Includes rules for all 50 states

Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court

Win your small claims case!

Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court provides the information, tips and strategies you need to sue someone successfully, or put up a winning defense. Find out how to:

  • write a demand letter
  • file and serve papers
  • prepare a winning presentation

See below for a full product description.

Available as part of Nolo's Tenant's Law Bundle

  • Product Details
  • You don’t need a lawyer to succeed in small claims court if you know how to present your own case. Properly preparing for your day in court can make the difference between receiving a check and writing one.

    Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court provides the information, tips, and strategies you need to sue someone successfully or put up a winning defense in any state. Find out how to:

    • file and serve papers
    • mediate an out-of-court settlement
    • prepare evidence to support your case
    • decide how much to sue for
    • line up persuasive witnesses
    • present a winning case, and
    • collect money when you win.

    The 19th edition’s settlement section explains negotiation techniques you can use to settle your small claims case—or any other disagreement you might have—without going to court. You’ll also find the latest procedures for small claims courts in every state, sample letters, legal forms, and links to other resources, including an online statute of limitations chart that will help you determine when you must file your case.

    “Useful advice…for anyone trying to get money back.”—Money Magazine

    “Step-by-step advice on how to prepare your case, how to file it, and perhaps most importantly, how to collect if you win.”—Associated Press

    ISBN
    9781413329537
    Number of Pages
    432
  • About the Author
    • Cara O'Neill, Attorney

      Cara O'Neill is a legal editor at Nolo, focusing on bankruptcy and small claims. She also maintains a bankruptcy practice at the Law Office of Cara O’Neill and teaches criminal law and legal ethics as an adjunct professor. Cara has been quoted in bankruptcy, finance, small claims, and litigation articles by news outlets that include USA Today, CNBC, U.S. News & World Report, Nerd Wallet, and Yahoo Finance.

      Cara received her law degree from the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, where she graduated a member of the Order of the Barristers—a highly-selective honor society that gives national recognition to top law school graduates demonstrating excellent skills in trial advocacy, oral advocacy, and brief writing.

      Working at Nolo. Cara started writing for Nolo as a freelancer in 2014 and became a full-time legal editor in 2016. She has authored a number of Nolo self-help legal books, including How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, The New Bankruptcy, Everybody's Guide to Small Claims (national version), and Everybody's Guide to Small Claims in California. She also co-authors and edits Solve Your Money Troubles and Credit Repair and has written hundreds of articles for Nolo.com, Lawyers.com, TheBankruptcySite.org, and AllLaw.com.

      Early legal career. Before joining Nolo, Cara spent 20 years working as a trial attorney litigating criminal and civil cases. She also served as an administrative law judge mediating disputes between auto manufacturers and dealerships and began teaching law as an adjunct professor in 2004. She added bankruptcy to her practice after the 2008 financial downturn.

      Origins of litigation and writing career. Thanks to her mother, Cara’s advocacy training began early and involuntarily. In junior high school, she took second place two years running in the local Optimist Club speaking competition. She also successfully competed on her high school speech and debate team for several years, eventually serving as president of the same. During law school, she competed on a nationally ranked ABA moot court team for two years (and was recruited for a third, but declined) and served as a law journal editor.

  • Table of Contents
  • Your Small Claims Court Companion

    1. Basics of Small Claims Court

    • Why Use Small Claims Court?
    • Will Small Claims Work for You?
    • How to Use This Book

    2. Do You Have a Good Case?

    • Stating Your Claim
    • But Is My Case Any Good?
    • Breach of Contract Cases
    • Personal Injury and Property Damage Cases
    • Workplace Discrimination
    • Defective Product Cases
    • Breach of Warranty Cases
    • Professional Malpractice Cases
    • Nuisance Cases

    3. Can You Collect Your Money If You Win?

    4. How Much Can You Sue For?

    • Cutting Your Claim to Fit the Limit
    • Calculating the Amount of Your Claim
    • Equitable Relief (or, Money Can’t Always Solve the Problem)

    5. When Should You Sue?

    • Statute of Limitations
    • Calculating the Statute of Limitations
    • What If the Statute of Limitations Has Run?

