Does someone owe you money and you think you have a case? If you’ve already exhausted every reasonable avenue and feel like you’re spinning your wheels, you may want to try another route. Welcome to small claims court, where anyone can have his or her day in court without a lawyer at their side. Devised to give the average person a chance to present his or her case, it is inexpensive and relatively easy to pursue.
Before pursing a case, “Be sure to write a “demand letter” to the other party, setting forth the payment you expect, and that you will go to court if the other side does not come through,” suggests attorney and legal author Janet Portman. “This letter is more than a formality — many courts all but require that you do so before filing suit in small claims court,” Portman concludes.
Keep in mind that even if you prevail in court and win a settlement, the court doesn’t collect the money for you. Realistically consider the odds of collecting the judgment based on the debtor’s ability and willingness to pay. Defendants who are chronically unemployed, businesses that are unlicensed, or opponents who have no assets of value may present problems when it comes time to collect the debt. Known as “judgment proof,” these adversaries may be out of your reach, verdict and all.
Small claims court is not for everyone — or every situation. The maximum award possible varies widely by state and jurisdiction. In California, it can be as high as $7,500, while in Massachusetts the usual limit is a mere $2,000. Exceptions to the rule based on type of claim and parties involved should be noted. There is also a statute of limitations or time limit in which claims can be filed.
To access the small claims court in your state, type “small claims” and the name of the state into any Internet search engine. Most have links to local courts as well.
If the type of case and dollar amount is in line with your situation and the case seems viable, the next step is to organize and evaluate the strength of your case.
How much should you sue for? In the book “Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California,” an entire chapter is dedicated to this important question. Note that the amount varies based on the type of case, as there are limits on both the amount allowable due to the actual loss and damages. Do some research on the subject, as excessive claims may anger the opposing party, casting a bad light on your case.
Ready to get ready for trial? Keeping evidence in a file or a set place is particularly important. Photographs, receipts, bills, and contracts or leases are important building blocks for your case. Keep in mind you won’t have lots of time to present your case; most folks are given only 10 to 15 minutes to state the situation and present evidence. Take the time to trim down the dialogue as much as possible and stick to the visual evidence that shows how and why you’ve been wronged.
Be prepared to answer any questions that may arise, especially to give specific dates for any details involved. For example, if the judge asks, “When did you move out?” don’t expect respect if your reply is “I think it was a Tuesday in June.” It’s better to say, “I moved out Tuesday, June 5th, 2007.” If you’re asked for proof that you left the apartment in good condition, be sure to have photographs ready, complete with proof of date on or in the picture.
Dress appropriately. While there is no formal dress code per se, the court is not a day at the beach or a cocktail party. Office or work attire is a safe bet, including bringing your file and evidence in a briefcase or satchel. In addition, mind your manners. Be polite to all parties, and look the judge or other party in the eye, paying attention to what is said.
Don’t expect witnesses to always be called upon. It can’t hurt to bring the kind neighbor who saw the tidy apartment you claim to have left, but there may not be time after evidence is presented to question the person.
Once both sides have presented their case, verdicts are either rendered on the spot or mailed within a few weeks by mail. Unhappy with the judgment or feel the verdict was unfair? Once again, read up on the subject. California law allows the court to correct certain errors by vacating or canceling an incorrect or erroneous legal decision. For details, consult your local legal resource.