Appealing a small claims court decision is very limited for both plaintiffs and defendants. In many states, only the party who was sued in a small claims action can appeal; the party who filed the action may not. In some states, a small claims court decision may be filed only if there was a mistake of law, not a mistake on the facts of the case. This is very different from filing a lawsuit in the civil court where either party may appeal the decision of the court.
There is typically a very short time within which to appeal a small claims court decision, generally ranging from 10 to 30 days after the decision was rendered.
Very few small claims court decisions are appealed, in part because the expense of appealing the decision coupled with the additional time spent is seldom justified. There is added expense whether or not an attorney is hired for the appeal.
On appeal, the claims of both parties to the small claims court action are heard all over again, only this time by a judge of a higher court. The judge is required to conduct the appeal in the same informal manner as was used in the small claims court. Each party should be prepared to present his or her side of the case, and bring along all of the supporting witnesses and documentation that were previously presented.
Hiring an attorney for the appeal
A party may be represented by an attorney on appeal of a small claims court decision, which is different from the small claims court action itself, in which a party may be represented by an attorney only in very limited situations, such as when a corporation is being sued in small claims court. The reason an attorney is allowed on appeal is that appeals from small claims court decisions are heard in formal court. And although attorneys are allowed for small claims court appeals, the court proceedings remain informal, as with the small claims court trial itself. It will be up to you whether you decide to hire an attorney for an appeal.
You are not necessarily at a disadvantage representing yourself on appeal. This is true because of the informal rules at the appeal which places the average person on fairly equal footing with an attorney. You are the one most familiar with the facts. Providing you have prepared carefully for the appeal, you may even have an advantage if you have an honest belief in your case, compared to an attorney who is likely only a hired gun but who must also work within the informal manner, which may place an attorney at a disadvantage.
One way to prepare to appeal without an attorney is to watch a few small claims appeals in the court in which yours will be heard. This will give you an idea of what to expect and what will be expected from you.
If you do chose to hire an attorney and you win your case, you may not have to pay for attorney fees. In some states, where one party prevails both in the small claims court and higher courts actions, the higher court judge may award any attorney’s fees actually incurred and actual loss of earnings and transportation in connection with the appeal to the prevailing party. Additionally, if the higher court determines that the appeal was not based either on good faith or substantial merit, but only to harass or delay, the court may order sanctions against that party.
Sampling of State’s Rules
Whether a small claims court action may be appealed varies from state to state. The following is a sampling of several states’ rules for appealing a small claims court action:
- California. Only the defendant may appeal. Plaintiff may make a motion only to vacate the court’s decision based on a clerical error or a legal mistake.
- District of Columbia. Either side may appeal for review of the law, not the facts, within 3 days of the judgment.
- Massachusetts. By defendant only for new trial within 10 days
- New York. Only the defendant may appeal, for review of the law, not the facts. The plaintiff may only appeal if “substantial justice” was not done. Appeal must be made within 30 days.
- South Dakota. Appeals are not allowed.
- Texas. By either side for new trial within 30 days.
- Vermont. By either side for review of the law, not the facts, within 30 days.
For information about each state’s rules regarding appeals in small claims court, go to the Consumer Affairs Web site.