Do I need a lawyer to deal with a neighbor dispute in New York?

Even in small claims court, where lawyers aren't required, you may want to consult someone with legal knowledge.

Question

I’ve been having arguments with my neighbor about her small children. They’re incredibly loud and always run around the apartment building hallways. Last month, I was walking into the building carrying a laptop that I just purchased. Sure enough, the kids were chasing one another and knocked right into me. I dropped the box, and the screen shattered. I demanded that my neighbor reimburse me for the $3,500 laptop, but she refused. Do I need to hire a lawyer?

Answer

Your best option may be to sue your neighbor in New York City Small Claims Court, in which case you do not need to hire a lawyer. In fact, one of the primary advantages of a small claims lawsuit is that you can avoid the expense associated with hiring an attorney. The small claims system is designed to allow regular people to appear on their own behalf (sometimes called “pro se”) and make their case directly to a judge.

This makes sense, given that the limit on a small claims case in New York City is $5,000, an amount that would quickly be eaten up by a lawyer’s fees. You shouldn’t feel awkward or self-conscious about not having a lawyer; if you go into small claims court on any given day, you’ll see that most individuals are there without attorneys. The court will often have informational pamphlets available at the clerk’s office to guide you through the process of filing a lawsuit.

There are a few things to keep in mind, however. First of all, your neighbor is permitted to hire an attorney even if you do not want to. This means that you could be in court trying to argue against an individual with years of legal education and experience.

Second, even if you do not officially hire a lawyer to represent you, you can still seek out legal advice. You might have friends or family members who are attorneys. Tell them about your case and see if they have any immediate tips or reactions. Finally, remember that there are numerous legal associations (sometimes called bar associations) that can give you legal advice or at least some reading materials. Examples include the New York City Bar Association, New York County Lawyers’ Association and Brooklyn Bar Association.

In short, you do not need a lawyer to sue your neighbor in small claims court for the replacement value of the laptop. Having said that, it never hurts to do your homework and seek out as much free information as possible to hone your arguments.

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