What is Small Claims Court and how can I use it?

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

What is Small Claims Court?

Small Claims Court handles cases for claims of $5,000.00 or less. The judge in Small Claims Court only has the power to award money judgments.

How can I use Small Claims Court?

You can use Small Claims Court for many different types of cases, including: 1. disputes over money owed for security deposits, utility bills or rent; 2. claims for the value of damaged, lost or destroyed personal property; 3. money damages resulting from an unlawful eviction. Small Claims Court is not a separate court, but part of a City, Town, Village or Justice Court. Remember, claims may not be for more than $5,000.

Do I need a lawyer to go to Small Claims Court?

No. Lawyers are not necessary in Small Claims Court, but you can use a lawyer.

How do I start a case in Small Claims Court?

You may only sue in the Small Claims Court in the county where the one you are suing (“the defendant”) lives, has a place of business, or has a regular place of employment. There is a nominal fee.

Small Claims cases are not heard everyday in every court. You may telephone the courts to find out the days of the week Small Claims are on the calendar.

If you are under 18, your parent or guardian must file for you. The filing fee is between $10-$20.

You must personally visit the court to start a small claims action. The courts are open every weekday, except legal holidays, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The initial step in small claims requires a personal visit to the court. This particular task cannot be accomplished by mail nor on the telephone.

If you are not able to come to court to start the suit, it may be started by someone acting on your behalf. When you arrive at court you or the person acting for you will be required to complete a form which calls for the inclusion of your name and address, the name and address of the person or firm you wish to sue and a brief statement of the facts of your claim against the defendant. You also will have to state the amount of money you seek as damages. If necessary, you will be assisted by the clerk in the preparation of the form. When the form has been completed you or the person acting for you will be required to sign the form.

What should I take when I go to file my case?

When you go to file, make sure you have:

1. name and address of defendant

2. the reason you are suing

3. the date the problem occurred

4. the amount the defendant owes you

5. any proof you have, such as letters, etc., showing your attempts to settle the dispute.

You will be given a hearing date. The court will contact the person you are suing.

Can the person I am suing try to sue me?

Yes. The person you are suing (the defendant) may decide to sue you for money owed from the same event. This is called a “counterclaim”. In Small Claims Court the limit on a counterclaim is $5,000.00.

What should I do if the case is settled before the hearing?

If you and the defendant settle your case before the hearing, put your agreement in writing, and tell the Small Claims Court clerk before the hearing date.

What do I do to prepare for the hearing?

To prepare for the hearing, plan what you want to say and show. If there are any witnesses, ask them to go to the hearing. If they will not go, ask the Small Claims Court clerk for a subpoena for the witness. You can ask the clerk for a subpoena when you go to court to file the claim or any time before the date of trial. The clerk will tell you how to serve the subpoena.

Decide what you need to bring to the hearing to prove your case. The following are examples of some evidence you will need for different kinds of cases:

1. My landlord won’t return my security deposit.

  • Bring your lease or rental agreement if you have one along with any receipts you have that show how much security deposit you paid.

  • If your landlord might say you damaged the apartment, bring photographs or witnesses who can talk about the condition of your apartment on the day you moved out.

  • If your landlord might say you moved out owing rent money, bring rent receipts to show that you paid your rent.

  • You must prove first how much security you paid. Then you must show that you do not owe your landlord for rent or damages if your landlord says you do.

2. My landlord has kept my property.

  • Bring a list of your lost possessions and what they are worth. If possible, bring receipts or estimates that show how much you spent for your things. You can also bring pictures or witnesses who can describe what your possessions looked like and how much they were worth.

  • If you believe that your landlord still has your possessions, tell the judge. You must prove that your landlord took your possessions, what those possessions were and how much they are worth.

  • I didn’t pay my rent because the landlord refused to repair my apartment.

  • If your landlord has refused to make repairs, you may be able to get money back from the rent you have already paid. This is called a “rent abatement”. If you want a rent abatement, call us and we will send you some information on what you need to show.

Can I ask for a jury?

No, but if the defendant wants one, he or she may request one.

What happens at the hearing?

First, you may be asked if you want your case to go before a judge or arbitrator. Both sides must agree. Arbitrators are lawyers who volunteer to hear cases. The arbitrator will hear your case privately so there will be no large audience. You can not appeal an arbitrator’s decision. In this letter, when we say judge, we mean arbitrator as well.

What happens next?

Both sides tell their story to the judge.

The judge will probably ask questions. You and the defendant will have a chance to question each other and any witnesses. Don’t try to act like a lawyer. Tell your story clearly and honestly. Show the judge any evidence (letters, bills, etc.) you have. Don’t interrupt or argue with your opponent.

When will the judge make a decision?

The judge will make a decision after listening to both sides. The judge may tell you the decision in court or you may have to wait for it in the mail.

What happens if I miss my court date?

Your claim will be dismissed and it will be very difficult to try to bring it again later.

If the defendant doesn’t show up, you will most likely win by default.

Can I appeal if I lose?

Not usually, you can only appeal if the judge made a very serious mistake. An arbitrator’s decision can never be appealed.

How do I collect my money if I win?

If the defendant has little or no money or property, it may be impossible.

In other cases, if the defendant does not pay you in a reasonable time, go to the Clerk of Small Claims Court for help. Take with you any information you have about the defendant’s bank accounts, property and employment.

You will probably be directed to the Marshal’s office or Sheriff’s Department for assistance. There will be a fee for their services.

What if I am sued in Small Claims Court?

  • Do not ignore a notice saying you are being sued, even if you think you have done nothing wrong.

  • If you don’t know why you are being sued, call the person who sued you.

  • If you settle, put it in writing; if not, go to the hearing ready to tell your side of the story.

  • If you can’t go to the hearing on the day you are supposed to, change the date beforehand with your opponent and the Small Claims Court clerk.

  • If you think your opponent owes you money, call the Small Claims Court clerk before the hearing for information on how to “counterclaim.”

  • You may request a jury; call the clerk in advance; there will be some costs involved.

  • More detailed information is available, see the brochure: Guide to Small Claims Court in New York City, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties.

  • For forms and Small Claims procedure in Suffolk

  • For forms and Small Claims procedure in Nassau

If you need more information, counseling or assistance on small claims and consumer matters you can call the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) Small Claims Court Action Center for help at: (516) 222-0086 (Nassau) or call 212 349-6460 (Suffolk).

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