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6 Tips to Bolster Your Case in Small Claims Court

Be on time, have your evidence in order, and don’t disrespect the judge

An illustration of a court hearing with a judge sitting on the bench listening to 2 litigants depicted in silhouette facing her.
iStock / Getty Images

It’s unfortunate, but sometimes people fail to honor their commitments, and you must take them to court. Does someone owe you money? Is it a landlord, tenant, neighbor, business colleague, auto mechanic or other service provider, or even a friend or relative? Have you tried to resolve the issue to no avail? It may be time to go to small claims court.

Chances are you’ve seen The People’s Court and Judge Judy, shows where people argue their small claims cases. But this is entertainment, not reality.  

Forget what you’ve seen on courtroom TV, says Francine Levitov, a New York City–based criminal attorney and legal expert for JustAnswer.com. “It’s not about drama. Success does not go to the party who interrupts the judge or who insults the other side more loudly.”

Small claims court is a rather informal, streamlined way for people to resolve disputes that don’t involve vast amounts of money. The parties involved need a judge to hear the case because they haven’t been able to resolve the matter themselves.

Common issues include the return of a security deposit from a landlord; repayment of a loan; a gym-contract dispute; faulty work or overcharges for various services, including car repairs and home remodeling; an unlawful eviction notice; a pet-related issue; or sales transactions where the property was either not received or paid for.

Lawyers are rarely involved, so preparation is essential. What will bring legal victory, Levitov says, is the evidence that you’ve gathered and your ability to get that evidence before the judge. The following general guidelines will help you get started.

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1. Try a demand letter

First, don’t rush into anything. Contact the opposing party to see if there is a resolution available short of a court proceeding, suggests Bill Thrush, managing principal at Friedman, Framme & Thrush, P.A., in Owings Mills, Maryland, a LegalShield provider firm. Taking someone to small claims court should be a last resort.

No result? Consider sending a demand letter, an effective method of provoking action. “I think most people want to pay what they owe,” Thrush says. “They just need some help figuring out how to do it. The demand letter is a great tool to open that dialogue.” You can write your own letter or have an attorney do it for a reasonable fee at LegalShield.comRocketLawyer.comeforms.comnolo.com and other sites.

The demand letter may encourage your opponent to take the situation more seriously and to pay up or propose a settlement. If not, your arguments will already be summarized, and you’ll have assembled the backup information (much of the preparation you’ll need for court). Set a deadline of about two weeks. If you give too much time, the other party may lose motivation.

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2. Research the rules and limits in your state

If your demand letter does no good, find out if your case qualifies for small claims court, and how to proceed, by conducting an online search for small claims court in your state. The rules differ by location.

Pay attention to the statute of limitations — the time limit when you can no longer take your case to court — as well as to the dollar limit, which may be between $2,500 and $25,000, depending on the state. If your case exceeds that amount, you’ll need to consult an attorney and take the matter to a different type of court.

3. Fill out the forms and have them served

The next step is to complete the forms for small claims. Most courts will provide them for filing your suit and for obtaining service of process on the other party, Thrush says. Many courts make them available electronically. Complete the forms and file them with the court, along with the appropriate filing fee for that jurisdiction.

Next, you have to notify the other party that you are taking them to small claims court — in other words, you have to give your opponent a copy of your suit. You can use a sheriff to serve the papers, typically for a fee. You can also hire a process server. “Once the papers are served, the case is docketed, and you are moving through the system,” Thrush explains.

Now you wait. The defendant has 20 days to file an answer if he or she resides in your state; 30 days if out of state. In that time, you may receive the money owed. If so, notify the court that you wish to have the case dismissed. Or the defendant may file a counter suit, and you will have 20 days to respond. If you don’t, the case will be dismissed.

Your state may require you and the defendant to appear before the judge for a pretrial hearing to determine what happens next. In that scenario, the defendant may choose to settle the claim. If not, the judge may order mediation or allow the matter to proceed to trial in small claims court. Mediation is an attempt to settle a case without going to trial. The plaintiff, defendant, attorneys and a neutral third party, called a mediator, discuss the case to try to find a solution.

4. Be organized, and speak succinctly

Once your court date is set, be sure to organize all the information the judge will need to decide the case in your favor: contracts, leases, emails, receipts, invoices, purchase orders, canceled checks and photos. It may be a good idea to arrange these items in a binder or a folder with a table of contents and dividers for easy access.

Now write down what you want to say, and practice it in front of a friend who’ll give you honest feedback. Once in court, you and the defendant will take an oath to tell the truth. You’ll present your case first. Be succinct, as you may have as little as five minutes to speak. The judge may ask questions, and you may do the same of the opposing party.

Do you have one or more witnesses who can add important facts and credibility to your case? Discuss the matter, making sure that your stories jibe. Observe how well these witnesses present themselves.

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Witnesses need to be prepared and to show up. If they can’t appear in person, ask them to put their story in writing and sign a declaration “under penalty of perjury” for the judge.

Visiting your local claims court to observe a couple of sessions in advance may help, Levitov says. “You’ll get a good idea of what to do and what not to do, so you can prepare and present your case more effectively.”  

5. Be factual, dispassionate and courteous

On court day, act like a professional. Refer to the judge as “your honor.” And never use profanity.

The judge will make things easy for you if you listen carefully and let him or her direct the proceedings, Levitov says. “When the judge asks you to present your story, get to the point. Make sure that your evidence is arranged so that you can get to your exhibits quickly when you need the judge to see them.”

Clearly stated facts are your best defense, she adds. Keep your cool if you hear something from the judge, the defendant or any witnesses that you don’t like or agree with. “The most common mistake that small claims litigants make is confusing arguing a case with being personally argumentative. If you must interrupt the court, do so respectfully. It will help if the judge likes you.”

6. It ain’t over until it’s over

What if the defendant doesn’t show up in court? You win. If they did show up and the result is a judgment — a court order requiring payment to you — then get a copy of the judgment. But don’t expect the losing party to write you a check on the spot; the defendant has the right to appeal the decision.

If not, then you’ll need to follow up to get the money, and often, the other person has 30 days to pay. You may have to take further action, such as placing a lien on the person’s property or garnishing their wages or bank accounts. Be persistent.

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