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How to Bring a Case in Small Claims Court

Small Claims Court is a special part of Civil Court set up to give people a practical way to sue for up to $5000 without a lawyer. Anyone over 18 can sue another individual, a corporation, or a business with a New York City address. You cannot sue out-of-towners in Small Claims and you cannot sue for anything other than money (such as the return of property).

To begin a Small Claims case, go to the Small Claims Court Clerk’s office in your borough. In Brooklyn, the Clerk’s office is at 141 Livingston Street (corner of Smith) in Room 905. The clerks will help you fill out a claim form. You will need to give the clerk the name and address of the person or corporation you want to sue and a brief description of the facts about your claim. Check documents or records you have to help you remember when events occurred.

To file a claim, you will have to pay a fee of $10.00 for a claim of up to $1000 or $15.00 if the claim is over $1000. Sue for the amount of damages suffered (make sure to include everything). When you file your claim, the clerk will tell you when to go to court for your trial. In Brooklyn, the trial will be on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening at 6:30 P.M. in Room 305 at 141 Livingston Street.

The clerk will mail a copy of your claim to the person or organization you sued by regular and certified mail. (The person sued is called the “defendant;” you are the “plaintiff.”) Once the defendant gets your claim, the defendant can “counterclaim” (sue you back) if the defendant believes you are the one that owes money. Often a claim and counterclaim will be tried at the same time.

Small Claims Trials

Make sure to be on time for your trial. Your case may be thrown out if you are late.

Going to a Small Claims trial can be scary, partly because there will often be hundreds of people in Room 305 where you go to get started. But it doesn’t have to be hard to try a Small Claims case. First, decide if you are ready for trial. If you are not ready, ask the Judge for a new court date (an “adjournment”). Adjournments are discouraged in Small Claims Court, but ask for one if you need it, if, for example, an important witness cannot come that day.

Next decide whether you want a judge to try your case or an arbitrator to decide it. An arbitrator is a volunteer lawyer who will decide your case. You cannot appeal from an arbitrator’s decision. You can appeal a judge’s decision, but appeals are not usually practical in Small Claims because they are expensive. Most people agree to an arbitrator.

A Small Claims trial is usually short and the procedure is informal. The plaintiff presents evidence first and then the defendant. Evidence can consist of testimony (oral statements) by the plaintiff, the defendant, or their witnesses, documents (contracts, receipts), or physical evidence (photographs or the actual merchandise that is in dispute). The most important thing is to be prepared for trial. Gather the evidence in advance; plan what you are going to say; and bring witnesses who can help your case.

If a necessary witness won’t come voluntarily, you can ask to have the witness subpoenaed (ordered by the court to appear). Apply for a subpoena at least 48 hours before the trial by going to the Small Claims Clerk’s office. A subpoena costs $15 plus the cost of travel to court for the person subpoenaed. Remember that subpoenaed witnesses sometimes end up mad at the person that forced them to come to court.

Sometimes plaintiffs can only prove the cost of making repairs or getting a service by getting a written estimate from a store or garage. If you want to use written estimates, you should get two itemized estimates of the cost of the service or repairs required.

If the defendant does not appear at the trial even though the defendant received the claim, the court will direct an “inquest.” An inquest is a trial with only the plaintiff participating.

Settlements

Often judges and arbitrators will try to get the parties to settle their differences and agree to an amount to be paid. This is usually less than the amount sued for. Settlements can also be agreed to before the day of trial. But remember, you always have the right to a trial. No one, not even the judge or arbitrator, can force you to settle if you don’t want to.

Collecting if you win

Winning your case (getting a “judgment” for money against the defendant), does not do you much good unless you can actually collect the money. This can be difficult if the defendant will not pay voluntarily. Think about how you are going to collect before you file your claim. If there is no practical way to collect, it may not be worth it to sue.

To collect, you need to identify some money or property of the defendant. Take this information to the City Sheriff or a City Marshal (their numbers are in the phone book). Sheriffs and Marshals can take the defendant’s money or take and sell property and turn some of the proceeds over to you. It’s easiest to collect if you can find a bank account or wages.

To help you locate money or property, you can ask the Small Claims Court, before the end of your case, to order the defendant to disclose his assets and not to dispose of them. After the case is over, you can get an “information subpoena” from the Small Claims Clerk for $2.00. The information subpoena is served on the defendant and orders the defendant to give you information about assets within 7 days.

More Help

Questions can come up in a Small Claims case. Often the Small Claims Clerk can answer them. Ask the Clerks if they have a useful booklet called “A Guide To Small Claims Court.” Good luck.

This article was posted March 28, 2007