The idea of embarking on a lawsuit in Ohio these litigious days is enough to make anyone turn pale. For small matters, you might prefer to just walk away. That's partly because of the money a case takes to litigate. Lawyers are as expensive in Ohio as anywhere else and, unless you are suing for a personal injury, likely to charge by the hour. Hour follows hour and, before you know it, you owe more in legal fees than you might win even if you triumph on all counts. Then there's the time a case takes to prepare, and a lot of stress, too.
But before you decide to forget the couple thousand bucks you lent to a former friend, take a look at the Ohio small claims court. The Ohio codes mandate that each county and municipal court establish a small claims division. These are usually called small claims courts, and they provide a way to resolve minor disputes easily, equitably, quickly and inexpensively.
What Is Small Claims Court?
The lawmakers in Ohio recognized that while Apple and Microsoft and other big companies might be happy to battle it out in regular state courts, it is almost impossible for ordinary people to resolve ordinary matters in regular courts in Ohio. Attorney fees can stop the bravest from filing a case if the amount at stake isn't at least six figures.
But that's not all. Court rules and procedures are too complex and too strict to allow someone untrained in the law to jump into the fray. That means an ordinary citizen can't afford an attorney and can't handle the case without one. That realization lead lawmakers to establish small claims courts, informal courts in every county where the procedures are relaxed, hearings informal, and the result is fairly quick.
Do You Need a Lawyer to Go to Small Claims Court?
You don't need an attorney to head to small claims court, and that's a wonderful way to pare down the cost of getting a matter decided. Matters are heard and resolved in an informal setting in Ohio small claims courts, before a judge or a magistrate rather than a jury. The entire setup is intended to open the door to the courthouse to ordinary people. However, anyone who wants to can bring an attorney to court. Attorneys are permitted but not required.
How much does it cost to file a case in small claims court? The price of filing a case varies between courts, but it is always modest. The court tries to accommodate working people, and you may even be able to schedule an evening hearing so you don't have to miss time at the office.
What Kinds of Cases Can You Take to Small Claims?
You may wonder if a court as informal as small claims court in Ohio can hear complex cases. The fact is, small claims court can hear many different types of disputes as long as the person bringing the claim is asking for money, and that money totals $6,000 or less. Essentially, the small claims courts are similar to other courts except that the money at stake in each matter is low.
What kinds of cases are heard in Ohio small claims court? You'll see lots of different types of claims, claims for unpaid bills, unpaid rent and retained security deposits. You'll find employees or independent contractors trying to get paid for work they completed, car owners trying to recover for minor property damage suffered in fender benders, and consumers trying to get their money back for defective products.
Small claims cases can involve only claims that seek money damages. You can't get a divorce in small claims court (no matter how cheap your spouse was), you can't probate a will or patent a brilliant idea. You can just ask for money – up to $6,000.
Even if the money claim is under the limit, you'll have to forget some types of actions. Some cases are just too complex to be heard in small claims court. You can't bring any lawsuit asking for punitive damages (damages intended to punish someone). You can't charge someone with slander or libel in small claims court, nor can an agent (like an insurance company) bring a case on behalf of a customer or client. Another case you can't bring in small claims court is one against the state of Ohio. Likewise, you can't sue the federal government.
How to File Small Claims in Ohio
If you are wondering exactly how to take someone to small claims court in Ohio, it all starts with finding the right court. You have to file in a small claims court with jurisdiction, which means the court must be in a county where the transaction or incident took place. You can also sue in a county if the person you are suing lives or works there. If you aren't sure about jurisdiction, call the court and ask. In any event, it's a good idea to call and find out exactly where the court is located, how much the filing fee will cost and any other questions you might have.
After you pick the right court, you need to write up a statement of claim. The statement has to describe your claim, how much you are asking for and why you are asking. Include the full name and address of the person or business you are suing, a description of the evidence you are going to bring to court to support your case, and a list identifying all witnesses you plan to call. Don't forget to bring money to pay the filing fee.
Remember that each municipal court has a small claims court and its procedural preferences may vary. Some small claims courts may require that you use a specific form for your statement. Others may require additional types of facts in the statement. Generally, the idea is to give the basis of your claim in as few words as possible, but you'll need to know local rules.
Is There a Statute of Limitations in Small Claims Court?
Of course there is. A statute of limitations tells you how quickly after something happens you have to sue. The idea is to make people bring lawsuits soon after an event so that evidence remains fresh. For example, if your landlord didn't return your security deposit when you moved out last month, both you and he likely still have all the rental documents and photos, and maybe you can even line up witnesses to testify as to how clean you left the apartment. If your landlord didn't return your security deposit from an apartment you vacated 20 years ago, it is unlikely that anyone remembers the details very clearly.
But there is no statute of limitations specific to small claims court. If you are bringing an action on a security deposit, the statute of limitations for contracts (four or eight years) applies. Use the regular limitations periods set out in Ohio law. If you are bringing a case to pay for car damage after an accident, the statute of limitations for property damage in an accident (two years) applies.
What Happens Next?
The reason you must provide an address for the person you are suing is because the court has to officially notify the person, a process called "service." In Ohio, service is often performed by sending the papers by certified mail to the person's home. The return receipt is enough to prove that the individual was served. If the person doesn't accept the certified letter, the case can't go forward. Talk to small claims court staff for the next step toward service.
Once service is finished, the court sets a hearing date. This can be as soon as 15 days after you file or as late as 40 days after filing. It's an important day, so mark the day and time on your calendar. Be sure to check with the staff of the court before your hearing date to learn about any rules that the court has about evidence. Some Ohio small claims courts require all witnesses to appear in person, and don't allow written statements from witnesses. Many courts ask you to bring multiple copies of evidence. Be sure that the evidence you intend to present is in the right form.
On the hearing day, you must show up at small claims court and argue your case. Whoever brought the case is called the plaintiff and presents his side first. When you present, you can call witnesses and present evidence that proves your claims. Don't be surprised if you are nervous, but remember that the judge doesn't expect you to be as polished as an attorney. Listen to all questions and answer them clearly and courteously.
The other party will also show up, most likely with an argument, witnesses and evidence. The judge or magistrate hears both sides, asks questions and then rules. She may rule on the spot, stating a decision at the close of the hearing. She might also call the claim "heard and submitted," then send you a written decision sometime in the future.
Can a Plaintiff Appeal a Small Claims Case?
In Ohio, it is possible for a plaintiff to appeal a small claims case. If you are not happy with the judgment in the case, check with the court staff about your options. Rules and timing are different from court to court. In some courts, you can ask the judge or magistrate who heard the case to rethink it by filing for reconsideration. If your case was heard by a magistrate rather than a judge, you can often file written objections that will be reviewed by a judge. If your case was heard and decided by a judge, you can often take an appeal to the appropriate Ohio court of appeals, the appellate court with jurisdiction over the municipal or county court where your small claim was heard. This is quite unusual, given the cost and complexity of the procedure for an appeal, but it is possible.
Figure out how much it will cost before you proceed. In order to file objections or to appeal, a court reporter must type up a written transcript of the hearing. That means he has to listen to the tape and write it all down. You will likely have to pay for that written transcript, and may have other fees to pay as well. It's not a bad idea to run it all by a lawyer to figure out if you have a good appeal that is worth the expense.