Every state has its own set of rules and requirements for seeking a settlement through the small claims court system, but the underlying principles and processes are similar.
As a business owner, you generally have the right to file with small claims court for claims up to your state’s maximum. The small claims process is meant to let you resolve smaller civil disputes through the court system without going through expensive formal court procedures.
You should explore all possible payment options before going to any form of court proceedings. This includes negotiations, discussions and possibly collections.
Also, ask yourself the following: Have I tried all possible means to resolve the issue? Do I really have a valid claim? Is it worth the time to go through the filing and court process? Do I have all the supporting documentation the court will require? Does my claim fall under the limit in my state? Do I know the correct legal name and address of the other party? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” forget small claims court.
Make sure you’re really prepared to go to court. Remember, you can consult an attorney and even get an order for payment of the attorney’s fees if you win but it is unlikely that an attorney can assist you in the courtroom. By coming prepared, you dramatically increase your chances of getting a positive outcome. That means having a complete paper trail: receipts, contracts, invoices, letters, e-mails and so forth. You must be able to fully back up your claim.
Next, you need to select the appropriate county small claims court. You may have more than one option. For example, you could choose (1) the court in the county where the person you file a claim against lives or (2) the county where the event that caused the dispute occurred. If you aren’t sure where to file your claim, ask an attorney or contact the county clerk or court clerk in your county for advice.
Next you need to get the appropriate “statement of claim” (or similarly named document) and fill it out completely and accurately. You may need to file other documents as well. You’ll also need to pay a filing fee.
Once you’ve filed, the defendant must be officially notified. This may be through a letter sent by the court’s clerk or in person by an officer of the court such as a sheriff. Fees and processes for notification vary by state.
At this point the court will set a time, date and place for the preliminary hearing (if required) and then the actual hearing. If the defendant fails to appear for any scheduled hearings after the papers have been served, you will likely win by default, assuming that the judge finds your claim has adequate evidence to support it.
You must be present and prepared at the time and date set for your final hearing. Make sure you have all the evidence you are going to present, including papers and witnesses. You may need to have the court subpoena some witnesses.
Each side will get to present their case — evidence and witnesses. A small claims court trial is informal. The judge will simply try to get all of the facts from both parties in order to reach a decision.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Be on time.
- Stick to the facts and issues.
- Be polite and considerate.
- Ask the judge for clarification, but only when it is your turn to speak.
- If you get an offer of settlement during the hearing don’t refuse outright. Instead, ask for a short break to consider it.
Once the judge makes a decision (and it may not happen right there in court) you will be entitled to collect the amount determined by the judge. This amount will normally include your court costs, attorney’s consultation fees and other fees specified by the court.
Collecting may be the hard part. You may need additional court orders, liens or other considerations to actually collect what you were awarded.
Note: The preceding is not legal advice. Always consult appropriate legal counsel.
Janet Arrowood is managing director of Write Source. She can be reached at email@example.com.