    6. Settling Your Dispute

    • Negotiation
    • The Negotiation Process
    • Mediation
    • Formal Demand Letters
    • Get Your Settlement in Writing (a Release)
    • Last-Minute Agreements

    7. Who Can Sue?

    • Married Couples
    • Sole Proprietorships
    • Business Partnerships
    • Corporations
    • Limited Liability Companies
    • Nonprofits and Unincorporated Associations
    • Motor Vehicle Claims
    • Government Agencies
    • Special Rules for Prisoners and Military Personnel
    • Suits by Minors
    • Class Actions (Group Lawsuits)
    • Participation by Attorneys and Bill Collectors

    8. Suing Different Kinds of Defendants

    • One Person
    • Two or More People
    • Individually Owned Businesses
    • Partnerships
    • Corporations and Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)
    • Motor Vehicle Accident Cases
    • How to Sue Minors
    • How to Sue Government Agencies
    • A Deceased Person’s Estate

    9. Where Can You Sue?

    • Out-of-State Defendants
    • Defendants in Your State
    • If You Are Sued in the Wrong Court

    10. Filing Fees, Court Papers, and Court Dates

    • How Much Does It Cost?
    • Filing Your Lawsuit
    • The Defendant’s Forms
    • Jury Trials
    • Your Court Date

    11. Serving Your Papers

    • Who Must Be Served
    • Where Can Papers Be Served?
    • Serving an Individual
    • Serving a Business
    • How to Serve a Government Agency
    • Time Limits for Serving a Claim
    • Proof of Service—Letting the Court Know
    • Serving a Defendant’s Claim
    • Serving Subpoenas
    • Costs of Service

    12. The Defendant’s Options

    • If You Aren’t Properly Served
    • If You’re Sued in the Wrong Court
    • If the Statute of Limitations Has Expired
    • Try to Compromise
    • Try to Mediate
    • If You Have No Defense
    • Paying in Installments
    • If You, Not the Plaintiff, Were Wronged—File a Defendant’s Claim
    • Transferring Your Case to a Higher Court
    • Fight Back

    13. Getting Ready for Court

    • Using a Private Lawyer
    • Consider Mediation—Again
    • Be Prepared
    • Getting to the Courthouse
    • The Courtroom
    • The Judge or Commissioner
    • Your Courtroom Strategy
    • Organize Your Testimony and Evidence

    14. Witnesses

    • What Makes a Good Witness
    • How to Subpoena Witnesses
    • How to Subpoena Police and Other Peace Officers
    • How to Subpoena Documents
    • Witness Testimony by Letter
    • Judges as Witnesses
    • Testimony by Telephone

    15. Your Day in Court

    • If the Defendant Is a No-Show
    • If the Plaintiff Is a No-Show
    • Your Day in Court
    • Recovering Costs
    • A Sample Contested Case

    16. Motor Vehicle Repair Cases

    • Do You Have a Case?
    • Prepare for Court
    • Appearing in Court

    17. Motor Vehicle Purchase Cases

    • New Vehicles
    • Used Vehicles From Dealers
    • Used Vehicles From Private Parties

    18. Bad Debts: Initiating and Defending Cases

    • Who Should Appear in Court?
    • From the Plaintiff’s Point of View
    • From the Debtor’s Point of View

    19. Vehicle Accident Cases

    • Who Can Sue Whom?
    • Was There a Witness?
    • Traffic Collision Reports
    • Determining Fault
    • Diagrams
    • Photos
    • Estimates
    • Your Demand Letter
    • Appearing in Court

    20. Landlord-Tenant Cases

    • Security Deposit Cases
    • Unpaid Rent and Former Tenants
    • Former Tenants’ Defenses to Unpaid Rent
    • Drug Dealing and Other Crimes
    • The Obnoxious Landlord
    • The Landlord’s Right of Entry and the Tenant’s Right of Privacy
    • Discrimination
    • Evictions for Nonpayment of Rent

    21. Miscellaneous Cases

    • Clothing (Alteration and Cleaning)
    • Dog-Related Cases
    • Damage to Real Estate (Land and Buildings)
    • Defamation
    • Online Transactions

    22. Disputes Between Small Businesses

    • Remember: You Didn’t Always Hate the Other Guy
    • Organizing Your Case
    • A Case Study—Proving a Contract Exists
    • A Case Study—Personal Services Contract

    23. Judgment and Appeal

    • The Judgment
    • Paying the Judgment
    • Satisfaction of Judgment
    • The Appeal

    24. Collecting Your Money

    • The Timing of Collecting Your Money
    • How to Collect
    • Installment Payments
    • Judgments Against Government Agencies
    • Finding the Debtor’s Assets
    • Levying on Wages, Bank Accounts, and Other Property
    • Judgments From Auto Accidents
    • Property Liens
    • Collection Costs
    • Renew Your Judgment

    25. Legal Research

    • Local Laws
    • State Laws
    • Case Law

    Appendix A: Small Claims Court Rules for the 50 States (and the District of Columbia)

    Appendix B: Legal Jargon for Small Claims Court

    Index

  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 1: Basics of Small Claims Court

    Why Use Small Claims Court?

