By Trudy Balsamel
What is small claims court? Small claims court is a court presided over by a judge or magistrate. It is a place where people go to settle disputes over small sums of money. There is no need for the participants to have attorneys in most cases and there is no need to have an in-depth knowledge of the law.
It is easy to file a case in small claims court. In some places, there is even a department in which the plaintiff can receive assistance from a clerk in filling out forms.
Filing a claim in small claims court: First you must fill out all necessary paperwork and pay all fees necessary to get a claim filed. There are limits to the amount that you can file for in small claims court. In some jurisdictions, such as New Jersey, you can file small claims for as much as $10,000 but they will be adjudicated in the Special Civil Part of the Superior Court. In some jurisdictions companies suing must file with an attorney. In other jurisdictions, you cannot file a claim against a defendant who is not located within the jurisdiction.
The wording of the claim is crucial because this will be the basis of your case. Be as specific as possible. Make sure that the claim is not wordy because you are only allowed a limited amount of space. Some jurisdictions allow you to attach pages, some do not.
Make sure that you have the defendant’s proper name and address. The claims cannot be served without the proper address and the case can be dismissed if you are suing the wrong entity. Some jurisdictions allow you to add a small amount for administrative fees that reflect the expenses incurred for filing the claim.
Also, be aware that there may be a limit to the number of small claims cases that you can file during a certain period. In New York, you cannot file more than five claims per month and no more than three on any given day.
After the claim is filed: After your claim has been properly filed and accepted by the small claims court, the defendant is served with the papers at the address that has been provided.
Once the court has been notified that the defendant has been served, the case is entered into the docket of the court. The docket is really just the calendar of the court. It indicates which cases come before the court on which days.
Your case will be given a docket number and an appearance date, which will give you the time your case is scheduled to be heard. You will receive notification from the court indicating what these are. Small claims court sessions can be held at night or during the day. It is important to appear before the court on the date and time that have been issued to you.
If you cannot make this date, then you must follow the instructions that the court has issued for rescheduling. If you ignore the date or do not show up your case will automatically be dismissed. It will be extremely difficult for you to get another court date and have the dismissal set aside if you do not show up.
Your court appearance: When your case comes before the court, the names of the plaintiff and the defendant are called. This is the roll call. Any cases where both parties are not present are deemed uncontested and judgment will be entered against any party who doesn’t appear. In other words, if you are not there judgment will be entered against you and the case will be dismissed.
In some small claims courts, there are arbitrators who help the court to settle cases. These arbitrators have the power to hear your claim and to make a decision. You can opt to go before the arbitrator instead of the judge. In some districts once a case has been accepted by an arbitrator, it cannot be appealed. If you opt to go before the judge, be aware that you may have to come back several times before your case is heard.
Come prepared with all of your supporting information in a file, and be prepared to explain it. Be respectful of the court and all of its participants. Adhere to all the rules.
Do not be argumentative no matter what the defendant says. (Usually the defendant will say that the service you provided was horrific and this will generally lose the case for them because the judge will want to know why, if the service was so poor, they remained on it for several months without paying). Simply state the facts and present your evidence.
Address yourself to the judge or the arbitrator because that is the person questioning you. Make sure you keep eye contact with both the defendant and the judge or arbitrator. Do not challenge the defendant no matter what they say. Listen when the defendant is speaking. Take notes and be prepared to rebut what they say.
Be neat and well groomed, but don’t overdress. Business casual dress is fine. You don’t want to prejudice the court against your case because you appear to be so prosperous and the defendant so poor that the judge will think that it won’t hurt you to lose this case. Remember, judges and arbitrators are human too and they are prone to the same impressions as the rest of us.
Once you and the defendant have presented your cases, the court may render its judgment or you will be dismissed. Some courts render judgments later notify you by mail of the outcome.
After the judgment: Once you have received notification of the court’s judgment (and this is assuming that you have won your case), there is generally a waiting period of 30 to 90 days. During this period, either you or the defendant can request an appeal of the decision.
An appeal simply means that you will have to go before another judge so that they can hear the case and render their judgment. Or during this period, the defendant can pay the amount indicated by the court. In some instances, the court can award more than the amount that you have sued for if they find intent to defraud on the part of the defendant.
If the defendant does not pay within the amount of time specified by the court after the decision has been rendered, then you may move the have the debt collected by the authorities. Call the court and make sure that you go through the process needed to collect the claim. There may be other forms that need to be submitted before you can collect on your debt.
When a defendant fails to pay as ordered by the court then they are in contempt of court and are breaking the law. Once you have received payment for the debt either voluntarily or involuntarily, you must inform the court that the debt has been paid off.
It maybe a good idea to go and sit in on some sessions of the small claims court prior to your own case coming up to get a feel for how the court functions and what will be expected of you. Get all of the proper information before you file, including which forms to use, where court will be held, and where to file.
I have had tremendous success with the small claims court. We have not lost a case because we come prepared for any question that may arise. I have also found that we actually have to go to court against one to three percent of the cases that we have filed. The reason for this is that when the plaintiff sees that we are very serious about the collection of this debt they want to settle with us rather than have to go to court.
We are aggressive and we do not wait forever to get into small claims court. We will send a letter to any clients who are behind on payments, giving them five to 10 business days to respond. If we do not receive a response, we will call the office to follow up. If we do not receive payment, we immediately go to court. We do not badger them for payment.
There is nothing to be nervous about when going to small claims court. If you are prepared, the process is very simple. Use it as a tool to help you collect your debt. It is very powerful. The judge will be an advocate for your case if you present it well and are prepared. But remember that small claims court should be your last option for the collection of a debt.
Trudy Balsamel is the vice president of AnswerNet Network’s Robertshaw Communications Division and is an Owner Plus One in its Signius Division. Trudy has more than 10 years of senior operations and forensic accounting experience in the answering service business and is a graduate of Princeton University. She can be reached at Trudy.Balsamel@Signius.com or at 609-588-0835. Visit AnswerNet online at www.answernet.com.
[From Connection Magazine – Jan/Feb 2003]