Often times, when people have disputes that cannot be resolved amicably, they seek legal intervention to reach a settlement. However, most people do not realize that they can do so without the intervention of an attorney. In this article, I will explain the processes and steps that an individual can take in order to file a complaint, try a case and get a rendered decision in their favor.
Nearly every county in the United States of America has what is called a small claims court. These courts are specifically designed and designated for the handling of minor claims and complaints by everyday people such as yourself. All of these courts have monetary limits on the amount that can be sued for in their jurisdiction. In order to find out what the amount is, it is best to call information and request the telephone number for the local county small claims court. Most are located in a municipal building or separte courthouse away from the major civil courthouse. These places have their own judge, court clerk, constable and information secretary who can assist you in filing a complaint, obtaining service upon a complaint, and having the complaint heard before the local magistrate.
In order to prepare a complaint, file a complaint with the court, serve a complaint upon the defendant(s), have the complaint heard before the judge and get a rendered decision, there are few steps and tips that you should know in order to achieve your goal:
1. Locate the Name and Address of the Local Magistrate in Charge of Small Claims in Your Area. This can be easily achieved by dialing information and requesting the phone number for the local small claims court in your township, city, county, municipality or district. If they are unable to assist you, you can request that they connect you with the local non-profit law group in your area who will have that information for free. Most counties or municipalities have such non-profit law groups that can readily hand out this information for free. If such a group does not exist, you can go to a search engine online such as Ask.com or Google and type in your query about where the local magistrate in your town is.
2. Contact the Small Claims Clerk of Court and Request Information on Filing a Small Claims Complaint. This is by far the most important thing that you must do. You cannot just simply call up and say “I want to file a complaint against ‘so-and-so'”. They will just tell you what I am telling you-go down to the office and fill out the paperwork. Simply ask (and do this as nicely as possible because these people field hundreds of phone calls and take a lot of heat and flack from everyone from attorneys to simple folk as yourself) them on their filing procedures and prices. Some magistrates (i.e., district justices in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) may require that the complaint be filed in the jurisdication of where the defendant resides. This makes for service of the complaint much easier for the court (in all small claims cases, it is the court that handles service of the complaint either by restricted mail, certified mail with a return receipt or constable service).
3. Head to the Courthouse and Fill Out the Paperwork. Most times, you must head down to the courthouse and fill out the paperwork. Some courts will mail it to your house along with a list of fees for filing and service of the complaint. If your magistrate does not allow for this, make sure that you have the following:
A. Any documentation that will back up or support your claim. This is what is referred to as “exhibits”, “evidence” or “proofs”. Any time that a complaint is filed, the court will require some form of evidence to substantiate the claimant’s claims. This is usually done when the initial complaint is filed and served with the complaint to the defendant; and
B. The proper amount of money for filing the complaint. The courts will only accept (1) cash; (2) certified funds; or (3) money orders. Personal checks will not be honored! This is to make sure that a check does not bounce.
Once you have filled out the forms and attached any documents that you wish to attach to the complaint, go the cashier and pay the filing and service fees for the complaint. You will have the option of the type of form of service for the complaint. Check with your local magistrate with regard to types of service for complaint and the prices. After you have done that, the court will select a date on their court calendar for the hearing date and time. Note: Some courts designate this as a “default hearing” meaning that once the complaint is served, the pre-selected hearing date is used unless the defendant files a defense with the court. If no defense is filed, the court will enter a “default judgment” against the defendant on the initial pre-selected hearing date and time. You presence may or may not be required at this default hearing date.
4. If the Complaint is Served, Await for a Notice from the Court. Once a complaint is filed, the court will attempt to serve the complaint upon the defendant at the address that you have provided. This is what is referred to as “Service of Process”. If this is successful, you may or may not receive notice of the successful service of process. It is all dependent upon the specific local rules of your small claims court. If this service attempt is not successful, then the court WILL notify you of the failed attempt and request that you provide another address that the defendant can be served at. This may require additional payment of money for additional service attempts. The courts set a time limit on the number of days that it will wait for you to supply a new address. After that time limit expires, your complaint is dismissed for lack of service. If the complaint is served and the defendant files a defense (answers your complaint), then the court may or may not issue a new hearing date and time for the hearing of the claim. Check with your local magistrate to see about the rules for when a complaint is answered by a defendant.
5. If the Defendant(s) Answers the Complaint, Prepare for the Hearing. If the defendant(s) files an answer to your complaint with the court, you will receive notice of same. The court may or may not issue a new hearing date and time, depending upon the local rules. In any event, you must prepare to try the case and present your argument to the judge. There are a few things to remember whenever you do this step:
A. Prepare your exhibits for trial. Make sure that you make enough copies for everyone at the trial (one for the judge, one for the defendant, one for the court records officer and an extra copy just in case). Have your exhibits tabbed, separated and organized in such a manner that it will make it easy for the judge to follow along and read easily through the exhibits without a lot of hard work;
B. Make sure that you dress cleanly and appropriately for the trial. There is an old addage that says “Don’t wear something that you would not want your parents to see you in”. That means for guys, a shirt and tie along with dress pants and shoes is best and for the ladies, a business suit or button down blouse with a plain single color skirt (preferably knee length) with short to mid level heels works well;
C. Tell the truth. There is no substitute for telling the truth and you can never go wrong. Even if you lose the case, you will feel great because you told the truth and held your head high. Also, it is against the law to lie under oath in court and you can be charged as a misdemeanor criminal offense if the judge so feels inclined;
D. Bring witnesses along who can substantiate your case. If someone was a witness to the incident at hand, you will want to bring him/her along with you to the trial and present them as a witness. You do not want to bring someone who will have nothing to add to the case so make sure that this person has additional information that you do not possess from a first hand point of view.
6. Go to the Courthouse on the Designated Hearing Date and Time and Try Your Case. With the preceding advice and preparation that you have made, head to the courthouse and present your argument to the judge. Note: Be on time! The judge will not have patience for anyone who is late and will start with or without you. So make sure you are early and punctual. It will set the tone right for your case.
Once all the facts are heard and the evidence is presented, the judge will take a moment to consider all the information presented in front of him/her and weigh it against the letter of the law. If the judge finds in your favor, you will be awarded your initial claim plus any court costs and fees that were incurred throughout the process. If the judge finds against you, you will be awarded nothing. If the defendant filed a counterclaim (that is, the defendant makes a claim against you in addition to filing an answer to your claim), and the judge finds in the defendant’s favor, the judge will award the defendant his claim amount plus any court costs and fees that the defendant(s) incurred defending himself/herself.
It is important to remember that once a judgment is filed, it is marked as a lien against one’s credit report. The person who the judgment amount is owed to is referred to as the creditor and the person who owes the judgment amount is referred to as the debtor. So long as the judgment amount is unpaid, it is so marked on the person credit report and lowers that person’s credit rating, making it hard for someone to obtain credit. So remember, you do not always need to go to a lawyer for help in resolving a dispute. You can often do it yourself. However, there is nothing wrong with asking for legal advice. If you are unsure, you can always call you local Bar Association and they can forward you to a Lawyer Referral Service for free if you so desire.
Now, go forth and litigate my children!