    The purpose of small claims court is to hear lawsuits involving modest amounts of money without long delays and formal rules of evidence. Lawyers are prohibited in some states, including Michigan and California, but are allowed in most. However, the limited dollar amounts involved usually make it economically unwise to hire a lawyer, and disputes are typically presented directly by the people involved.

    CAUTION
    Check your state’s jurisdictional amount before you file. We provide the most up-to-date information available at the time this book was published. But these amounts change, so be sure to check the rules for your state before filing. Freeadvice.com provides resources for people needing 50-state small claims court information (www.freeadvice.com/resources/smallclaimscourts.htm).

    There are three significant advantages of small claims court:

    • You get to prepare and present your case without having to pay a lawyer more than your claim is worth.
    • Filing, preparing, and presenting a small claims case is relatively easy. The complicated legal forms and language found in other courts are kept to a minimum. To start your lawsuit, you need only fill out a few lines on a simple form (for example, “Defendant owes me the sum of $4,000 because the 2014 Neon he sold me on January 1, 2022, in supposedly ‘excellent condition,’ died less than a mile from the car lot”).
    • You can talk to the judge in plain English without any legal jargon when you get to court.
    • Small claims court doesn’t take long. Most disputes are heard in court within two or three months from the complaint filing. The hearing itself seldom takes more than 15 minutes. The judge announces a decision either right there in the courtroom or mails it within a few days.

    Will Small Claims Work for You?

    Before you decide that small claims court sounds like the right place to bring your case, you will want to answer a fundamental question: Will it be worth the effort? Even in small claims court, a case will take at least 20 hours to prepare and, depending on your personality, could cause a few sleepless nights. When assessing whether your dispute is worth bringing, you’ll want to understand the details of how small claims court works, starting with who can sue, where, and for how much. You will also want to do the following:

    • Learn enough law to answer critical questions such as whether you are likely to win and, if so, how much; what types of papers you must file; and who can sue. Part of this involves knowing the legal rules for different case types—for example, what you must prove in a personal injury claim will be different in a security deposit dispute.
    • If you decide you have a winning case, understand how best to prepare and present it.
    • Finally, and most importantly, a judgment won’t be worth much if you can’t get paid, so determine whether you’ll be able to collect the money if you win. Unfortunately, some plaintiffs win but can’t collect a dime because they sued someone judgment proof—that is, someone without collectible money or assets.

    This book covers all of these issues. The first several chapters will help you decide whether you have a case worth pursuing. These chapters cover the basics, not the grand strategies that will baffle and confound the opposition—that comes later (well, sort of—keep in mind that a legal strategy is only as good as the facts of the case). The initial chapters deal with mundane tasks like locating the person you want to sue, suing in the right court, filling out the necessary forms, and delivering the documents to the person you’re suing.

    Below are checklists of issues plaintiffs and defendants should consider at this initial stage. The chapters that follow address each area in more detail and include targeted advice for both sides.

    Initial Stage Questions for a Plaintiff
    1. Do you have a good case? That is, can you establish or prove everything required by the law (elements) to win your claim? (See Chapters 2 and 14–22.)
    2. How much is your claim worth? If the value is more than the small claims maximum, do you wish to waive the excess and still use small claims court? (See Chapter 4.)
    3. Have you made a reasonable effort to contact the other party and settle the case? (See Chapter 6.)
    4. Are you within the deadline (statute of limitations) by which you must file your suit? (See Chapter 5.)
    5. Who will you sue and how do you identify this person or business on your court papers? In some cases, especially those involving companies and automobiles, this can be a little trickier than you might have guessed. (See Chapter 8.)
    6. Which small claims court should you bring your suit in? (See Chapter 9.)
    7. If your small claims court offers or encourages mediation, do you understand how it works and how best to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
    8. Can you make a convincing courtroom presentation? (See Chapter 15.)
    9. And, assuming you can win, is there a reasonable chance you can collect? (See Chapters 3 and 24.)

