You've seen the TV shows with Judge Wapner, Judge Judy and the like ruling in small claims court. Beyond TV-land, how do you decide if your dispute with a landlord, neighbor or car repair shop is worthy of small claims court?

The Basics

Small claims courts limit claims for damages to a certain amount, ranging from $2,500 to $5,000. Small claims cases typically involve fender benders, property damage, disputes over security deposits, personal debt and lousy consumer goods.

Before heading to small claims court, it's a good idea to try these alternatives:

  • Write a letter asking to negotiate a compromise
  • Resolve your claim through your local Better Business Bureau or state attorney general's consumer protection division
  • Arrange for mediation through a neutral third party in a neutral setting - but you need the other party's cooperation.

Getting Help

While many small claims courts don't allow attorneys in the courtroom, consulting with a lawyer before even filing your case can help. A lawyer can brief you on the law in your state and give specifics, such as any statute of limitations or legal time limits. A lawyer also knows if you can ask for extra damages under state law. For example, some states allow someone harmed by a consumer protection violation to collect up to three times the actual damages.

A lawyer may also help you figure out if you'll collect any judgment. If the other party doesn't have a job or any assets, a small claims case may be a waste of time.

A lawyer can also help you organize your case, and give you tips on strategy and tactics.

If you can't afford a lawyer because of the small amount of money involved, check out free legal assistance from a local legal services office or a law school legal clinic.

What's Next?

If you decide small claims court is for you, check the government listings in your phone book to find the one nearest you. In some states, you must file in the small claims court district in which the other party lives. Ask about filing fees and how much it will cost to serve the other party.

You'll need to go to the small claims court to file a complaint. The complaint includes the person's name and address; a short statement of the basis for your claim, including any relevant dates; and the exact amount of money owed to you.

The complaint has to be served on the other party, usually by certified mail or by a process server. Some small claims courts have their own process servers. The court will expect you to pay any service fees.

After the other party receives the complaint, he or she will file and serve you with a response to the complaint and any counterclaims against you. For instance, if you're suing a former landlord to get your security deposit back, he may counterclaim against you to collect money he paid for repairs.

In some small claims courts, the parties must go through mediation or arbitration before any court hearing. In mediation, a trained mediator helps you and your opposing party work out a solution. In arbitration, the arbitrator acts more like a judge to decide issues after hearing both sides of the story.

If you're going to small claims court, verify the date and time of your court hearing. Let the court know ahead of time if you need an interpreter or some other special help.

You can tip the scales of justice in your direction by getting organized:

  • Organize your thoughts. Make detailed notes on what happened. List the events in the order they happened. 
  • Collect the evidence. Try to back up your case by collecting records, bills, receipts, canceled checks, copies of contracts and written agreements, photos, estimates, accident diagrams and letters written back and forth between the parties.
  • Talk to witnesses about what they saw or know. Are there people who saw the accident? Are there experts such as repairmen who have special knowledge to help you?

In some states, small claims judges allow witnesses to submit sworn statements if they're unable to appear in person. Usually, however, a witness must show up to testify. Arrange to have your witnesses go to the court on the day of the hearing. Write out the questions you need to ask each witness ahead of time.

If there are witnesses who won't cooperate, you can arrange for the small claims court to issue a subpoena, or order, that requires them to come to court. You can also have the court issue a "subpoena duces tecum" to order a witness to produce specific documents at court. In order to subpoena witnesses, the court must have their names and addresses well ahead of the hearing date.

Decide ahead of time which witnesses you will call and in what order. Figure out the best witness to talk about each piece of written documentation.

Try to anticipate what the other party will say in court and plan your response.

The Day of Trial

At the beginning of your hearing, the judge may explain the process and the procedures.

In many states, the formal rules of evidence usually used in other courts may be somewhat relaxed.

The way you conduct yourself in court can greatly affect your chances of winning. Don't try to act like a lawyer; this could end up working against you. The judge just wants to hear what happened, in your own words. Answer any questions the judge has, and don't interrupt the judge while he or she is talking. If the judge suggests a compromise, listen politely, even if you think it's the stupidest idea you ever heard.

Stay calm and polite, no matter how hostile the other party becomes. The judge doesn't want to hear insults tossed about.

Stay focused on the facts. Don't wander off on tangents.

The court needs to know the bare facts of what happened and specifically how you've been damaged. Be exact about the amount of money you claim. 

When the other party presents his or her witnesses, don't argue with them. If you think they're lying, ask them questions that will expose their lies.

The judge may rule on your case on the spot, or may let you know when to expect a decision. Don't argue with the judge, regardless of how the judge rules.

Win or Lose

If you are unhappy with the decision in the small claims court, you might be able to appeal a decision up to the next court level. You probably need to file a notice of appeal and post a bond to assure you'll eventually pay any judgment entered against you.

Procedures for collecting on a judgment vary from state to state, but typically start with filing the judgment with the small claims court.

If you don't know anything about where the other party works or what type of assets they may have, you can set up a time to bring them back into court and force them to tell you about their employment and assets. These proceedings are called "financial disclosure hearings," "information subpoenas" or "supplemental proceedings."

You can then decide whether you would like to try to garnish the other party's wages or bank account, or try to take his or her vehicle, real estate or stocks and bonds. In some states, if the judgment involves an auto accident, you can have a driver's license suspended through the state Department of Motor Vehicles for failure to pay the judgment. In some states, you can get any professional license they may have revoked or suspended if they don't pay the judgment.

With just a little planning and help, you can make small claims court work for you.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I sue a corporation or government office in small claims court?
  • Can I file a lawsuit in my local small claims court against a business that has offices in another state?
  • What if I'm sued in small claims court and want to counterclaim for a much larger amount of money? Do I need to move the case to another court?

Tagged as: Consumer Law, Consumer Contracts, small claims court, small claims court success, US small claims court lawyer