A Big Guide to Small Claims Court- Part II: File Away!

This is the second in a multi-part series that explores and explains filing and winning a small claims court case.  When available, you can access the prior part by clicking here.

In an earlier post we explained what types of cases can be brought in small claims court.  Once you’ve decided that small claims court is for you, it’s time to file the case.

Starting a case in a small claims court is pretty easy.  Really, you just show up and tell whoever is behind the window, below, “I need to sue this deadbeat.”

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You’ll need to fill out a few forms explaining what happened and how much you’re owed. There is also typically a small fee.  In New York City, it is $15 for a claim under $1,000 and $20 for a claim over.  Generally the court will take cash or a credit card, but check.  We’ve seen some finicky courts that require a check or money order because they won’t handle cash and can’t figure out how to process credit cards (really).

Some courts allow you to start an action by mail, which is pretty handy if you’re suing someone far from where you live.  In that case, follow the instructions and mail everything to the court in the way they ask it to be mailed.  But be warned- even if you start the action by mail you will need to make the trip to the court eventually for the hearing.

Also be warned: Courts are notorious for losing things in the mail or just putting aside mailed documents that don’t fully comply and then not notifying you that your claim was not processed.  So if you do mail documents, always follow up with a call to make sure the case has been received and is being processed.   It’s only a matter of time before all courts allow you to file claims online. Some places are already doing that -- like Los Angeles.  When you’re thinking about bringing a case, its best to go to the court’s website to see whether they have some type of file by mail or electronic filing system.

It’s essential that you have the correct name and correct address of the person or company you’re suing.  The clerk is going to send what you filled out to them by certified mail and first class mail.  If it comes back as undelivered, you’re suit is going to be postponed until they have the right address.  And in most places, you’re not going to know  the mailing was returned until you show up for your court date and are told that nothing can happen because the notification was returned as undelivered.  So not having the right address can really be a problem.

When you give the clerk back the form, you’ll get a date for a hearing.  If you’ve done it my mail (or electronically), the Court will mail back a notification of your court date.  In some places the small claims part meets every day of the week.  In other places it meets more like once a month. Everywhere, however, these courts are understaffed and overwhelmed, so your court date might be quite a bit in the future.

Pro Tip: If you go in person, bring your calendar.  Most clerks will let you pick a date you’re able to make it, but only if you ask nicely.  Otherwise, they will schedule your court date the evening of your birthday, your significant other’s birthday, or your anniversary, or that important client dinner you’ve had planned for weeks. Guarantied.  Most small claims courts operate at night so folks could come after work. But they also have day sessions available, generally.  Just ask.

Assuming that you filled out the form, had a few bucks to pay, had the right address and got a date that works, the next step is showing up at the courthouse on the date of your hearing.

In the next part, we’ll explore what should happen when you show up on your court date.