If negotiation or mediation fails, or aren't worth trying, and you’re ready to file a lawsuit, don’t overlook the possibility of using small claims court. Unlike regular trial courts, these courts use simplified procedures that are much easier for people to handle without lawyers (in fact, in some states lawyers aren’t even allowed to represent clients in small claims court).
Small claims court is most appropriate for disputes involving money, rather than disputes in which one side wants a judge to order the other to change his or her behavior. For example, arguments over security deposit refunds are prime candidates for small claims: There is a dispute as to whether the tenant damaged the property, left it a mess, or owes rent, and there is a sum of money at issue. The judge decides whom she believes and orders the money returned or not. If the money isn’t returned as ordered, the victor can use that judgment (the official name for the judge’s decision) to attach the loser’s bank account or garnish his wages. The small claims judge won’t be involved at that stage—she’ll be busy hearing one of the dozens of other matters that pour into her courtroom each day.
There are many landlord-tenant disputes that have monetary resolutions and are appropriate for small claims court. And often when a landlord learns (the hard way) that the consequences of his behavior are a stiff money judgment, he’ll change that behavior. For instance, a landlord who fails to adequately maintain his property may get sued by a tenant who is injured by the defective conditions. After being ordered to pay the tenant for her medical bills and lost work, the landlord is likely to take care of business in the future.
If your case falls within the financial limits on small claims cases (in most states, you can’t sue for more than a few thousand dollars), this route is a practical alternative to regular trial court. You can use small claims court to:
A case whose resolution involves more than the payment of money, however, isn’t always a good candidate for small claims court. For instance, sexual harassment cases often result in orders that the harasser pay the victim damages and that the illegal behavior stop (often some counseling is required, too). If the harasser doesn’t obey the judge’s orders by reforming his behavior, the victim has to go back to court with her lawyers and ask the judge to enforce her decision (a judge might do this by slapping the loser with a contempt of court fine). Regular trial courts are often involved in enforcing their decisions, but small claims courts are not set up to do follow-up work. Consequently, small claims judges will hesitate to make orders that, if disobeyed, will land the parties back in their court again.
Small claims court procedures are relatively simple and easy to master. Basically, you pay a small fee, file your lawsuit with the court clerk, see to it that the papers are served on your landlord (this can often be done by mail), show up on the appointed day, tell the judge your story, and present any witnesses and other evidence. Often the judge will announce her decision from the bench, or she may mail it to you within a short time.
Court rules that cover such things as where you file your lawsuit, how legal papers must be delivered to your opponent (“service of process”), and how promptly you must sue are usually available from the small claims clerk. In addition, clerks in small claims court are expected to explain procedures to you. In some states, they may even help you fill out the necessary forms, which are quite simple anyhow. If necessary, be persistent in your requests for assistance. If you ask enough questions, you’ll get the answers you need to handle your own case comfortably. Also, in some states such as California, you can consult a free small claims court adviser.
Exactly how much can you sue for? The maximum small claims court limit varies from state to state, from $4,000 to $10,000. Call your local court clerk and ask for the small claims division, which will be able to give you this information.
Keep in mind that it may make sense to scale back your claim to fit within the small claims limit, rather than suing for the entire amount in regular trial court. By the time you pay your lawyer and court costs, you may find that you would have come out ahead had you chosen small claims in the first place.
Showing up with persuasive evidence that supports your story is the way to win in small claims court. For example, if you are suing your landlord to get your security deposit returned, you’ll want to have a photograph of a clean and undamaged apartment and the convincing testimony of someone who helped you clean up.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a Harvard-trained lawyer to present your evidence, either. People in small claims court aren’t usually held to the picky and difficult-to-understand rules of formal court. For example, a judge may be willing to listen to your account of what a repairman had to say about the condition of the furnace in your frigid flat—in formal court, you’d hardly get the words out before the other side would yell “Hearsay!” and shut you down. That’s not to say, however, that the judge will necessarily believe that the repairperson in fact said what you claim he did. It’s far better to have a written, signed statement from the repairperson, which dispels any suggestion that you are making it all up.
See the Nolo's Small Claims Court and Lawsuits Center for lots of useful articles on small claims court lawsuits. Also, Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo), provides detailed advice on bringing or defending a small claims court case, preparing evidence and witnesses for court, and collecting your money judgment when you win. Especially if you have never been to small claims court, you’ll want to closely study the material on how to present your testimony and witnesses in court. Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court will also be useful in defending yourself against a landlord who sues you in small claims court—for example, claiming that you owe money for damage to the premises.