If you feel that you have been wronged by a business or service-provider and that entity refuses to compensate you, you may feel you have no recourse. Sometimes, your repeated efforts to contact the business go nowhere, or the business just won’t budge on your claims. In that case, there is one last resort you can turn to, small claims court.
What is Small Claims Court?
The legal name for small claims court is magistrate court, and it is where regular individuals can go to settle relatively small civil disputes. The whole point of small claims court is to be accessible to regular folks with minor disputes. A minor dispute is defined as a plaintiff requesting damages under a certain dollar limit. In most states that limit ranges from $2,000 to $10,000, though in a few states you can recover up to $15,000 in small claims court. The filing fees are similarly low, usually under $100. The goal is to lower the barriers to filing so that individuals with small complaints aren’t priced out of an opportunity for justice.
Before You Go to Court
Going to court should be a last resort for two reasons. First, if it’s at all possible to resolve your dispute outside of court, it will be a lot easier than going to court. Second, by the time you get to court, you will need to show documentation of your grievance. If you have documented your attempts at resolving the issue outside of court, you’ll have better chances when you actually go to court.
Before you go to small claims court, you want to create documentation of your grievance. Without out it, it is unlikely you will get a judgment in your favor. Take photographs of any damage, unfinished work, or whatever else you are suing about. Keep copies of contracts, invoices, canceled checks, and other paperwork you may have. Finally, try to work out your dispute in a way that leaves a paper trail.
If you are working with a legitimate business, try to escalate your complaint to a supervisor, manager, or whoever has the most power to solve your problem. If you aren’t getting a helpful response, send a letter. Make sure to keep a copy of the letter for your records. If you get no response, send a second letter with the first letter attached. Again, keep a copy for yourself. If you still don’t get a response, send one last letter by certified mail. Sometimes, just receiving a certified letter is enough to let a company know you mean business, and they will act to resolve your issue. If not, you will have evidence that the letter was received and that you still got no response.
Once you have documentation and evidence that you have been wronged and that the business is not acting in good faith to resolve the issue, you are ready to head to court.
Filing your suit should be relatively simple, but you’ll need to figure out which court to file in. The court to file in is the county in which the business or its agent is located. You can get a real business address for most businesses from the secretary of state website. Once you know which court you’re going to, check the court’s website to find out how to file. If you have questions, you can call the courts. If you aren’t getting useful information, go to the court in person. You are likely to get the most help when talking to a clerk face to face.
After the case is filed, the sheriff will deliver the lawsuit to the business or individual you are suing. You’ll get a court date, and you are all set to go.
One secret that most people going to small claims court don’t know is that often the judge you see in the courtroom isn’t actually a real judge. They have been appointed by the courts to oversee small claims cases, and their primary goal is to get the parties to work it out without issuing a judgment. If you don’t think you can work it out without a judgment, just hold your ground until the judge is convinced this will not be done without them.
Present all of your evidence and calmly make your case. Usually, the judges are reasonable and will make a fair ruling. An honest business may actually pay the settlement on the spot. In other cases, a more sophisticated business may hire an attorney to show up in their place. Often, these attorneys ask for a delay of the case. We’ve seen attorneys ask for delay after delay, hoping you will get frustrated and give up the case.
After the Judgement
Just because you get a judgment in your favor, you aren’t necessarily going to get paid. If a business does not pay voluntarily, you will need to get the sheriff to place a lien on real property to get your money back. Some states will also allow you to garnish wages or bank accounts. All of this takes some extra time and work. If you are suing a business or individual with no assets, or the individual you are suing skips town, there’s not a lot the sheriff can do, even with a ruling in your favor.
If you really feel like you have been wronged and a business is not making it right, you can go to small claims court. But it’s a time-consuming process, and even if you win, you may not get your money without additional time and labor. It’s always best to work with a business to resolve your claims without having to sue them. However, we have also seen cases where just serving a business with a lawsuit is enough to bring them to the negotiating table.
If you have a dispute with a business that won’t work with you, contact TrustDALE. We’ll do what we can to help you, so you can avoid the courts and get the resolution you deserve.