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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 thing.

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."

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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 show.

Unreasonable expectations?
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 sued.
  • 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 damages, however.

(continued on next page)
-- Posted: Jan. 23, 2004
Read more stories by Jay  MacDonald
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See Also
Dr. Don: staking your claim in small claims court
Alternatives to divorce court
Welcome to our class action lawsuit
Personal finance advice glossary
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