Recently, WTNH’s “Ask the Lawyer” segment featured Attorney Tara Knight providing information about small claims court.
Read Attorney Knight’s advice on small claims court and watch her WTNH segment here.
The small claims court is part of the court system where a person can sue for damages up to $5,000 only. It is a streamlined process that is made user-friendly so that individuals do not have to spend the money on a lawyer in order to sue for relatively small amounts of money. Attorneys, however, can appear in small claims court. A magistrate decides the matter, not a jury or a judge. A magistrate is an attorney who will occasionally work in the court system for this purpose. There is no right to an appeal after a small claims judgment.
Some examples of cases that are brought in small claims court include back rent; return of security deposit; damage to property; unpaid claims; breach of contract; and payment of medical and hospital bills. Small claims court is not the venue to sue for slander; divorce; claims that are more than $5,000; and eviction. A typical case in small claims court might involve a doctor’s office suing a patient for non-payment of a medical bill or a person suing another person for damage done to his or her property.
There are different statutes of limitations depending on the nature of the claim being brought. A statute of limitation is essentially a time limit in which someone can sue. The time period begins when the damage or injury has occurred. Examples of statute of limitations are 6 years for written contracts; 3 years for oral contracts; 6 years for debt collection; and 2-3 years for personal property damages, depending on when the damage is discovered.
Small claims matters can be filed at the centralized small claims office in Hartford, Connecticut or at the small claims court in the district where the plaintiff lives or the defendant lives or does business or where the injury or transaction occurred. For example, if you live in New Haven and had a dispute over property damage with someone who lives in North Haven you could bring your small claims action in either New Haven court or Meriden court. Again, this system is designed to help people who do not have a legal background and the clerk’s offices in the courthouses will help people with a variety of questions.
You could also go online to the State of Connecticut judicial website, which has information as to how and where you should file a small claims matter. The process involves the person who is starting the case, also called the plaintiff, filling out a form (called the complaint) and essentially explaining the reasons for the lawsuit. The complaint then must be sent to the person being sued or the defendant. There are different ways that the complaint is served to a defendant, which include certified mail, Marshal service, etc. Once the defendant is served or notified about the lawsuit, the paperwork must then be brought back to court. A court date will eventually be assigned.
You can represent yourself in small claims court if you are being sued. If you receive a small claims complaint you must fill out the paperwork explaining why you are not at fault or responsible for the damages. It is important that you do this because if you do not respond, a default judgment can enter against you which means that the plaintiff can request that the magistrate award him or her money damages without hearing your side of the case. You can obtain any of the forms online. The form must be signed and your signature notarized. There is a $95 fee associated with the filing of the small claims case in the court.
Eventually, you will be notified of a court date. At the court date, you will go in front of the magistrate and explain your side of the case. You should bring any supporting documentation with you. You can also bring witnesses. It is not a formal court–there is no jury and the rules of evidence are extremely relaxed.
The small claims court does not collect the money for you but instead issues you a judgment meaning that the magistrate has ruled in your favor. If you are successful in obtaining a judgment, you can go to the clerk’s office of the court and ask for something called an execution. An execution authorizes you to hire a Marshal to attach someone’s wages or certain property or even take money from a banking account or other financial institution under certain circumstances.