Appealing a Small Claims Court Decision

The rules on appealing small claims court decisions are complicated and vary widely

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Unlike small claims court itself, where rules and procedures are remarkably the same throughout the United States, the rules that cover appeals from small claims court judgments vary greatly from one state to the next. A few allow no appeal. Some states allows an appeal of a judge's decision but not an arbitrator's. A few other states allow a losing defendant to appeal but do not permit the person who brought the suit (the plaintiff) to do so, except to appeal from counterclaims initiated by the defendant. 

You can't appeal if you didn't show up in small claims court. Appeal rights are almost always restricted to those who showed up in small claims court, argued their case, and lost. If you defaulted (didn't show up), you normally can't appeal unless and until you get the default set aside. Normally, you must file paperwork to do this almost immediately, or the small claims judgment will become final and unappealable. Filing a request to set aside a default judgment normally does not extend the time allowed to appeal.

You may have heard that some higher court judges consider small claims appeals to be a nuisance and try to discourage them by routinely upholding the original judgment. There's very little truth to this. Most judges will give you a fair hearing on appeal if you are well prepared and able to present a convincing case. Therefore, if you believe you were victimized by a bad decision in small claims court and your case involves enough money to make a further investment of time and energy worthwhile, go ahead and appeal if your state's rules allow it.

Determining whether you are eligible to appeal is important, but it is only part of the information you need. It is just as important to determine what kind of appeal is permitted in your state. Some states allow an appeal only on questions of law, while others allow the whole case to be replayed from scratch. Let's pause for a moment and look at some of the differences.

New Trial

In several states, either party can appeal and have the case heard over from scratch. In other states, only the defendant can appeal (in most cases), but if the defendant does file an appeal, the whole case is presented again by both sides as if the first hearing hadn't occurred.

When a whole new hearing is allowed on appeal (it's called a trial de novo), you simply argue the case over, presenting all necessary witnesses, documents, and testimony. Starting from scratch is required because records often aren't kept at small claims court hearings. However, in some courts, judges record hearings, and these recordings are available to the judge who considers the appeal as part of the reargument of the case.

Questions of Law

In many states, appeals can be based only on questions of law, not on the facts of the case. What's the difference between law and facts? It's best illustrated with a couple of examples.

Example 1: You sue your mechanic in small claims court, claiming that he botched a repair job on your car. After listening to both sides, the judge rules for the mechanic, concluding that the repairs were made properly and something else was wrong with your car. You disagree, contending that the repairperson really did mess up the job. You are not eligible to appeal, because this is a factual dispute.

Example 2: You are a tenant suing for the return of a cleaning deposit withheld by the landlord. The court agrees with you and awards you the amount of the deposit plus $500 in punitive damages. The landlord appeals, claiming that under the law of your state, the judge only has the power to award punitive damages in the amount of $250. Because this appeal claims a mistake was made in applying the law, it is proper and will be considered.

In most states, appeals made on the basis of a mistake of law must be supported by a written outline of what the claimed mistakes are. This can put nonlawyers at a disadvantage, because they are unfamiliar with legal research and legal writing techniques. Start by contacting the court clerk and requesting all forms and rules governing appeals. Although it's important to take these seriously and do your best to comply, the good news is that most appellate judges will consider any well-reasoned written statement you submit claiming the small claims judge made a legal error.

Here is a brief example of appropriate paperwork:

Sample Appeals Statement

Appeal from Small Claims Judgment #_________ ,
Based on Legal Error

Under the laws of the state of ___________________ , a small claims judgment may be set aside if it is based on a legal error or mistake. In my personal injury case, the court incorrectly applied the statute of limitations, because it did not take into consideration the fact that I was a minor when the accident occurred.

My case is based on a personal injury I suffered on January 23, 2010, when I was 17 years and two months old. The small claims judge dismissed my case because it was not filed within one year after my injury, as is required by the statute of limitations. This was an incorrect application of the law.

It's true that under the terms of Code of Civil Procedure, Section 340, a personal injury case must normally be filed within one year of the date of the injury, which in my case occurred on January 23, 2011. However, Sec. 352 of the Code of Civil Procedure also states: "If a person entitled to bring an action, mentioned in Chapter 3 of this title, be, at the time the cause of action occurred, ... under the age of majority ... the time of such disability is not a part of the time limited for the commencement of the action."

Because I was still a minor until November 23, 2012 (when I turned 18), under the terms of Code of Civil Procedure, Section 352, it was from this date (not from January 23, 2010) that the court should have begun counting the one-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions. Therefore, I was entitled to file my case until November 22, 2013. In fact, because I filed on June 27, 2013, I was well within the allowed time.

In conclusion, I request that the judgment in this case be vacated and that I be granted a new small claims court hearing.

Filing and Presenting Your Appeal

If you haven't already done so, it is absolutely essential that you obtain and study a copy of your state's small claims appeal rules. They vary considerably, especially between those states where you can only appeal questions of law and those where you are entitled to a completely new trial.

