Bring all your records together and speak to any witnesses you have before you file the action. Once the case is filed you are out your filing fee money and you don't want to end up dismissing the case because you were not prepared to proceed.
Identify your defendant(s) and your cause(s) of action
Give some thought to if any other substantially related claims can be included in the same action. You may want to look around online to determine what you will need to prove in order to win your case. You should also give some thought to who may be liable for what you are alleging. Sometimes one party might be liable for the wrongs committed by another. Having an attorney can help position your case to achieve the best possible outcome.
Draft the Summons and Complaint
I have included a link to the Wisconsin Small Claims Summons and Complaint form at the bottom of this guide. I have also included a link to the Affidavit of Nonmilitary Service form, which you will need to file with the court before you can be granted a judgment.
File the Small Claims Summons and Complaint with the Clerk of Court Along with an Affidavit of Nonmilitary Service
You will need to pay the filing fee (currently $94.50), plus an additional $2 for each defendant living in county to be served by mail. The Clerk of Court, located on the second floor of the courthouse (333 Vine St., La Crosse, WI) will give you a return date and handle the service for any defendants who live in the county and for whom you are able to provide current postal addresses. An attorney may be helpful for finding appropriate addresses for difficult-to-locate people or for businesses.
Obtain Service on Out-Of-County Defendants Promptly (if Applicable)
If one or more defendants live outside La Crosse County, you will need to make arrangements so that the person can be served with the Summons and Complaint at least one week in advance of the scheduled return date. Make sure you have enough time for this to happen. There are private process servers who serve documents on individuals professionally. The most reliable way to find a process server is to simply use the Sheriff's department for the county of your target person. The Sheriff will tell you what you need to do or will hopefully be able to guide you in the right direction if they are not able or willing to serve your target themselves. You will need to file proof of service with the clerk of court for out-of-county defendants before you can obtain a judgment against them.
Attend the Return Date
Either you or your attorney will need to attend the Return Date. The return date is the first hearing for any case. Return dates are held Friday mornings at 9:00 a.m. in the intake judge's courtroom. The room number should be listed on the summons and complaint. The judge will call all the scheduled small claims matters very quickly. Pay attention to any rules read by the judges' clerk before the judge appears. When your case is called, announce your presence by saying "Plaintiff" or "Defendant" in a loud, clear voice. If you have an attorney you should clearly communicate to the attorney what settlement authority he/she has for acting on your behalf. The judges want as many of the cases to settle short of trial as is possible.If you are unrepresented, or if the case is a landlord tenant matter you will be required to mediate your case with the judges' clerk. If the defendants have been served and don't show up you will win a default judgment from the court.
Mediate and/or Negotiate Your Case
Don't treat the return date as a strictly procedural event. The idea should be to try to finish the case then and there if you and the other party can live with some compromise. If you can't settle the case you will need to set the case for a trial and that means preparing the case, possibly calling witnesses and taking time to attend the trial yourself. Sometimes a trial is not worthwhile even if you know you are right and the law and facts support you. If the plaintiff is more than one person, make sure all the decision makers have talked ahead of time about what is acceptable and the person or people who show up for court on the return date have settlement authority and are trusted enough to negotiate intelligently.
Either File a Stipulation Resolving the Case or Dismiss Your Case or Set a Trial Date
If you reach an agreement to resolve the case, file a stipulation for memorializing the agreement with the Clerk of Court's office on the first floor of the courthouse. Blank forms can be had by asking for one at one of their office windows.
If the defendant shows up and pays you an acceptable amount to resolve the case then and there, dismiss the case at the Clerk of Court's office. (Be careful if you think a check might bounce; a stipulation form might avoid the problem of dismissing the case and later wishing you hadn't.)
If the defendant showed up and you couldn't successfully negotiate the case, you will need a trial date. Go into the office of the judge who presided over the return date and ask for a trial date. Note, if you are unrepresented on the return date you will need to mediate the case before getting a trial date.
Prepare for and go to trial
You need to know what evidence you will need to present at trial to win your case. Small claims court, more than any court, is about allowing the parties to tell their stories (quickly) and then making a decision applying the law to the facts but also taking into consideration what the judge thinks is fair. If you have good facts, emphasize the facts. If you have good law, emphasize the law. You will want to make sure you have all the documents and witnesses to support your case ready to present at trial. You can use subpoenas to get witnesses and documents but having an attorney to guide you is probably smart if you don't have everything you need without a subpoena.
Small claims trials are short and sweet. Generally you will have 1/2 hour to an hour for everything to get done. You should try to have your presentation last 10-20 minutes at most.
Docket your judgment
Once you win a judgment, you will want to pay a docketing fee of $5 to the Clerk of Court's office. Having a judgment and having the money or property you demanded are two different things. Paying the docketing fee makes the judgment a lien on any real property the defendant has in La Crosse County. If the defendant is difficult to collect from, you will want to have an attorney try to collect from the person. The defendant may be able to be garnished or have certain property taken from him/her for your benefit.
I hope this guide has benefited you in at least some small way. This guide does not constitute legal advice and no attorney/client relationship is created by you reading this guide. Laws and court rules can and do change over time and you should always seek the legal advice of an attorney for any important legal decision you make. I wish you luck in pursuing your case.
Additional resources provided by the author
DISCLAIMER - This guide is not legal advice. You should seek the advice of an attorney before you make any important legal decisions!