Most states have a small claims court system. While the small claims courts in many states are intended to provide people with a quicker, easier process for resolving small damage claims, the types of cases, damage limits and rules of procedure differ. This means that the procedure for cancelling a small claims court date or dismissing an action varies among jurisdictions.
Anyone interested in learning about small claims court procedures should first get a basic overview of how the court works. It is intended to allow individuals to access the court without hiring an attorney, so the process is not difficult.
What Is Small Claims Court?
In many states, an ordinary person has difficulty getting a dispute resolved within the regular judicial system. Courts are backed up, meaning that it can take months or years to get a matter to trial. In addition, the rules are complex, with state rules, municipal rules and even rules set up by individual judges as to how cases proceed .
A person who is not trained in the law would have to work very hard to keep her filings in line with the formal requirements, or she must pay an attorney to handle the matter, an expense that can quickly exceed the amount in dispute.
That's why states set up small claims courts. They offer a simplified court process an individual can use if he has a small monetary claim and doesn't want to hire a lawyer.
Small Claims Court Jurisdiction
The small claims court system has very limited jurisdiction based largely on the amount of a claim. In California, for example, an individual cannot bring suit for more than $10,000 in damages, while the damage limit for a business entity is $5,000. In addition, the state limits the number of claims above $2,500 a person may bring a year. The limits differ among states, with New York courts topping out at either $3,000 or $5,000 (depending on where the court is located) and Massachusetts at $7,000.
In addition, states limit the type of cases a person can bring in small claims court and the type of damages he can get. Usually, people bring money damage cases to small claims courts. Cases like divorce, bankruptcy or those asking for punitive damages (to punish a wrongdoer) still must go through the regular judicial system.
For example, in California the types of cases commonly filed in small claims court include:
Auto accident cases for property damage or personal injury.
Security deposit return cases in a landlord tenant dispute.
Property damage to a home or real property.
Disputes with contractors over building repairs.
Collection of debts.
Homeowner association dues issues.
Small Claims Court Procedure
States make it as easy as possible for a person to file a case in small claims court. They provide a complaint form that a person must fill in with the names and addresses of the parties, the amount in dispute and the history of the dispute. Some states require more details than others.
The claimant fills out the form then presents it to the court clerk. The clerk provides a court date and stamps the date on the complaint papers. In California, it will be between 20 and 70 days after she files her claim form.
The claimant usually must pay a filing fee when she files the complaint, but one that is much less than a regular court filing fee. In California, the fee depends on the amount of damages sought and ranges from $30 to $75, but it can go as high as $100 if someone uses the court more than 12 times in a year. Contrast this with the current filing fee for any action in San Francisco Superior Court, which is $450.
Getting to Court
The person making the claim has the responsibility to notify the person being sued about the complaint. In many states, he can get the sheriff to personally hand a copy of the complaint to the other party. Sometimes it is possible to send the complaint by mail, return receipt requested. Procedures for service vary but they are usually spelled out on the information provided by the court.
Once the other party is served, both parties can begin to perpare for the hearing. This procedure is similar to that used by attorneys to get ready for trial but much less formal.
Preparing Evidence and Witnesses
The rules as to what a person can bring with her vary among states and even counties, but usually a small claims court litigant should gather all documents that evidence the claim, any relevant photographs, estimates, bills, correspondence and police reports. She can usually get documents from another party, person or business by using a small claims court subpoena. It's also important to bring proof that the other person was served with the papers.
The claimant may also arrange for witnesses to come to court to testify. For example, if she is suing over an accident, she might ask witnesses to the accident or the mechanic who worked on her car to appear in court. In many states, she can subpoena the presence of a witness who refuses to appear voluntarily.
Postponing the Trial Date
It is entirely possible to postpone a trial date in small claims court. But a person cannot do it on his own. He must ask the court to change the court date and explain why it is necessary. And the reason must be one that the court deems valid.
Like everything else about small claims court procedures, the way a claimant goes about seeking a change of trial date will not be the same everywhere. A claimant should check with the court clear to find out the procedure in the jurisdiction he filed in.
If the claimant has a compelling reason for changing the trial date – say, for example, he is going in for surgery on the date set – he might be able to get the other side to agree to a postponement and notify the court. In some jurisdictions, he might be able to notify the court by simply calling, while in others, he might be required to send in a written request. If the claimant isn't able to get a new trial date from the court, he must appear in court on the set trial date and explain why an adjournment is required. Failure to appear may result in his case being dismissed. If the defendant fails to appear, he could receive a default judgment against him.
Cancelling a Small Claims Court Action
Many court cases get resolved before a trial date. Small claims court cases are no exception. It may be that a party feels the pressure of the looming trial date or it may be that, in preparing for trial, she realizes that she doesn't have an open-and-shut case. In any event, if the parties agree to a settlement, the court will cancel the hearing and remove the case from its calendar.
There are other reasons a claimant might decide to dismiss her small claims court action. It may be that the other party has paid up, that she cannot locate the person she wants to due or that she just simply changes her mind.
The process of dismissing a small claims court action often involves filling out a form asking for dismissal. If the claimant has resolved the matter once and for all, she can file a dismissal with prejudice. That means she cannot refile the case at a later date. A dismissal without prejudice allows her to refile later.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.