Legal action for non-payment of invoices, services or other contractual obligations starts with choosing the right court. The appropriate court might be small claims, or it might be the court of general jurisdiction. The court may be a county court or a court in another state. The person suing, called the plaintiff, must file a complaint in the correct court, following that court's rules.
Suing in the Right Location
Suing for non-payment of services or other agreed-upon monetary obligations is usually not complicated at the start, but the plaintiff must choose the correct venue for the suit. Every state has its own laws about venue. Venue is the location of the court where the lawsuit is brought.
In most states, however, collections actions must be brought in the state where the defendant resides. If the defendant is a business, then the venue is usually one near the defendant's principal place of business.
Once the plaintiff knows which state to sue in, she must make sure to sue in the correct county. Every county has its own court system. The state's court rules will specify which county is appropriate.
Forum Selection Clauses
Some business contracts contain language that states which venue is proper. The parties to the contract, by signing it, agree that any disputes will be resolved in the courts of a particular state. These types of clauses are called forum selection clauses, and courts routinely enforce them between business entities. However, the court may not enforce such a clause in a contract between a business and a consumer (such as a personal loan a bank made to an individual).
Finding the Right Court
Each state and county has a court system that has several levels of courts. For the initial filing of a lawsuit, the plaintiff must choose between small claims court, which is for cases below a certain dollar amount, or the court of general jurisdiction, which is the main trial court for that county.
Small Claims Court for Non-Payment or Contractual Disputes
Small claims courts are designed to expeditiously resolve cases involving smaller amounts of money. For example, in New York City, small claims court is only for cases involving $5,000 or less. In Philadelphia, the small claims court is called municipal court, and cases cannot involve more than $12,000.
Small claims court is beneficial because it moves quickly and many of the cases do not involve attorneys. In Michigan, small claims court does not permit parties to have attorneys (although many states do allow it).
Read More: How Does Small Claims Court Work?
Courts of General Jurisdiction
The courts of general jurisdiction are the main courts for each county. These are the courts that try cases large and small. Cases above the small claims limit must be filed in these courts. In New York, the courts of general jurisdiction are called Supreme Courts, while in Pennsylvania, they are called the Courts of Common Pleas, and in Michigan, they are called Circuit Courts. These courts can hear cases of any dollar amount.
Filing the Complaint With the Court
To initiate the lawsuit, the plaintiff must prepare a complaint. Many counties have forms online to give plaintiffs a template. Some small claims courts require plaintiffs to come to the court and receive assistance from the clerk.
The complaint should contain a caption that names the plaintiff and the defendant or defendants, as well as the name of the court. The complaint should then, in numbered paragraphs, describe the facts of the case, detailing the reasons why the defendant owes the money. If required by court rule, the invoices or contract should be attached. The complaint must be signed by the plaintiff and then served on the defendant, either by the sheriff or by a private process server.
Once the complaint is filed and served, the lawsuit will proceed in accordance with the rules of court.
Someone who is owed money can sue for the balance due by filing a complaint in the correct court.
Rebecca K. McDowell is a creditors' rights attorney with a special focus on bankruptcy and insolvency. She has a B.A. in English from Albion College and a J.D. from Wayne State University Law School. She has written legal articles for Nolo and the Bankruptcy Site.