classes, and then fail or refuse to repay you, you may have to take them to small claims court.

The first thing you'll need to do to sue in small claims court is to find out whether your claim meets the small claims court's jurisdictional requirements. Each state has established a maximum monetary limit ranging from $2,000 to as high as $5,000 or $10,000. If your dispute exceeds your state's limits, then you may have to file your case in a court with a higher jurisdictional limit, such as superior court.

On the other hand, if your case barely exceeds the maximum, you may wish to waive the excess amount in dispute. For example, you are owed $5,500, but the law only allows an award of $5,000 in small claims court. You can decide it is worth it to you to sue for only $5,000 rather than have to incur higher court costs or substantial attorney's fees.

Once you've decided that small claims court is the right place for your case to be heard, the next step is to determine the proper county for filing your claim. Proper "venue" for a court case is determined by a number of factors and depends on the nature of your claim. For example, if you are involved in an automobile accident, proper venue generally lies in the county in which the defendant lives or in which the accident occurred. If you entered into a contract, proper venue is usually in the county in which the contract was formed. If you need assistance determining the proper county for filing your claim, many counties have small claims advisors who will be able to assist you.

Now that you have a proper county for filing your claim, you will then initiate a lawsuit by filling out and filing the appropriate paperwork with the court clerk.

Once you have completed and filed your paperwork, the clerk will assign you a hearing date. The clerk will also, in most states, serve the defendant by certified mail with a copy of your claim documents and notice of the hearing. If you are required to serve the defendant yourself, you may pay a nominal fee to your local county sheriff's department to serve the documents for you, or you may hire a process server to serve the documents. Because you are a party to the case, you may not serve the documents yourself.

Make sure the defendant receives copies of all documents filed with the small claims court and any other documents that are required to be served. Once the documents have been served, you will be required to file a "proof of service" with the court so that the judge knows the defendant received proper notice of the hearing date.

While waiting for your hearing date, gather all documentation that in any manner supports your claim. Appropriate documentation may include contracts, letters, receipts, cancelled checks, memos, even photographs. If you are not sure whether a document is relevant, include it anyway. If you don't include it, and if your luck is anything like mine, that single document will be the only document the judge wants to see.

Organize your evidence and make several copies to take with you to court. You may be asked to provide copies to the judge, to the landlord or even to the clerk or a court reporter. Make sure your documents are organized so that you can locate any document to which you need to refer quickly and easily. By simply being the best organized litigant at the hearing, you will have a huge advantage over the defendant.

At the hearing, take your cues from the judge. When asked to do so, state your case clearly and concisely. Do not ramble--get right to the point. Do not interrupt the defendant or, heaven forbid, the judge--always wait your turn. Most of all, be prepared. Make sure you have answers ready to any question that may arise, even (and especially) regarding those issues that may be damaging to your case. Make sure you have documentation or evidence to support all of your answers and claims.

If you follow these steps, you will give yourself the best possible chance of prevailing on your claim.