How to File A Case in Small Claims Court
When you find yourself in a situation where you are owed money or damages, but on a fairly small scale, you might elect to file a claim in your local small claims court. Small claims courts are available in all US states, and hear cases with financial limits of judgments, ranging from $2,500 to $25,000. Small claim cases include evictions in most states, and some states have different financial limits for eviction judgments, usually higher than the standard limit.
Steps to Take Before Filing a Small Claims Action
Step 1: Identify the Correct Defendants
Identifying the correct defendant or defendants is an important first step, and may require a bit of research, especially if your claim relates to a business. It is possible for businesses to have different legal names than operational names. In these cases, the operational name is the one associated with the brand’s marketing, and is referred to as the “Doing Business As” (DBA) name. Legal actions will most often need to be filed against the correct legal business name. Similarly, some businesses belong to a parent company. A good example may be your local gym that is based in your community, but is owned by a national gym brand. Identifying the correct defendants is more straightforward if you are bringing suit against individuals. Exceptions include suing minors, or seniors that have given power of attorney to another party. If you are filing a claim against a driver that hit your car, you are most likely filing a claim against their insurance. If you are suing someone that is a ward of the state, you will likely be suing the state agency that is responsible for the individual. Not taking the necessary steps to correctly identify your defendant could result in court delays or additional court fees, so be sure to do your homework!
Step 2: Determine the Exact Amount of Your Claim
The main purpose of small claims court is to be able to recoup damages on a fairly small scale. If someone damaged your property, such as breaking your window, you will need to find out how much it will cost to repair it. Most courts will grant you the funds needed to fix something if you can show proof, such as an estimate from a repair service. If the damaged item cannot be repaired, and you can show proof of that, the court may rule for a complete replacement of the item. It is important to note, however, that most courts will not opt to provide you with a brand new item if repair is an option.
It can be very hard to estimate the value of a used item. You can show the court that you spent some time on finding relevant data to back up your claim. Let’s say you are suing a babysitter for damage of an armchair in your home. It would be helpful to provide to the court the initial cost of the chair, how long you have had it, and listings of similar used chairs, with prices. If the item is rare, this will be harder to come up with, but try to find comparable examples anyway, as that will help your case.
If your claim concerns a service that you paid for, but that was not provided according to the terms of the agreement, review records of your payments and anything you received in writing that outlines what you were supposed to receive. Remember to consult emails, website information for the vendor you are suing, and voice mails pertaining to the matter.
Once you come up with an amount you feel good about, compare it to your small claims court’s claim limit. If your claim exceeds that limit, you may need to pursue other legal paths, or reduce the amount of your claim.
Step 3: Send a Demand Letter
The Demand Letter is basically the official warning to the defendant, which you are required by most courts to send. Most people, whether they are individuals or representing a business, do not want to go to court, especially as defendants. Court is time consuming, and in many ways, embarrassing. For businesses, being sued can hurt the brand image, and for individuals, their reputation. Many small claims courts will hold the losing party responsible for court fees, so going to court is a financial risk.
The demand letter should be clear and concise. It should explain why you are seeking payment, provide details about the specifics of the claim and clearly state that non-payment will result in going to small claims court. It should also provide a deadline for payment. It is a good idea to keep a copy of the letter for your records, and to send it certified mail so that its receipt can be tracked.
Step 4: File Your Complaint
If your demand letter does not yield timely results, contact your local small claims court and follow their procedures for filing a claim.
Step 5: Prepare and Present Your Case
Use the information you gathered when determining the amount of your claim and preparing your demand letter to prepare your case. Keep in mind that most small claims suits are expected to be presented in a quick and straightforward way. Do not include information that is not immediately relevant to the claim. Bring documentation of everything you are presenting. Be courteous and polite to the court staff and the judge. Do not speak out of turn or act reactive in any way, and always be honest.