     

    Initial Stage Questions for a Defendant
    1. Do you have legal grounds for a countersuit against the plaintiff? Or put another way, does the plaintiff really owe you money instead of the other way around? (See Chapters 10 and 12.)
    2. Do you have a partial or complete defense against the plaintiff’s claim? In other words, has the plaintiff filed a bogus lawsuit? (See Chapters 2 and 12.)
    3. Is the plaintiff’s money demand reasonable or excessive? (See Chapter 4.)
    4. Has the plaintiff brought the suit within the proper time limit? (See Chapter 5.)
    5. Has the plaintiff followed the correct procedures in bringing suit and delivering the court papers to you? (See Chapters 11 and 12.)
    6. If your small claims court offers or encourages mediation, do you understand how it works and how to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
    7. Have you made a reasonable effort to contact the plaintiff to arrive at a settlement? (See Chapters 6 and 12.)
    8. Assuming you’ll fight the case in court, you’ll typically need proof that your version of events is correct. Do you have the evidence and witnesses to accomplish this? (See Chapters 13–15.)
    9. Are you prepared to present your side of the case convincingly in court? (See Chapter 15.)

     

    TIP
    Defendants may want to file their own lawsuit. In addition to theirright to defend themselves, defendants also have the opportunity to file a case against the plaintiff. (See Chapters 10 and 12.) If you’re sued, you’ll want to do this if you lost money due to the same events the plaintiff complained about, and the plaintiff is legally responsible for your loss. Defendants’ claims commonly develop out of a situation in which both parties are negligent, such as a car accident. The question becomes each driver’s percentage of fault. If your claim is for less than the small claims court maximum, you can file there. If it’s for more, check your state’s rules. You’ll probably have to file your case in a different court (and have your opponent’s case transferred there). (See Chapter 10.)

    How to Use This Book

    This guide covers the procedures that both plaintiffs and defendants should use to successfully bring or defend a small claims case. Unlike other guides, it also contains step-by-step instructions for preparing common small claims cases.

    Chapters 2 and 3 help you answer the fundamental question of whether you should even file suit by asking two crucial questions: Do you have a good case? Can you collect any money from the defendant if you win? If your answer to either of these questions is “no,” then you should read Chapter 6 to see whether you might be able to settle your dispute without going to court or should consider dropping the idea of a lawsuit.

    Chapters 4–9 walk you through the procedural details. Small claims court is meant to be easy, but it still has rules about how much money you can sue for, who you can sue, what court you should bring your lawsuit in, and so forth. Chapters 10 and 11 are about the actual paperwork: How do you fill out your papers and deliver them to the defendant? Chapter 12 explains what a defendant should do after being sued. Chapters 13-15 get you ready for your day in court, and Chapters 23 and 24 address how the judge issues a ruling, how to appeal, and how to collect your money if you’re successful.

    In Chapters 16–22, we discuss strategies you can use to handle common cases. Even if your situation doesn’t fit neatly into one of the categories, read this material. By picking up a few hints here and a little information there, you should be able to piece together a good plan of action. For example, many of the suggestions on how to handle motor vehicle repair disputes can also be applied to cases involving major appliances such as a television, dishwasher, or dryer. However, these days, it would probably be cheaper to buy new.

    Appendix A contains a summary of small claims court information and rules for every state. You’ll find the name of the small claims court and a website link, relevant state statutes, lawsuit dollar limits, service of process rules, time limits for responding to claims, how to appeal a decision, and more. You will want to check your state’s small claims court website early in the process, whether you’re a plaintiff or a defendant, for valuable information about how your state handles small claims cases. Be sure to also check the local small claims court clerk’s office for local rules.

    Appendix B is a glossary of legal jargon you might come across in small claims cases and courts. Fortunately, there is not a lot of it, but a few terms might be new to you. If you can’t find what you need, check Nolo’s Free Dictionary of Law Terms and Legal Definitions at www.nolo.com/dictionary. Because state law establishes small claims procedures, the operating rules differ from state to state, including the maximum amount you can sue for, who can sue, and the what, where, and when of filing papers. States even call small claims court (or its equivalent) different things, like “justice,” “district,” “municipal,” “city,” “county,” and “magistrates” court.

    Even so, the primary approach necessary to prepare and present a case is remarkably similar everywhere. But details are important, and you should do three things to make sure you understand how small claims court works in your state:

    • Look up the summary of your state’s rules in Appendix A of this book.
    • Obtain your local small claims rules from your small claims court clerk’s office.
    • Check out your state’s small claims rules online. See Appendix A for information on how to find your state’s small claims court.

    We hope you enjoyed this sample chapter. The complete book is available for sale here at Nolo.com.

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