FILING SUIT IN SMALL CLAIMS VS. DISTRICT COURT - MASSACHUSETTS
· As part of the business law legal services offered by The Jacobs Law, LLC, we pursue collections of outstanding customer accounts & amounts due pursuant to contract. I am often asked by clients and prospective clients to explain the pros & cons of filing suit in Small Claims Court vs. District Court. Like most legal issues, the answer depends on the circumstances of the parties, the goals of the client, and the specific facts at issue in the dispute. This guide helps explain some of the factors one should consider when choosing whether to file suit in Small Claims Court or District Court.
Requirements for filing a claim in Small Claims Court
- It is first important to know the limits and criteria for filing in Small Claims Court. This information will help you make a more informed decision.
To file in Small Claims Court in Massachusetts you must know the following:
- Your damages must be equal to or less than $7,000.00. BUT, there are 2 key exceptions:
i. your suit is for property damage sustained in an automobile accident, or
ii. Your damages are pursuant to a statute (which can require or give discretion to a judge to award attorney's fees in some circumstances) such as consumer protection cases (MGL ch.93A) or certain landlord/tenant cases. In such statutory-based damages cases, the base amount of damages claimed may not exceed $7,000 even though the potential award (such as where MGL ch.93A allows the court to triple the damages and award attorney's fees) may exceed $7,000.00.
In other words, as long as your claimed base damages are equal or less than $7,000.00 (let’s say $5,000.00) then your claim is otherwise eligible for Small Claims Court—even if you’re asking the court to triple your damages to $15,000.00 because you allege the defendant violated MGL ch.93A.
Small Claims Court is designed for simpler types of civil litigation (collections, credit card defaults, landlord-tenant issues, property damage claims, promissory notes, breach of contract, etc.) - complex business litigation or cases that involve significant amounts of money and/or discovery, for example, would be discouraged from pursuing the caw in a Small Claims Court.
Pros & Cons of Filing in Small Claims Court
- Easy Complaint Process: Filing the ‘complaint’ is quick and easy. You fill out (handwritten or typed) a “Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial". The Small Claims Court clerk will have the forms you need and you can obtain it in person, by mail, or (sometimes) over the phone. It has multiple carbon copies to it so most courts will not accept a printed-out version from the internet. Check with the local Small Claims Court clerk first.
- Low Filing Fees: The fees to file a case in Small Claims Court are relatively inexpensive. Filing fees are $40 for claims up to $500, $50 for claims up to $2,000, $100 for claims up to $5,000, and $150 for claims up to $7,000. Claims for over $7,000 in motor vehicle damage arising from a car accident are also $150.
- Low Cost to Serve Court Documents: Service of process is still required in Small Claims Court, but it is performed by the Court through the mail and is free.
i. Some recent changes to the law have gone into place requiring plaintiffs to show the defendant’s address is current. Generally, this is only an issue when you have large credit card companies or debt collectors filing actions in Small Claims Court on debts that may have been incurred years prior. Either way, the court typically will accept a printout from a background search company confirming the address is current or even the residential listings of a site like superpages.com could help.
ii. If you have an issue with the address or the defendant has the letter from the court “returned to sender" (which often happens with unscrupulous defendants who have experience in the ‘system’) you can still use a Constable or Sheriff to serve the “Statement of Small Claims" on the defendant or at his last and usual home address for about $50. Therefore, your total costs to get a Small Claims Court case filed range between $90 - $200.
- Relative Speed of the Small Claims Court Process: Small Claims Courts are relatively fast and easy. Some Small Claims Courts are so backed up that your first hearing may not be scheduled for six (6) months. However, often those same court systems’ District Courts are equally as backed up.
- Informal Atmosphere & Procedural Rules: The atmosphere in Small Claims Court is extremely informal and the rules of the court are significantly relaxed. In Small Claims Court, the parties generally speak to the judge or clerk magistrate as if they were telling a story to someone—albeit with much more respect than you would show to just ‘anyone’. You are permitted to ask the opponent questions or produce witnesses for testimony, and submit documents to the Court without having to deal with technical rules of evidence.
i. You should remember to bring copies of any documents you expect to show the Court because you will need a copy for yourself and the opposing party—otherwise you waste time while the other party looks at, while the judge looks at it, and while you wait to get it back if you need it to refer to while you tell the judge your story or question a witness.
ii. A sub-‘PRO’ here is that most Small Claims Court judges and clerk magistrates do actually listen to you. In fact, it is almost as if the concept of ‘getting your day in court’ and voicing your concerns are the ‘end’ and not just the ‘means to an end’. In other words, often just having a judge hear you out fully and venting your issues is half the battle to reach a resolution. Small Claims Court judges and clerk magistrates are generally excellent at this – they are good listeners (generally speaking). Getting it all out in the open in a court setting helps the parties resolve disputes.
Attorneys are not required: Unlike the District Court, parties often appear at Small Claims Court hearings pro se (which means for themselves, without legal representation). Generally, a business entity registered with the state, such as a corporation or an LLC must have legal counsel to represent the entity—even if you are the sole owner/shareholder and regardless of whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant. However, in small claims court in Massachusetts, corporations and LLCs may represent themselves without legal counsel. This exception may make small claims court a more cost efficient option for a corporation, LLC or other registered business entity with independent legal status.
- Hiring an attorney will cost the business more money, possibly more than the amount in dispute, and this litigation cost could influence the business’ decision to resolve the matter by settlement. However, if the business entity chooses to hire an attorney, your case could be removed to District Court where the rules are more formal and much more complicated for the pro se litigant.
Counterclaims: Counterclaims are made by the defendant against the plaintiff. In many cases, the defendant does have valid claims against a plaintiff, but since the plaintiff filed suit first, the defendant’s claims are called ‘counterclaims’. These are relatively rare in Small Claims Court in part because they are not ‘compulsory’. In District Court, for example, if a defendant fails to make counterclaims that are related to the same facts and circumstances, then the defendant may never be able to make those claims. However, the same is not true for Small Claims Court. If you fail to make counterclaims in Small Claims Court, you can always make those claims at a later date—as long as you file them before the statute of limitations (i.e. the deadline to file suit for that particular claim which is set by statute). That being said, counterclaims are possible and allowed in Small Claims Court, but given the simplistic nature of Small Claims Court and the fact that they are not compulsory, counterclaims are rarely made.
Due to the length restrictions of the legal guides here on avvo.com, please see the full guide at http://thejacobslaw.com/small-claims-court-vs-district-court-file/
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