When is Small Claims Court the Best Route to Dispute Resolution?

Learning from a Real Estate Lawyer

“Small Claims Court” is a catch-all title for a lower court in most state court systems. They formally have many names but play the important role of hearing and deciding upon disputes over “small” claims. These courts were established generally to provide low-cost, user friendly alternatives to more costly litigation, and as such have limits on the type of cases that can be heard and the “amount in controversy” in the case, the amount over which the parties are fighting. 

When would I want to take an issue to small claims court?

The most common issues people bring to small claims court are the types of disputes of which everyday living is made; tenant/landlord issues – tenant moved out and owes months’ worth of rent, landlord kept the security deposit for no apparent reason, one party isn’t paying on a contract for sale, neighbor ran over my fence and refuses to pay for repairs, mechanic never fixed your car and won’t return the payment, you paid to have your house payment and the painter never showed up, you loaned some money and the other person isn’t paying it back…any type of dispute like this, even personal injury, where the amount sought is worth fighting for, but small enough that hiring an attorney might eat up all the money you are trying to collect.

Once you decide you want to put the time and effort into collecting what is due, you need to find out what court in your state will hear your case, where to file your complaint. 

Here are the names of the courts in some western states in which small claims actions are heard and the limits of claims heard, usually set by state law. 

• In Wyoming the Circuit Court in a district will here small claims cases for money damages or debts up to $6,000.00

• In Montana, Justice Court hears civil cases for amounts up to $12,000, small claims valued up to $7,000

• In Colorado, Small Claims Court hears cases involving $7,500 or less (not including interest or costs) 

• In Washington Small Claims Court will hear civil disputes in which damages claimed total less than $5,000

• In Utah, Justice Court hears small claims for amounts up to $11,000

• In Idaho Small Claims Courts hear complaints for amounts in dispute up to $5000.  Attorneys aren’t allowed with you in court.  

• In North Dakota, Small Claims Court is a division of district court, and will hear cases that involve $15,000.00 or less. 

• In South Dakota, the Magistrate Court hears small claims cases and the limit set by law for actions is $12,000 or less. 

In whatever state you live, google “where are small claims heard in XXX state?”, and you will find court links to the appropriate court, or talk with a real estate lawyer in Bozeman, MT, like from Silverman Law Firm. Go to state websites; .gov sites, it is there you will get the most accurate information, and perhaps links to forms, (more on this later) not to .com sites, which are commercial sites and quite often don’t get the details right.  

As mentioned above, these courts were established generally to provide low-cost, user friendly alternatives to more costly litigation. To keep costs down and to really push parties to settle they disputes between each other, most courts employ mediation early on in the process. If the parties are not successful in resolving their issues through mediation, they may still bring the case to the judge to be hear.  

Courts usually set aside a day in a week and a bank of time during which they hear all the small claims cases recently filed with the court. 

These hearings are open to public. Find out when they are heard and sit through a few cases. This will give you an idea of how the judge manages his or her court, how they expect the parties to present themselves, whether it’s common for parties to appear with an attorney. 

Most states have forms that can be used to file a case, with instructions on the entire process. Remember, they are trying to make this process more accessible and lest costly for the general public. The forms are available for use without the use of an attorney. Most clerks at the courthouse will help you fill out these forms, and sometimes let you know if you have filled them out correctly.  WARNING: clerks at the courts are not attorneys and are not supposed to be giving you legal advice, so don’t ask them. Filing fees are usually required but most often are substantially less than filing fees at the higher level courts. 

Just like other courts, there are timelines, and rules to follow. The court will let you know where to find the information you need. If you are willing to take the time, generally people can pull together all the information they may need to present their case; related paperwork, witness or witness statements, receipts. Once you file your complaint, the other party must be served, and then a hearing will be scheduled. (this will all be explained to you on the court website or through court forms). 

Prepare, prepare, prepare, bring copies of things for the other party and for the court, be organized, write out what you want to say if that will help you be comfortable and speak in an organized way. Make your argument, use facts, not emotion. If you can find out what the law says on this issue. There may be a legal aid clinic in your community. 

If the court asks you to try to mediate your case before the hearing, try it. You have nothing to lose by trying to mediate and only to gain. You will learn the top issues of the other party and get more prepared to make your argument if you still go to court. 

If you want some professional help in preparing for the hearing, you may find an attorney willing to review your case and help you to prepare.