Getting justice in small claims court
You say your tenant ran out on
six months back rent, your remodeling contractor never finished
the job and your ex-roommate conveniently forgot to reimburse you
for those prime NFL season tickets?
Don't get mad, get even -- in small claims court.
America's people's court remains one of the most popular
dispensaries of good old-fashioned, face-to-face justice going today.
For a small fee, you can haul your debtors into court
and plead your case before a judge without costly lawyers who talk
like they've seen one too many episodes of "Law & Order."
But before you open that can of legal whup-'em on
your adversaries, beware. The small claims process has some surprises
that they don't tell you about on "Judge Judy," the most
frustrating being that collecting after your court win isn't a sure
The trouble with Judge Judy
"From those TV shows, people expect the court to collect the
judgment for them, that there's some room there where payment is
made," says W. Carlton Calk, clerk of the General District
Court in Charlottesville, Va. "That's not the way it works."
That's right. Even though the judge may rule in your
favor, it is entirely up to you to collect that judgment amount
from the defendant.
And in small claims court, the judgment always means
money. Unlike other courts and some "reality" TV courtrooms,
small claims courts cannot order the defendant to do, or cease doing,
anything (some states do allow for eviction, however). In fact,
if you can't put a dollar figure on your disagreement, you can't
even file a small claims case.
"We had one case where a bride-to-be had had
a nose job done before the wedding and when the wedding didn't happen,
she wanted the money back," says Joanna Sullivan, bailiff for
the Denver County Courts.
It's those real-life, stranger-than-fiction cases
that continue to fuel the televised trial phenomenon. In fact, TV
crews routinely scour Denver County and other small claims courts
for actual cases. When they spot an offbeat one, they offer to fly
both parties to Los Angeles, all expenses paid, to appear on the
Have Judge Judy and her judicial brethren given the public unrealistic
expectations of small claims court?
"Yes, people come in thinking they're going to
get screamed and yelled at," says Becky King, a judicial law
clerk for the Colorado Supreme Court who teaches a free public seminar
on small claims. "I tell them there is no Judge Judy in there.
On the other hand, they do need to understand that there is a judge
and they will tell you you're done, sit down, stop talking."
And be careful whom you sue: If you knowingly file
a small claims case against someone who is in bankruptcy, they may
have legal grounds to sue you.
Want to make the most of your day in small claims
court? Here's how.
Big news about small claims
The big news about small claims is they aren't so small anymore.
According to the legal Web site Nolo.com, although
most states still cap the claim amount between $3,000 and $5,000,
Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota and South Carolina have bumped it to
$7,500; Pennsylvania and South Dakota to $8,000; New Mexico to $10,000;
and Delaware, Georgia and Tennessee have raised it to $15,000. In
two Tennessee counties, the limit is a whopping $25,000. Before
filing, check with your county to find out the statue of limitations
for filing a claim.
For a nominal fee, usually $50 or less, you can file
a small claims suit by filling out forms provided by the county
clerk or small claims administrator. You must file in the county
in which the defendant resides, does business or where the dispute
occurred, or your suit will go nowhere. The Web site www.courts.net
offers links to courts across the nation.
At minimum, you will be asked to provide the following:
- Full name and address of defendant/company being
- Exact amount of money you are claiming.
- Reason for your claim.
- Date and details of the dispute.
If your suit involves a breach of contract or
property damage, you may be able to include interest in your claim
amount. Small claims courts typically do not allow for punitive