I sat in court yesterday watching people’s lives unravel: who was being evicted…..who was owed money……who was losing his license! These are sad times we live in and going to court to enforce your rights can be intimidating for the uninitiated. I will confess that many attorneys even suffer from “Black Robe Syndrome” but they never let you see them sweat!
So, how can you, as an individual, get what you’re owed without paying a fortune in legal fees? New York has made Small Claims Court relatively easy and this Westchester attorney is offering you a very rudimentary guide to key points in navigating the judicial waters.
1. Get friendly with the local court clerk. Their office is usually located at your local town or village, even city, hall. Each clerk runs his or her office differently so ask questions and they will tell you exactly what they want and how they want it. Basically, they will give you a one-page form to fill out and charge you a small filing fee ($10 if claim is $1,000 or less and $15 if it is over $1,000 in towns and villages and slightly higher in the cities) to serve that notice on your opponent.
2. Who can sue? Anyone 18 years old or over can sue someone for money damages only in a Small Claims Court in New York. You must file the claim in the town/village/city where the defendant resides. In the case of a business, if it is a corporation, it resides where its corporate office is located.
3. How much can I sue for? In the towns/villages you can sue up to $3,000 and in the cities, you can sue up to $5,000. So, if you are a landscaper and a client owes you $3,899 you would have to forgo $899 in order to sue them in Small Claims Court; however, what’s your alternative? You are not going to file a Supreme Court Action for such a small amount of money.
(NOTE: You can bring a commercial small claim against a corporation for up to $5,000)
4. How long will it take to resolve? Small Claims Court is generally a court of quick resolution. Unless it is the summer, you will likely get a court date within a month of filing the action and a decision is generally rendered in court if both parties show up for a hearing with support for their respective positions. However, if the claimant does not show up on the court date, the case will be dismissed and if the defendant does not show, the judge will hold an inquest and evaluate evidence presented before rendering a default judgment for the claimant. Even if you prevail, an absent defendant can still appeal a default judgment.
5. What should I bring to Court? If it’s an accident claim, bring photos, receipts and any other evidence to indicate damage caused and claimed. If it’s for an outstanding debt, bring any relevant paperwork such as contracts, receipts, bills of sale, even emails or other correspondence to show the agreement between the parties.
Finally, be aware that even if you win in Small Claims Court, you still have to collect the judgment! Of course, this is just a quick guide and each claim is different. If you are unsure, it is always best to consult a lawyer. Your local Court Clerk can provide you with a state pamphlet offering greater detail about the Small Claims Court process and the NYS Court system offers an online guide as well.