By Kelly Cook and Paul Kouri; copyright 2014 Travis Law Office
What is Small Claims Court?
The Small Claims Court is a less formal, quicker court system for cases involving relatively small amounts of money. Anyone who has watched daytime court television shows has at least some familiarity with the concept. It differs from a normal district court in that there are far fewer forms, motions, and procedures involved, resulting in a much simpler, cheaper, and faster road to recovery. The trade-off, however, is that you can only sue for a maximum of $7,500, and you must waive your right to a jury if your claim is not for at least $1,500. Further, certain claims, like libel, slander, probate, and family matters, cannot be heard in Small Claims Court. You need no lawyer to represent you in Small Claims Court, though you may hire one anyway, and the process is designed with people who are not lawyers in mind. The Laws regarding Small Claims Court are primarily found in Title 12 of the Oklahoma Statutes, Chapter 36 - Small Claims Procedures Act, Sections 1751 to 1773 (in shortened form: 12 O.S. 1751-1773). You can access these statutes in their most current form on the Oklahoma State Courts Network (OSCN).
Why Should I File in Small Claims Court?
Apart from Small Claims Court being a faster and simpler process for securing justice, there are a few recurring situations in which people often file in Small Claims Court by themselves ("pro se") instead of hiring a lawyer and filing in District Court. Perhaps you are the "hands on" type, who knows nobody will have the passion for and dedication to your claim you do, and you prefer to handle things yourself when you can. Sometimes there isn't enough money involved to pay for an attorney and retain a significant portion of the judgment for yourself. Occasionally there are just no lawyers nearby who work in that area of law and are able to take on a new client at the time. Regardless of the reason, Small Claims Court can be a practical option for many who have been wronged. And because the Small Claims process was designed to be easily accessible to non-lawyers, it is perhaps the least intimidating path to justice.
How Do I File a Suit in Small Claims Court?
File an affidavit: 12 O.S. 1753 contains a standardized form (called an "affidavit") for filing a claim in Small Claims Court. This form is also available from your county's court clerk. Fill in the form and bring it (with several copies) to the court clerk. You can find the address, phone number, and name of the court clerk for your county on OSCN. Pay the filing fee: When you file your affidavit, you will be required to pay a small filing fee. You can find the most current fee schedule on OSCN, too. If you cannot afford the filing fee, you may be eligible to file for free with a "pauper's affidavit." Contact your local court clerk for a copy of this affidavit, instructions, and eligibility standards. Get a court date and serve the defendant: The clerk will give you a court date (10-60 days from the date of filing) and a case number. Send a copy of the affidavit (including the case number and date) to the defendant (the person you are suing) by certified mail with a return receipt requested. Check the box on the green certified mail card requiring the signature of the defendant, and only the defendant. This is called "service" or "serving the defendant." Alternatively, you may have the affidavit delivered to the defendant by the sheriff or a process server (called "personal service") for a fee (generally $50-$100, depending on the server, location, and urgency of the request). This may be a more effective method for serving someone who is usually not at home during normal mail delivery hours. You must serve the defendant at least one full week before your court date. You could win by default: Keep all records related to filing and serving the affidavit. If the defendant does not show up to court, you may win the case by default (called a "default judgment"). First, however, you will need to prove that you filed the affidavit properly and that the defendant received a copy of the affidavit by mail or personal service at least 7 full days before the court date.
What if I am the Defendant?
You must show up: If you get served, you are not required to prepare or file a response of any sort. You must, however, attend the court date on the affidavit, or the person suing you (the "plaintiff") may win by default judgment against you, even if there is little basis for their claim. You can file a counter claim: If you feel that the plaintiff in fact owes you money in a matter closely connected to their suit, you may file a counter claim. For instance, the plaintiff may claim you owe him/her past-due rent, but you may counter claim that the home is in disrepair, and that you have made necessary repairs out of your own pocket that the plaintiff ought to have made. The form for a counter claim is standardized, just like an affidavit, and contained in 12 O.S. 1758. This form must be filed with the court clerk and delivered to the plaintiff in person at least 72 hours before your court date. The same dollar amount limits apply: Like the original claim, your counter claim is limited to $7,500 in Small Claims Court. If your counter claim involves more than $7,500 you can either try to get a waiver from the plaintiff to allow the Small Claims Court to extend their authority (called "jurisdiction") to the higher claim amount, or attempt to have the case moved to a regular district court. You would likely need the assistance of an attorney to help you do this if it became necessary. If you do not obtain a waiver and the case remains in the Small Claims Court, your counter claim will be capped at $7,500 regardless of how much you are actually owed.
