What To Expect: Small Claims Or Conciliation Court

Most states have "small claims" or "conciliation" courts. These courts are set up to handle disputes up to a certain dollar amount (usually $1,500 to $9,000). If the amount of your claim against the defendant is under the dollar limit of the small claims court, you can file suit yourself (you don't need to hire a lawyer). It will take some time and energy on your part, but will save you some money on attorney fees.

  • Your first step is to visit the small claims or conciliation court counter at your local state courthouse. Most courts have brochures that explain the small claims process, and the forms you must complete to start your lawsuit. The clerks are usually quite helpful and able to answer any questions you may have. You may want to check to see if your state court system has information on its small claims or conciliation court available on its web site.
  • Next, you will need to fill out a complaint or claim form. Usually, the complaint contains blanks for you to fill in. The information that you must typically provide is a brief statement of the amount and nature of the claim (I sold goods to my customer and he did not pay me for them. He owes me $4,000). You should also provide any relevant dates, and the names and addresses of the plaintiff (in this case that is you) and the defendant (in this case your customer). You will need to file the complaint or claim form with the court and pay a filing fee. The fees for filing a lawsuit in a small claims case are usually less expensive than filing a regular lawsuit. The complaint also must be "served" on the defendant, either by personal service or certified mail. The court administrator may do that for you. Be sure to keep a copy of the complaint or claim form for your records.
  • The defendant will have a certain number of days to respond or "answer" your complaint. If the defendant does not answer, you can usually request that the court enter a "default" judgment against the defendant. If the defendant answers the complaint, your lawsuit will be set for trial.
  • If the matter is set for trial, you should gather all documents related to the transaction and bring them to court with you. Also, you should bring any "witnesses" or people with first-hand knowledge of the facts. The judge or referee will ask the plaintiff (you) to explain your story and provide any documentation. Then the judge or referee will ask the defendant (your customer) to explain his or her story. The judge or referee will usually decide the case then and there. The losing party usually has a short period of time to "appeal" the decision. If there is no appeal, judgment will be entered for the winning party.
  • Note: By the way, many attorneys are willing to help you prepare to represent your company in small claims or conciliation court. Ask your attorney if you can pay him or her on an hourly basis to help you put your case together.
  • If you "win" your lawsuit in small claims court and obtain a judgment, you still have to collect the amount of the judgment from your customer. You may want to talk to the small claims clerk for your local court before filing your small claims lawsuit to see what rights you have in your state to enforce (collect on) that judgment. Your attorney can also help you with collection of a judgment.

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