Small claims court is designed to be a quick and easy way for you as a consumer to get a fair shake when a business or individual has wronged you.
Recently, we’ve been hearing about consumers who have sued Equifax in small claims court following its massive data breach. And you know what? The little guys are actually winning in many of the cases!
But before you turn to small claims court, which is also called magistrate’s court, here’s what you need to know…
Suing in small claims court: What you need to know
The idea of going to small claims court may seem intimidating at first. But if you understand what the process consists of, then you can decide if it’s the right move for you.
When should you use small claims court?
The road to small claims court should be a long one that you proceed down haltingly.
Let’s say you have a consumer issue of some kind. It could be somebody reneged on a contract obligation and failed to deliver a service or product, or a merchant egregiously and wrongfully ripped you off in some way and they’re not budging on a refund.
Perhaps you’re a landlord and you’re suing a tenant who refused to pay rent. Or maybe you’re a tenant suing your landlord because they failed to return your security deposit when you moved out.
The point is there are myriad reasons why you might turn to small claims court. But before you do, consider the alternatives first.
If the errant party you’re dealing with is a legitimate business operation, your first line of defense should be to talk to somebody at a higher level at the business that ripped you off. You want to resolve the issue at this stage if possible.
You should follow up in writing when you call to try to get an issue resolved because you’ll need to begin creating a paper trail should you have to go to court.
If the phone approach fails, you need to put your grievance in a more formal letter once again detailing the problem and outlining how you’d like to see it solved. Be sure to document your letter by keeping a copy for yourself.
If you still don’t get a reply, send a second letter with a copy of the first attached.
Still no response? Send one last letter by certified mail. The errant business or person will know you mean business and will hopefully be more obliging at this point.
If not, it’s time to pull out the big guns…
Getting ready for small claims court
Small claims court is an ideal place to resolve an issue without a lot of expense and hassle when two parties have an honest disagreement.
Before you file a case, send another certified letter to the errant party that explains how you’ve been harmed, why you believe they are responsible and how much money you are seeking as restitution.
You don’t want your language to be too aggressive. Rather, you should use a friendly tone in the letter because it may be brought into court and put before a judge at a later date.
In most cases, you don’t need a lawyer to do any of this or what follows below. That’s the whole point of small claims court.
Filing your case
In order to file a case in small claims court, you first need to figure out where the case will be heard. You don’t necessarily sue in your own county. Instead, you sue in the county in which the errant party lives. Sometimes those counties are one and the same.
If it’s a business, you file in the county in which the business itself or its registered agent is located.
You can get the correct address for any company from your secretary of state’s website.
As a general rule, if you can get the address, and get the sheriff to deliver the lawsuit to the errant person or business, you’ll likely be in good shape. You’ll get your court date and then you’re all set.
And note this well: Should your adversary not show up on the appointed court date, you win by default.
As to the exact method of filing, you should go by the court to speak with a clerk of court in person. Most will be more helpful and informative in person than on the phone.
You should also go to the county magistrate court website, as there is an abundance of information on the process and many times any questions you have can be answered by going to the county website.
As to the cost of taking someone to small claims court, you’ll generally pay a filing fee of less than $100 that is recoverable if you win.
Meanwhile, each state will cap the amount you are allowed to sue for. It typically ranges anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, according to LegalZoom.
Some counties permit you to sue for up to $15,000 in small claims court!
Preparing to go before a judge
Once you get a trial date, it’s time to get your ducks in a row. You want to be well-organized and have strong documentation to support your case.
Remember, you’re trying to prove how you’ve been harmed, why the errant party is responsible and how much money you are seeking as restitution and why it is justified.
On the day of the case, you’ll want to bring with you letters, photos, records of phone calls — anything that supports your argument.
What happens if you win?
If the judge rules in your favor, the real hard work of collecting on that judgment begins.
An honest individual or business will likely pay you on the spot. But a dishonest player may fight tooth and nail not to pay you.
Think of the judgment you just won like a hunting or fishing license; it essentially authorizes you to go on an expedition to search for money or other assets to make you whole.
Some states give you the right to take money from the errant party’s paycheck or checking accounts, put a lien on their property or seize their automobiles. Check with your state for exact laws.
You may be able to find the person’s banking info if either of you ever wrote a check to each other. Your bank should have their account info either on the back of a canceled check you wrote to them or on a check of theirs that you deposited into your account in the past.
If you can’t find any paper trail, have a friend write the person a small check. You’ll get the account info when the check clears and is returned in your friend’s bank statement. Then you can garnish the errant party’s bank account with that info.
The clerk of court will be able to provide the necessary forms and tell you how to garnish someone’s wages or checking account.
Here’s the language to use when you attempt to collect a small claims court judgment
After you win in small claims court, it’s sometimes necessary to force the errant party to disclose info about themselves in the quest to get the money you’re owed. This info is obtained through a list of questions you send to them called interrogatories.
The questions ask where they work, where they bank and what property they own, among other things.
Of course, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. So, if they’re unemployed or self-employed, or if they skip town, your judgment may well be worthless.
The following form was shared in one of money expert Clark Howard’s books and is for use in the state of Georgia. But it could also be modified in any other state to help you collect your money after a judgment.