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Legal Grind® presents

The Little Law Book

by Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, J.D
Illustrations by Daphne San Jose

Legal Procedures and Courts


Small Claims Court

Let' s say Sam takes eight shirts to the cleaners. Five of them are fine, but three are ruined. The cleaners will assume no responsibility for the damage. What can Sam do? Sue buys a new table. When she gets home, she discovers many scratches on it. The store won' t take it back.

Betsy' s landlord won' t return her security deposit after she moves out of the apartment.

In these cases, and countless others like them, what can folks do? They have several options, such as: they can try to settle the problem with the other side, forget about it, or sue in small claims court.

Small claims courts are designed to provide an informal, fast, and inexpensive way to settle disputes. They are used in uncomplicated civil cases that involve relatively small dollar amounts. Generally, a person can sue someone without using a lawyer. However, it may be worthwhile to consult a lawyer before proceeding with a case, to assess the case and strategies to use.

The first and very basic issue is: Do you have a case? That is, do you have a 'cause of action?' Remember, just because something bad happened does not mean it' s anyone' s fault legally. Just because you are (even rightfully) mad doesn' t mean the court can help you.

The basic question is: Has the ∆ done a legal wrong for which the Π can sue? Usually, this means that you have to sue on a legal theory, such as negligence, breach of K, implied warranty, and so on.

Every state sets its own maximum for which someone can sue in small claims court. These maximums range up to $5000 or so. Check state limits! To find out the maximum in any state, call the clerk of the small claims court.

As well, on the web, use a search engine to take you to ìsmall claims court,î where many states provide information.

In these courts the judge or arbitrator decides the entire matter: both the facts involved and the applicable law. In some states parties may appeal these decisions to higher courts; in others they may not.

Here is a summary of the procedure involved:

  1. The plaintiff (Π) fills out a complaint or claim against the defendant (∆). This document states the basic facts and what the Π seeks to win. Many times the court has a standard form that should be used. Contact the clerk to get one.
  2. The Π pays a filing fee to the court. If the ∆ loses, he may have to reimburse the Π later.
  3. The Π gets a hearing date and a case number from the clerk.
  4. The Π gets the complaint delivered to the ∆, usually by having the clerk mail it with a summons or by having the sheriff deliver it. The summons orders the ∆ to answer the complaint by a certain date. It is the Π' s responsibility to have the complaint delivered by any means necessary, as he cannot proceed in court without that. Remember the basic due process notice requirements in American law!
  5. The ∆ may offer to settle the case or may, in some states, file his answer (also called ìresponseî). In some states the ∆ need not file an answer at all. At this time the ∆ may choose to settle or use the answer to prepare his case.
  6. Either party may ask the clerk for a continuance (postponement) if he/ they cannot appear in court on the assigned date.
  7. On the assigned date, both parties should appear in court at the proper time. Otherwise they risk losing by default. As in sports, if one side fails to appear, s/he may lose and get a default judgment against her or him.
  8. Both parties should prepare their case by having the appropriate documents and witnesses. Documents may include sales slips, photos of damage, advertising that was relied on, letters, and anything else that may prove the case.
  9. Depending on the judge or arbitrator and state where the case is heard, both parties may be allowed to present their story (with the Π going first), present witnesses, question the witnesses of the other side, answer the questions posed by the judge or arbitrator, and so on.
  10. The judge or arbitrator may announce the decision at the end of the hearing or may send it within a few days. If the Π wins, he will get an order, called a judgment, against the ∆ for a specific amount of money or another form of payment. The ∆ now becomes the judgment debtor.
  11. Now starts the challenge of collecting on that judgment! Remember: Procedures vary from state to state. Visit a small claims court in your area to see how the process works. It' s the best way to prepare for your day in court.
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