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.
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.com, RocketLawyer.com, eforms.com, nolo.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.