Can I Sue a Business in Small Claims Court?
Yes, you can sue a business, and the process is exactly the same as for suing an individual. You will, however, need to pay attention to the name you put on the affidavit and whom you serve. If the business is not a corporation: You can sue the owner d/b/a (doing business as) the business. For instance, if you were suing Bob's Bakery, owned by Bob Smith, you would name the defendant as "Bob Smith d/b/a Bob's Bakery" on the affidavit, and serve Bob Smith (by mail, sheriff, or process server). If the business is a corporation: You can simply use the corporation's name on the affidavit. Use the corporation's full name, including any identifying articles (i.e. "inc."). The easiest and most common way to serve a corporation is to serve their "registered service agent." You can find the corporation's registered service agent by searching the Oklahoma Secretary of State Business Entities Records database, or by calling the office of the Oklahoma Secretary of State at (405) 522-4563.
Do I Have the Right to a Jury?
Yes, per 12 O.S. 1761, you can request that your case be tried by a jury if your claim involves more than $1,500. If your claim exceeds $1,500 and you would like a jury, there are two things you need to do. Request a jury: You must notify the Small Claims Court Clerk in writing at least 2 working days before the trial. 12 O.S. 1761 does not provide a universal form for this request, so contact your local court clerk to find out if they have a local form for requesting a jury. Be sure to account for any holidays and weekends, as the request must be filed at least 2 working days before trial. Pay the deposit: 12 O.S. 1761 requires that you deposit $50 with the court clerk when you file your request. This must be paid at the time of the request, so be sure to bring cash or a check with you when you deliver your request to the clerk.
What Should I Bring to Court?
Gather your evidence: Oklahoma law does not allow for typical discovery (the process by which plaintiffs and defendants are usually required to share most evidence with each other) in a Small Claims case. Instead, you must gather all relevant documents and evidence yourself. Bring everything you would need to prove the other party owes you money and exactly how much they owe you. Often this involves an original signed contract (or a copy if the original is not available), bank or credit card statements, receipts, emails, sworn statements, recordings, photographs, and/or videos. Call and ask the court about what equipment is available if you need to bring an audio or video recording. You may bring witnesses: Witnesses are often the best evidence you can provide. Make sure your witnesses are dressed appropriately for court (see below), arrive on time, and answer the judge's questions honestly. Know that the judge may or may not allow every witness to testify. Keep your evidence organized: Consider using a binder or accordion organizer to keep things separated and easy to find. Use highlighting and sticky notes to bring attention to the important parts of documents immediately, and have the relevant times in audio and video recordings listed somewhere obvious.
What Do I Do the Day of Court?
DON'T BE LATE: Plan to arrive at least 15 minutes early. If you have witnesses coming with you, consider carpooling to ensure everyone arrives in the right place at the right time. Dress appropriately for court: While the court's dress code may not specifically require it, professional business attire will encourage professional interaction focused on the merits of the case. Men: avoid shorts, blue jeans, athletic shoes, and shirts without collars. Women: avoid short skirts, revealing necklines, open toed shoes, too much jewelry and makeup, and flashy colors. Instead, wear conservative clothing and accessories appropriate for a business meeting or job interview. Await your turn quietly and patiently: Do not draw unnecessary attention to yourself while others are in front of the judge, either in or out of the courtroom. Remain quiet, leave your phone in your car, and avoid whispering or other distracting behavior. Speak clearly and courteously, don't interrupt: When before the judge, speak clearly, and always refer to the judge as "Your Honor." Though you may be very passionate about your case, a calm and collected manner will be far more effective than a fiery disposition. Never interrupt the judge, and if the judge speaks over you, stop talking immediately. Listen to the judge's questions carefully, collect your thoughts before answering, and speak in terms of what you can prove when possible. Always be honest with the judge, and correct yourself if you misspeak.
If I Win, How Do I Get My Money?
If the judge rules in your favor, the defendant will often be asked to pay you immediately. If the defendant cannot pay that day the judge may oversee (or have a court employee oversee) a conference to work out a payment plan between the parties. The judge may require the defendant to provide a list of valuable property that day. If the defendant doesn't pay, and you cannot convince him to pay without the intervention of the court, you might be able to claim part of the defendant's property or have his wages garnished.
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