How to Win Your Small Claims Case
A basic guide to small claims court with tips for presenting your best case to the court.
Read the GuideSmall claims court is intended to be a simple process, accessible to the general public without the assistance of attorney. Nonetheless, the clerks of court are not allowed to provide the public with legal advice or fill out the forms for you. Legal Aid of North Carolina publishes a self-help guide to small claims court. The guide will give you simple, straightforward information on the process, which forms you will need, how to complete the forms and how to file the forms. The guide also provides an overview of the small claims process.
File the ComplaintOnce you have reviewed the guide, you will have an understanding of what kind of complaint you will need to file. Smalls claims court is mostly used for evictions, recovery of personal property and claims for money. Small claims court is not available for traffic offenses and child support claims. Small claims court is the quickest, cheapest method to get your dispute heard and decided by a magistrate judge.
If you are a landlord seeking to evict a tenant, the process will happen quickly. Once you file the small claims action, which includes the summons and complaint, the sheriff is required to serve the summons and complaint on the tenant quickly as the hearing must take place no more than 7 days from the clerk's issuance of the summons. You may also have a claim for past due rent or damages from the tenant. Both the claim for possession and money can be handled in one action.
The amount you claim from the other party cannot exceed $10,000.00 in any small claims action. If you are owed money, you can file a claim for money owed on an account, for goods sold, for money lent, for money owed on a promissory note, for a worthless check or for the value of property taken. If you are seeking recovery of the property itself, as opposed to the value of the property, this claim can also be handled in small claims court.
Once the complaint is filed, it must be served on the party you are suing. The party receives a copy of the summons and the complaint which will notify the parties of the hearing date.
Get Your Evidence TogetherAs your hearing date approaches, you should prepare for the hearing. Gather all of the documentation that is relevant to your case. You may have a written contract, letters, receipts, invoices, cancelled checks, photos, e-mails, memos or any other document that will help the court understand the facts of the case. Make a copy for yourself and the other party. Be prepared to hand original documents to the magistrate (they will be returned to you). Think about your own testimony and how you will simply describe and present your case.
If there are witnesses, speak with the witnesses and request their attendance at the hearing. However, keep it simple. Only witnesses with first-hand knowledge should be considered. If the witness won't appear voluntarily and are vital to your case, a subpoena can be issued by the court and served by the sheriff. Witnesses should be aware that they may be waiting for some time before the case is heard by the magistrate due to the volume of cases.
Make Your CaseReview your documents. If it is easier for you, write out a timeline or outline to guide your presentation to the court. Think about what questions you may be asked. This doesn't mean you need to write out exactly what you will say, just be familiar with numbers and facts so you can answer questions for the court. Boil your case down to the basics, resist the urge to complicate the matter with he said/she said arguments and opinion and show the court you are prepared and knowledgeable about the facts. Small claims hearings are limited in time and you won't have much time to present your case. If the other party does not appear, you will still need to prove your case to the court.
Arrive early for court. The small claims courtrooms are typically small and crowded. Once court starts, if you are not present, the court may dismiss your case. Then you would need to appeal the dismissal or start over with new paperwork and fees. You do not need an attorney in small claims, but can have an attorney if you wish. Remember that no one else, such as a spouse, family member, friend or co-worker can appear and speak for you. If that person has personal knowledge about the case, they may speak only for themselves. An attorney may speak on your behalf, but keep in mind your presence will still be required as a witness.
Get a JudgmentOnce the magistrate has heard both sides of the case, the magistrate will issue a judgment in the case. That may happen immediately following the hearing or within 10 days after the hearing. The clerk will file the judgment and provide a copy to both parties. From the date of the judgment, the defendant has ten days to pay or appeal the judgment. If neither occurs, the judgment is final and you may proceed to collect the judgment.
Judgment collection is a multi-step process which first allows the judgment debtor to claim exemptions in real and personal property. Once that process is complete, you may obtain a Writ of Execution from the clerk, which is an order for the sheriff to seize property to satisfy the judgment. Only the sheriff can serve a Writ of Execution and it is valid for 90 days.
Should You AppealIf you lose your case, the judgment or a dismissal may be appealed to the District Court. There is a fee to appeal and the appeal must be filed within 10 days of the judgment. Once the case is appealed, the matter is scheduled for trial in the District Court. District Court is more formal than small claims, forms are not available and it may be a few months before a trial date is set. Many people choose to be represented by an attorney at this stage, though it is not required.
As you did for the small claims court, you should prepare for your case by bringing the appropriate documentation and witnesses on the day of the trial. Be patient with the court's schedule as you may not be heard immediately. The trial can be heard by a judge or a jury if the either party has requested it, but small claims' appeals are typically heard by a judge. Once the trial is complete, the judge will issue a judgment which the clerk will file and serve on the parties. When the 30-day appeal period passes, you may proceed to collect on the judgment.