Laws may vary from state to state. The information in this site has been presented with a New Hampshire audience in mind. Consult your local library to learn more about the laws in your state.
Remedies: Small Claims Court
Legal disputes can be very frustrating for consumers. The cost of hiring a lawyer is often greater than the amount in dispute, making a lawsuit unreasonable from a monetary standpoint. What, then, are consumers to do when they feel they have been wronged? The Small Claims Court is one place that minor legal disputes can often be resolved with relatively little time and expense. In New Hampshire, Small Claims Court is not a separate court. Rather, it is a procedure available in District Courts throughout the state and is sometimes referred to as a small claims session.
What Is a Small Claim?
It is a simple, speedy, and informal method by which an individual appears before a judge of the district or municipal court, presents his or her claim, and explains why another person or business owes money to him or her. RSA Chapter 503 governs the small claims process. In addition, a person who is filing or defending against a small claim will want to be familiar with the Rules of the District Court. While there is a section within the District Court Rules that specifically deals with small claims, there are others, which will be relevant to the small claims process.
Effective January 1, 2010 a person or entity may sue any person or business whom it is alleged owes $7,500 or less or who has caused damage of $7,500 or less. Any claim in excess of $5,000 is subject to mandatory mediation. Please feel free to visit the mediation section of the Judicial Branch Web site. If the claim is over $1500, the Defendant may request a jury trial. If such a request is filed, the parties will be notified when the case is transferred to the county Superior Court for trial by jury. Although not required in Small Claims Court, any persons or businesses involved in the proceedings may be represented by a lawyer if they wish. Another aspect of a small claims proceeding is that a judge may ask to hear any evidence deemed relevant and proper, since the technical rules of evidence do not apply in a small claims proceeding. If the claim would require the court to decide ownership of real estate, it must be filed in the Superior Court and may not be filed as a small claim.
EXAMPLE: Lois Dandy lost a $8000 deposit on a house when her financing did not come through in a timely manner. Lois may decide to take the seller to Small Claims Court to get her deposit back – even though the maximum she could be awarded would be $7500 – because it is easier and less expensive to do so than to hire a lawyer and sue in Superior Court.
If the small claim exceeds $1500, the person or business being sued has a right to a jury trial. The defendant must file a written request for a jury trial within five business days of the filing of the small claim, unless the municipal or district court grants more time where the defendant has shown good cause. The small claim will then be transferred to the Superior Court for resolution.
How to File a Claim
The procedure is straightforward. A claim may be filed either in the district court where the plaintiff lives, where the defendant lives, or where the legal wrong arose. The small claim is filed with the district or municipal court clerk. District Courts are usually open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but you may want to call the court to find out the hours before making the trip. You must file a statement about your claim called a "complaint" which includes the amount in dispute and the defendant's name and address. An application fee, which runs about $60.00, must accompany the claim. The clerk will mail a notice of the claim to the defendant directing the defendant to respond to the complaint within thirty days and to request a hearing if desired. The hearing is scheduled at least fourteen days after the defendant responds to the complaint. You, as the complaining party, must make certain that before you appear in court there is a return receipt showing that the defendant received the notice at least fourteen (14) days before the hearing.
Even after a complaint has been filed, you and the defendant may still try to settle the dispute yourselves. As a courtesy to the court, you should always advise the clerk's office whenever a settlement is reached. If you reach a settlement, you will need to find out if the clerk's office requires any additional documents be filed to close the case.
On the day of the hearing, the parties appear in the court and tell their stories to the judge. Both you and the defendant must be sure to give the judge all documents and correspondence relating to the dispute (such as copies of warranties, receipts, leases, written correspondence, etc.). Also, any other persons who are witnesses – that is, who know about the transaction prompting the dispute, should be available in court. Based on the statements of the witnesses and other evidence, the judge will enter a judgment for one of the parties. (The "People's Court" television show is a very good example of how most courts handle small claims cases.)
If a defendant who has received proper notice does not appear in court, the plaintiff is usually entitled to a judgment in his or her favor. Also, a defendant with a claim against the plaintiff arising from the disputed transaction may raise that claim in court. The judge will award court costs when the plaintiff wins. On the other hand, the court will not necessarily award costs to a prevailing defendant. "The findings of fact by the justice hearing the claim shall be final, but questions of law may be transferred to the supreme court in the same manner as from the superior court."
Enforcing a Judgment
Once a judge makes a decision in the plaintiff's favor, the defendant may pay immediately. However, if the defendant professes insufficient funds to immediately settle the claim, the judge can order payment in installments.
If the defendant refuses to pay or engages in delaying tactics, you should ask either the county sheriff or a member of the sheriff's office about the enforcement of court judgments. One way to enforce payment is to ask the court to "attach" property belonging to the defendant. An attachment is a court order which permits the Sheriff to sell the defendant's property to satisfy a judgment. Procedures for obtaining an attachment vary from county to county, so you may find it helpful to consult an attorney.
Whether or not payment is ever actually collected, most people who have sued in Small Claims Court are satisfied. Having aired their grievances in court makes most people feel as though they have done their best, whether they win or lose legally.
Points to Remember
What To Do, Where To Go If You Have A Problem
A number of good books are available at your local library or bookstore on Small Claims Courts and how to prepare your case. These books are "how-to" books and will explain, in general terms, what you need to do to file a claim and prepare for court.
To file a small claim, contact the municipal or district court clerk nearest where you live.
If your problem is worth more than $7,500, you may want to discuss with an attorney whether it would be easier to simply file a small claims suit for the $7,500 maximum rather than going to "real" court.
If you have a problem with filing a small claim, contact the clerk of court where you filed the claim.
New Hampshire Department of Justice | 33 Capitol Street | Concord, NH | 03301