Imagine that your neighbor in Brooklyn was having renovations done in his bathroom last month, and the contractor broke through a pipe. As a result, water flooded into your apartment and ruined your carpet. It caused about $2,500 to replace it, and despite repeated efforts, your neighbor refuses to pay you back.
Not all neighbors are kind and reasonable people; if your neighbor were kind and reasonable, he would have immediately offered to repay you for the damage. Sometimes you need the assistance of a court to secure your rights. In New York, you can sue someone in the county where that person resides – in this example, that’s Brooklyn, known as Kings County.
If you’re not sure of your county, the court system’s website provides contact information for each of the City’s small claims courts. You’ll need to walk over to the small claims court and fill out a piece of paper known as a “statement of claim.” This is a basic form that will ask for your contact information, your neighbor’s contact information, and some basic information about why you’re suing. You’ll be required to pay a small fee, usually $20, which you can pay by cash, certified check, or money order (courts typically do not accept credit cards).
You will need to state the amount that you’re suing your neighbor for. Although the maximum amount that you can sue for in small claims court is $5,000, remember that you shouldn’t necessarily sue for that full amount; you’ll need to be able to prove your damages. In our example, the $2,500 of repair would be the only amount you can directly prove (via a receipt or an estimate). However, if you needed to miss work or had other specific expenses associated with the repair, you could add those as well, so long as you can substantiate them.
Once you file your statement of claim and pay the fee, the clerk will tell you the date of your hearing, when you’ll be able to come back to court and see a judge. This date is likely to be two to four months away, since court dockets tend to be very crowded in New York City. The clerk will mail your neighbor a notice of the hearing date, as well as information about the nature of your claim.
Between now and when you appear in court, you should gather any evidence that you might need. This could include an estimate of the carpet repair, photographs of the damage, or credit card statements showing what you paid. You should also remain open to the possibility of having a settlement discussion with your neighbor. Perhaps he would be willing to pay you something less than $2,500 – but something nevertheless – and you could both avoid the time and trouble of proceeding to court.
If you do end up going to court, you should absolutely speak with the clerks ahead of time to ensure that you are in full compliance with your county’s processes for proceeding to trial. Clerks generally have brochures available with free information to help you on your filings and your presentation.
You can also seek some assistance from the New York City Bar Association, \an organization of lawyers that offers legal information to the public. Small claims courts are designed to be used by ordinary people without needing to hire a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean the rules don’t matter. The last thing you want is to allow your neighbor to dismiss your case on a technicality. So do your homework. And equally important, practice exactly what you are going to say to the judge once your case is called. This means that you’ll need to anticipate arguments that your neighbor will make in his own defense.
Once you present your case and your neighbor presents his defense, the judge may issue a decision immediately. Or, the judge might state that “decision is reserved” and mail you and your neighbor a copy of the written decision in the mail.