It hasn't been your month. The dry cleaner ruined your $500 jacket, the neighbor who rear-ended your car never reimbursed you for your repairs as promised and now the employer who contracted for your services refuses to pay you. At least you have some relief: your county's small claims courts, which evolved out of the need to settle civil suits without lengthy litigation. But what if you incur court costs. Who pays for those? Before you file suit against your dry cleaner, your neighbor or your former employer, know the risks of claiming court costs in your small claims suit, as well as who ends up paying them.
Court costs typically include fees to file suit, charges to serve summons, court reporting costs and charges for copies of certain legal documents. Attorney's fees may be considered part of court costs if a state's statutes allow. (These may also be dependent on the type of case presented before the court.) Each state determines the amount of the filing fee for a small claims suit. Typically, these are inexpensive. For example, in Connecticut, the filing fee is $35. But in other states, such as Oregon, the filing fee can be anywhere from $50 to $100 depending on the county in which the suit is filed and the amount of the claim. To find out more about the filing fees in your state, please access the links in the References section, which will take you to the website of your state that addresses small claims.
The Nature of Small Claims
Small claims courts are also called "people's courts" because the average layperson can file suit against the defendant in his county, present his own evidence to the court and receive a judgment without the aid of an attorney. Each state determines the "cap" on the amount of a small claim. In Oregon, the maximum amount of a small claim is $7,500. In Texas, it's $10,000, but in Florida, it's only $5,000. Before you incur attorney's fees, review your state's statute to make sure that using legal representation doesn't cost more than what you could get in a judgment. If you lose your case, the only person who'll be paying for court costs is you.
Read More: How to File an Out-of-State Small Claims Suit
Many states permit you to include the cost of seeking legal advice in the amount of your small claim. For example, if you want to make sure that you have a sound case, you might want to schedule a consultation with an attorney who specializes in civil litigation. Some states, such as Oregon, permit this fee to be included in your claim but do not permit an attorney to represent you in court, while other states, such as Texas, do permit legal representation and may award you attorney's fees as part of your claim should you prevail. When you file your case with the small claims court, you are required to submit documentation to support your case, as well as show the amount of money you lost as a result of the defendant's actions by producing receipts. If you choose to seek legal advice, it's possible that you can claim the costs of these services. Just remember to get a receipt to provide to the court.
Costs for Enforcing a Judgment
Even if you win your case, it's up to the court to determine the amount of the judgment. But just because you get a judgment in your favor does not mean that the court will compel the defendant to pay you what you are owed. In fact, in many cases, enforcing a judgment is the most difficult task for any winning plaintiff and may require the assistance of an attorney to locate and place a lien on the defendant's real property or issue a writ of garnishment. Any attorney's fees that you incur in enforcing a judgment are paid by you.
When Do Court Costs Escalate?
Court costs can become prohibitive when a judgment from a small claims case is appealed. Be aware that some states, such as Connecticut, do not allow you to appeal a judgment in a small claims case, but others, such as Texas, allow either party to appeal a judgment. Because the appellate process is lengthier and more formal, pro se representation is discouraged. If you win your case and the defendant appeals, it's a good idea to seek legal representation.
Lisa Sefcik has been writing professionally since 1987. Her subject matter includes pet care, travel, consumer reviews, classical music and entertainment. She's worked as a policy analyst, news reporter and freelance writer/columnist for Cox Publications and numerous national print publications. Sefcik holds a paralegal certification as well as degrees in journalism and piano performance from the University of Texas at Austin.