Small Claims Court is the name given to the branch of the local state court which handles cases where the amount in dispute is relatively low. In Small Claims Court, parties appear without lawyers, the rules of evidence are somewhat relaxed, and the judge takes a more active role in drawing out the claims and defenses. There are advantages and disadvantages of bringing your case in Small Claims Court, which will be discussed below.
Jurisdictional limits of Small Claims Courts
In small claims court, the amount of the dispute has to be no more than a certain amount of money. It is referred to as the court’s “jurisdictional” limit because the court lacks jurisdiction over matters exceeding that amount. To find out the limit in any USA state, see Nolo’s 50-State Chart of Small Claims Court Dollar Limits.
The differences between Small Claims Court and other courts
- There are no lawyers. Each party speaks for himself or herself.
- The Judge asks questions.
- The Judge is permitted to conduct an investigation out of court.
- The Judge does not have to follow procedural law.
- The Judge does not have to follow substantive law if it will not lead to an equitable result.
- The Plaintiff (i.e., the person who files the case) cannot appeal if he or she loses.
- The appeal is really a new trial in a higher court. The first trial is completely negated, like it never happened.
The differences between handling a dispute in Small Claims Court and other methods of resolving a small case
Small Claims Court is a court that conducts a trial and renders a binding judgment which can be enforced like any other judgment. Although Small Claims Court can be less formal and less strict when it comes to admitting evidence, the judgment of the court is as strong as anything else provided by the judicial system.
A victim might resolve his case in other ways, however. One method of doing so is the promissory note, with or without an installment payment plan. The defendant would sign the note and then make the payment when required, or make the periodic (i.e., monthly) payments on or prior to the due dates. The note might or might not require the defendant to also pay interest. A Google search for promissory notes will reveal a wide range of choices. Care must be taken to select the right one; an attorney should be consulted if you are not sure.
There are advantages and disadvantages to resolving a case through the use of a promissory note. The main advantage is that the parties do not have to go to court, and the proceedings do not have to be public. A key advantage to the victim is that, if the defendant fails to pay as required, the defendant will have virtually no chance of getting out of the obligation if and when the victim file suit on the promissory note. From the defendant’s point of view, the key advantage would be that he can make installment payments; a secondary advantage would be that there will be no court judgment against him unless of course he defaults.
A second method is to require the defendant to confess judgment, meaning that he is stipulating to the entry of a judgment against him. Often the confession of judgment will be used to back up an installment payment arrangement. In other words, the confession of judgment will serve the function of the victim’s security in the event that the defendant fails to make an installment payment as promised; if the defendant fails to make a payment as required, the confession of judgment would then be filed with the court, but not until then. The advantage to the victim is that he does not have to go to court at all to get his judgment, which would be the case if only a promissory note were used. The advantage to the defendant is that he can make installment payments, and there would be no court judgment against him unless he defaults. For more information based on California law, see Confession of Judgment on the website of Stimmel, Stimmel & Smith.
A third method exists in some jurisdictions, such as California, where there are courts for cases that exceed the jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court but are of relatively low monetary value. For example, California has the so-called “limited case,” for disputes involving sums of money up to $25,000. There are simplified procedures in such courts, as well as reduced filing fees. Nevertheless, it is advisable to use an attorney in these cases. The advantage to both of the parties is that the time, effort and costs of the lawsuit should be far less than would otherwise be the case. The Superior Court, County of Contra Costa hosts a page for California forms for a limited case.
The advantages of Small Claims Court
Small claims cases are faster and cheaper than using a lawyer. They are appropriate for cases where the victim’s usual recovery would be no more than 150% to 200% of the limit of the court. For example, if the court’s limit is $10,000, an appropriate case would be one which would normally bring a recovery of $15,000 to $20,000. The reason is that bringing the same case in a higher court, using an attorney, will have higher costs. If the case results in a recover of $15,000, the attorney typically will charge a fee of one-third of the recovery. This would equal $5,000. Additionally, the rules of evidence in the higher court are more difficult to satisfy. The cost of the evidence, the jury, the court reporters and other things might be at least another $5,000. For that reason, a $20,000 case in a higher court will often end up netting the plaintiff the same $10,000 that he would have received in Small Claims Court.
Additionally, there are no pretrial procedures, so the trial takes place a month or so after filing. If the Plaintiff loses, there is no appeal. If the Defendant loses, he or she can appeal, and the appeal is a new trial, with attorneys if the parties so choose.
