By: Dan Spicer
We’ve all encountered situations in life where we have felt wronged—maybe by an unscrupulous neighbor, a greedy business associate, or an unreliable contractor who did not meet expectations. At the end of the day, you feel they owe you some money. You ask nicely for them to pay you what you feel they owe you, but they (perhaps not so nicely) refuse. You might be able to take them to conciliation, or “small claims”, court. Examples are always effective at understanding relatively difficult or new concepts, so let’s take the unscrupulous neighbor example.
Your neighbor ran over a cable line on your property.
While mowing her lawn, your neighbor, Ms. Smith, came onto your yard with her mower and severed your cable/internet line. You saw her do it, your other neighbor, Bill, saw her do it, and you even had the inclination at the time to snap a number of 8×10 color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was. You approach her (masked, and from six feet away of course) and ask her to pay you for the cost to repair the severed line. She gives you a litany of excuses and ultimately refuses to pay.
You pay the cable company to fix the severed line.
It took $3,000.00 and a long wait between the hours of 4AM and 11PM on a Tuesday, but you got the cable line fixed (and let’s face it, you were working from home due to COVID anyways so the wait wasn’t that big of a deal). Ms. Smith walks right by the technician as she is repairing the severed line and pretends not to notice.
You send her the bill and ask her to pay. She sends a letter back which says, among other things, “no”.
Judge Judy Time.
We all know and love Judge Judy. Incidentally, the popular television show is not a bad representation of small claims court. It is a good idea to take some initiative and watch a couple episodes to brush up on generally what you can expect. Here is a quick list of some big points of small claims (see what I did there?):
- $15,000.00 cap on damages
- Cheap filing fees
- Less formal proceedings (no transcript is taken)
- Settlements are very common
- Decisions are easy to appeal
See our other blog post “Five Things You Need to Know about Conciliation or ‘Small Claims’ Court” for more on these points and a list of disputes not permitted in conciliation court.
Ostensibly, normal court (i.e., district court) has a lot of rules that you have to follow if you want to sue someone. A key point for small claims court is these rules are fundamentally relaxed to allow for lay people to come in, bring whatever evidence they feel is necessary (without having to worry about rules for entering evidence into a court record) and quickly settle disputes. You might say this is a conciliatory framework for handling small disputes!
Do I need a lawyer?
Bear in mind, a lawyer is writing this blog post. Naturally, you would expect the answer to be yes, always and forever hire me for everything. But there are key considerations in hiring a lawyer for disputes like the one we have here with our not-so-neighborly neighbor. These are:
- Do I want the lawyer to both (a) help me file and serve the lawsuit AND (b) appear with me at the hearing?
- If I win, do I want the lawyer to help me docket the judgment in district court so I can attempt to collect on it?
- If I lose, do I want the lawyer to help me with the appeal?
- Are the costs of retaining an attorney justified in light of the small amount in dispute?
You want the most return on your investment, and you want to win. So do we. If you do not feel confident navigating the small claims process alone or want an analysis of the merits of your case before you file it, a flat-fee initial consult is always a viable option.
Your Day in Court.
You filed the lawsuit. You followed the rules for service of the Statement of Claim and Summons (and remembered to file the affidavit of service). You gathered your evidence (i.e., the 8×10 color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, and the $3,000 repair invoice), and provided that evidence to Ms. Smith before the hearing, and made sure your neighbor/witness Bill knew to show up on time. It is common for parties to settle before the hearing (in fact, courts often instruct parties to head into a conference room and try to settle beforehand). If you don’t settle, if you forget your paperwork, if Bill doesn’t show, or if Ms. Smith lawyers up and you somehow lose, you have the right to appeal (and the order you get from the court after the small claims hearing will remind you of the deadline). At any point in the process, you are entitled to seek representation from an attorney to help increase the odds you will succeed.
Our attorneys provide counsel to clients in preparing claims in conciliation court and, when appropriate, appear with clients in conciliation or small claims court proceedings.
To learn more about the legal representation and guidance we provide to our clients about conciliation court, please call us at 952-432-3136 or, if you prefer, contact us via e-mail.