File Promptly

In all states, appeals must be filed promptly (usually within 10 to 30 days), so wherever you are, don't delay. In many states, you must file a notice of appeal within 30 days after the court clerk mails the judgment to the parties (or hands it over, if a decision is made in the courtroom). This means that if the decision was mailed, there will be less than 30 days to file an appeal from the day that the defendant receives the judgment. In some states, appeals must be filed within 10 days. In a few states, you have only two days to appeal your small claims court decision so check your state rules and don't delay. Luckily, weekends and holidays don't count.

You'll need to consult your state statute to find out when to start counting your time to appeal. Because many states start counting from the date the judgment was mailed, this date, which should appear on the judgment, is critical. If, for some reason, your judgment doesn't show up within the number of days in which you are allowed to appeal, call the small claims clerk immediately and request help getting an extension of time to file your appeal.

Appeals must usually be filed using a form supplied by the small claims court.

Appeal Fees

The appeal fee is often higher than the original filing fee. If you ultimately win your appeal (that is, get the original decision turned around in your favor), you can add these court costs to the judgment. In many states, the party filing an appeal must post a cash bond (or written guarantee by financially solvent adults) to cover the amount of the judgment if he or she loses.

Doing It Without a Lawyer

You are entitled to have an attorney in the appeals court. By definition, your small claims case is not worth big bucks, so you will probably decide it is not cost-efficient to hire one. Indeed, there should be little practical reason for an attorney, as you probably have an excellent grasp of the issues by this time.

It doesn't take a lawyer to make a good impression in an appeal. A prepared, respectful, and self-represented litigant can often make just as impressive a showing at a small claims appeal as a lawyer would.

But what if your opponent hires a lawyer? Aren't you at a disadvantage if you represent yourself? Not necessarily. As noted in "Presenting Your Appeal," below, in many states the appeals court must follow informal rules similar to those used in small claims court. This puts you on a relatively equal footing, even if your opponent has a lawyer. If you have prepared carefully, you may even have an advantage: You carry with you the honest conviction that you are right. If, despite this commonsense view of the situation, you still feel a little intimidated, the best cure is to go watch a few small claims appeals. Ask the court clerk when they are scheduled. Watching the process should persuade you that you are perfectly capable of handling your own appeal.

Presenting Your Appeal

On appeal, both sides should give careful thought to how their presentation can be improved. This is particularly true if you are the person who lost. Ask yourself: Did the judge decide against me because I presented my case poorly or because I didn't support my statements with evidence? Or did the judge simply misapply the law? To answer these questions, you may have to do some additional legal research. 

Read the case file before your appeals hearing. The file is a public record, and you have a right to see it (ask the small claims clerk how to get a copy). You'll be better prepared if you know what material the appeals judge has read. Sometimes the trial judge will leave notes in the file that the appeal judge will be reading. If so, you'll want to know that and adjust your case accordingly.

Once you have decided how to improve your case, practice presenting it to an objective friend. When you are done, ask your friend which parts of your presentation were convincing and which need more work.

Jury trials. A few states permit jury trials on appeal. Most states don't. Check with your court clerk.

In some states, small claims appeals can be presented to the judge just as informally as any small claims court case. At the other extreme, some states' small claims court appeal rules require that an appeal be conducted with all the pomp and circumstance of a regular trial court case. Because procedures can differ even within the same state, we can't tell you exactly what type of hearing you will face. So, again, it is important to take the time to check out exactly what type of appeal hearing rules you will encounter. For example, you may learn you'll need to be prepared to present your testimony while sitting in the witness box. You may also have to question your witnesses using the formal lawyer style you have seen so often on TV, and introduce evidence according to a strict, step-by-step script.

Some Cures for Prehearing Jitters

What should you do if you see that your appeal will be conducted in a style you find intimidating?

  • Read Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman Barrett (Nolo). This book explains how to conduct a contested civil trial in a formal courtroom setting, including how to present testimony and cross-examine witnesses. It should quickly increase your comfort level.
  • Ask the judge, in advance, to conduct your appeal as informally as possible. You can do this on the day of your hearing or, better yet, by writing a brief, polite letter to the court ahead of time. Explain that, as a nonlawyer, you are thoroughly prepared to present the facts of your case, but because you are unfamiliar with formal rules of evidence and procedure, you would appreciate it if your small claims appeal could be conducted so that a citizen who has not spent three years at law school is given a fair opportunity to be heard.
  • During your small claims appeal, if there is some procedure you don't understand, politely ask the judge for an explanation. If necessary, remind the judge that, as a taxpayer and a citizen, you are entitled to understand the rules and procedures that control the presentation of your case.

Further Appeals

If a defendant loses the appeal, there is usually no right to file a second appeal. However, it is sometimes possible to file an extraordinary writ (a special request for review based on extraordinary circumstances) to a court of appeal claiming that either the small claims court or first appeals court made a serious legal mistake in handling the case (for example, the court had no power to consider the issues involved in your case). In some states, the lower court judge may have the power to recommend that the court of appeal hear your case. But because of the relatively small amounts of money involved, extraordinary writs based on small claims judgments are almost never filed. And when they are, they are seldom granted. 

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