What to Expect When You Take Your Case to Small Claims Court
Contracts 101, When Working with Clients
You’ve decided that the way to recovering unpaid fees from your client is to file a case in small claims court. Here’s what to expect and how to prepare for your day in court.
FILING YOUR CASE
Each state has different instructions and requirements for filing a small claims case – all of which can be found on the state court’s website or by visiting the court clerk’s office. To file a claim, you will need to complete a court-provided form (referred to as a “complaint”) that identifies the parties and their addresses, your claim against the defendant, and the amount you allege that the defendant owes you. Remember, the amount you allege that is owed to you must fall within the court’s requirements, which can range from $2,500-$25,000 based on the state in which you’re filing your complaint. Once completed, you must file complaint with the court clerk and pay a small filing fee. The court clerk will then issue a hearing date for when your case will be heard by the judge.
A copy of the complaint and a summons must then be properly served upon the defendant or the action will be dismissed. In some states a deputy sheriff or a process server must personally serve a small claims court summons and complaint for a small fee. In many states, however, service can be accomplished by mailing a copy of the complaint to the defendant.
Once the defendant is served with the summons and complaint, he/she will be on notice that a hearing has been scheduled on the matter. The defendant then has an opportunity to file a counterclaim against you arising out of the same dispute.
BEFORE THE HEARING
If possible, visit the courtroom in advance and observe other cases. Doing so will prepare you for what to expect at your hearing.
In preparation of your hearing, compile all of your evidence including contracts, invoices, receipts, email communications, and other supporting documentation demonstrating that the defendant owes you the money you claim is due. If the defendant has filed a counterclaim against you, gather your evidence and thoughts so you can rebut the defendant’s claims. It is recommended that you make two additional copies of any material you intend to rely on – one for the judge and the second for the defendant. Most judges will require that the defendant have an opportunity to review any material you submit to the judge.
Get all of your facts in order and rehearse what you will say to the judge at the hearing. Know exactly what it is you want to get out of the suit. Court dockets are quite busy and you may only have a few minutes to make your case.
AT THE HEARING
On the day of your hearing, make sure to dress in a professional and respectable manner. Arrive early and check in with the courtroom clerk or bailiff.
Before calling your case, some judges require the parties to attempt to settle the case on their own and therefore order all the parties into the court hallway to discuss further. If your settlements attempts are futile, then you return to the courtroom and wait for you case to be called.
When your case is called, walk up to the designated areas before the judge. Usually, there are signs indicating where the Plaintiff and Defendant should stand. When asked by the judge, present your case and answer any questions he/she might have. Stay focused on the facts and issues of the case and keep your emotions in check. Always address the defendant, the judge, and court staff with respect.
AFTER THE HEARING
You may have to wait a few weeks before the judge issues a decision about your case. Depending on the outcome of the case, the losing party may have an opportunity to appeal the judge’s decision. Assuming you won your case and the defendant does not appeal the decision, the next step is to collect your fees. Hopefully the defendant will comply with the judgment and pay you. But if the defendant refuses to pay, you’ll need to take steps to collect on the judgment. A court can enter an order authorizing the sheriff to serve a writ of execution on the losing party. This writ permits the sheriff to seize and sell assets to pay the judgment.
Unfortunately, sometimes business relationships go south. That’s why it’s important to have a contract that clearly spells out each party’s rights and obligations. With a contract in place and an understanding of the available dispute resolution processes, you’ll be better positioned to protect your business should a conflict with a client arise.