The disadvantages of Small Claims Court
The disadvantages of Small Claims Court are several. Because there are no lawyers, an articulate, outgoing person has an unfair advantage over an uneducated, foreign, shy person. Without lawyers and pretrial procedures, the Judge is completely unprepared for the factual and legal issues that might arise — the parties have to hope that the Judge has some experience with such things. Unfamiliarity with procedures means that the parties usually do not know about witness subpoenas, and therefore are unprepared to present their cases. Finally, it is rare that the case is decided by an elected Judge; usually, volunteer attorneys act as Judges Pro Tem (i.e., judge for the day).
If your dog was injured or killed
If your claim pertains to your dog, you should read When a Dog Is Injured Or Killed. It is an interactive book by Kenneth Phillips, the author of Dog Bite Law. The book tells you what your rights are and, more importantly, how to go about making a claim. It gives you forms that use can fill in with your word processor, such as letters to the other dog owner, letters to an insurance company, letters to enable you to get veterinary records, and other things for Small Claims Court.
Learning more about Small Claims Court
Anywhere in the USA:
Each state has its own procedures for small claims court. To find a court, go to The Law Engine and follow the links there.
The Department of Consumer Affairs of the State of California has written a great publication entitled The Do’s and Don’ts of Using the Small Claims Court. It is “must reading.” Also read the State Bar of California’s wonderfully complete web site about Small Claims Court. It will tell you everything you need to know about using the streamlined procedures of this “people’s court.” Finally, read the California Judicial Council’s web page, Problems with Money, which explains the differences between small claims court and “limited” and “unlimited” cases in the Superior Court and gives great information about filing a case in any of these courts.
To find a court, go to California trial courts on the Judicial Council web site. You can start your small claims case online if it can be filed in Los Angeles County by going to the Los Angeles Superior Court eFiling website.
How to present a case in Small Claims Court
Attorney Kenneth Phillips, the author of Dog Bite Law, was a judge in small claims court for 18 years on an as-needed basis, serving one to five times per week. Here is his advice:
Organize your argument very strictly, starting with the facts, then stating what the issue is, then presenting persuasive points as to how the judge should rule. Do you know how newspapers are written? In the first sentence, they summarize everything in a few words. In the next three sentences, they summarize it again, but with a bit more detail. Then they proceed from there, trying to keep it as short as possible.
Nobody on Earth can really understand a good reason if it takes more than 20 seconds to hear it. The longer it takes, and the more words that are used, the more loopholes and confusion. Judges have a lot of cases, and their attention span is no greater than yours or mine. Therefore, it is a good idea to have a strict, brief outline, and to stick to it, starting with the quickest way of saying something, and expanding it if the judge asks you about it. For that reason, whenever I go to court I make sure to have a 10-second version, a 30-second version, and a 2-minute version of whatever I need to say to the judge. When he gives me a chance to speak, I start with the 10-second version, then move to the other two. This way, he gets an overview plus enough detail to start him thinking.
At that point, he asks me questions. Since I have a strict outline (in my mind, not on a bunch of pieces of paper), I can give him the 3 reasons for this, or the main reason for that, plus some convincing argument.
Always remember that a judge wants to do the correct thing. Therefore, always point out that, if the judge rules one way, the result will be this, whereas if he rules the other way, the result will be that. Judges are not chained to the law. They have to interpret and apply it. What you have to do is come up with good reasons why it should be applied the way you see it.
Finally, be sure to be respectful. Your attitude should be something like, “Your Honor, there is a human problem here. Let us find the best solution.” That is something a judge prides himself in doing. If you lace your arguments with emotion, indignation or disrespect for the law or the court, you absolutely will lose the day.
What to do with a judgment from the Small Claims Court
A Small Claims Court judgment has the same effect as a judgment from a “regular” trial court. It is entitled to the same respect, and it has the same power to get you your money.
If you lose and you are the plaintiff, then you might not have the right to appeal. For example, in California, a losing plaintiff cannot ask for a new trial, but a losing defendant can.
If you are the winning plaintiff, then you can initiate the same procedures that a bank, a credit card company or any other creditor might undertake. They include the following at a minimum:
- Start by sending letters to the defendants, asking them to pay. Offer an installment payment plan, with interest, if you wish. Make sure that it says the entire balance due will be payable if any payment is missed, and that if you waive the remedy of declaring the entire balance due one or more times, you will not be deemed to have waived it in the future.
- If letters do not work, you should register your judgment with the appropriate state office (in California, it is the Secretary of State) to get a lien on the defendants’ personal property. Do the same thing with the County Recorder in every county where the defendant has real property, to put a lien on it too. That way, if the defendant wants to sell personal property or real property, or wants to refinance a house, you will get paid.
- The clerk of the Small Claims Court usually can give you information about taking other measures against a judgment debtor, such as garnishment of wages and levy on bank accounts. A great article about California collection of a judgment is by William T. Tanner, Collecting Your Judgment.