How to Sue in a Small Claims Court in North Carolina

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The amount of money that a party may seek in North Carolina small claims court varies from county to county. A plaintiff, the party filing a lawsuit, should check with a court clerk to find out the maximum amount they can recover in their jurisdiction, typically $5,000 to $10,000.

Various types of cases are heard in small claims court, including evictions, cases involving the return of personal property, and those enforcing motor vehicle storage or liens. North Carolina small claims courts operate in the state’s district court division.

Small Claims Court in North Carolina

A plaintiff in a small claims case is the person or organization filing the case, and the defendant is the person or organization the case is filed against. The maximum amount of money that a party can request in a North Carolina small claims case varies from county to county, depending on local law, and varies from $5,000 to $10,000.

A magistrate, an appointed officer of the district court (rather than a district court judge), decides small claims court cases and may or may not be an attorney. Their statutory responsibilities include deciding civil small claims cases, criminal case preliminary matters, and officiating marriages.

Types of Cases in North Carolina Small Claims Court

A variety of cases are heard in small claims court, including, but not limited to:

  • Summary ejectment cases, also known as eviction cases.
  • Cases where a party wants specific personal property returned to them, like a vehicle with a fair market value of not more than $10,000.
  • Enforcement of motor vehicle storage or liens.
  • Cases where the money sought is no more than $10,000, depending on the county.

Plaintiffs with a claim of up to $25,000 file cases in district court. If they request more than $25,000, they must file in superior court. Plaintiffs are not required to file in small claims court; in fact, some small claims can be heard in district court. However, the small claims process is more manageable and faster as there are fewer procedural requirements, and cheaper for those who do not have an attorney.

Suing in Small Claims Court

A party in a small claims dispute can print the required forms in advance or a court clerk can provide them. Different counties may require different forms, so plaintiffs should check with their local court clerk’s office to find out exactly what forms they need and how many copies of each they must provide.

They usually need to have three copies of the complaint stating their claim and the relief they’re seeking.

Requirements for Filing a Small Claims Action

Required forms include:

The party filing a small claims complaint must also provide:

  • Three copies of a Magistrate Summons form, the top portion of which should be filled in by the plaintiff, and including the names and addresses of all parties involved in the lawsuit.
  • Servicemembers Civil Relief Act Declaration form, under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). This form informs the court that the defendant is a military member and protects the legal rights of those in active duty.

Serving a Small Claims Defendant

After filing the case in small claims court, the plaintiff must serve the defendant with copies of the summons and complaint. They can have a sheriff's office serve the documents for a $30 service fee or mail them to the defendant by certified mail with return receipt requested.

If the plaintiff wins the case, the magistrate may order the defendant to pay their court costs. If they don’t, they are responsible for their own court costs.

Failing to Appear in Small Claims Court

The court schedules small claims court dates within 30 days of the date the plaintiff files the case; for eviction cases, the court schedules hearings within 10 to 15 days of the date of filing. The court clerk will schedule a hearing date when the plaintiff files the complaint and includes it on the summons form for the defendant.

If a plaintiff does not show up for a hearing, the court usually dismisses the case, but may reschedule it under some circumstances. If the plaintiff does not properly serve the summons to the defendant, the case will be continued, and the defendant will eventually be served. If the defendant is properly served, but does not appear, the court can decide the case without the defendant's presence in court.

Dismissing a Small Claims Case in North Carolina

The parties to a small claims case in North Carolina may reach a settlement before coming to court, or in some instances, a plaintiff may choose not to proceed with the case. To dismiss a case, the plaintiff can file a Notice of Voluntary Dismissal with the court, as long as no compulsory counterclaims are pending.

The plaintiff can ask for the dismissal before the hearing or in court. When they file a dismissal in advance, neither they nor the defendant have to appear in court.