Small Claims

Who Can Sue and Be Sued?

Any individual, business, partnership, or corporation (with a couple of exceptions) may bring a small claims suit for recovery of money only for an amount up to $5,000. A small claims case must be filed in the county of the defendant’s residence, or in the case of a traffic accident, the county where the accident occurred. The State of Washington may not be sued in Small Claims Court. Attorneys and paralegals are excluded from appearing or participating with the plaintiff or defendant in a small claims suit unless the judge grants permission.

How Much Does It Cost?

You must pay the court clerk a $14.00 filing fee at the time the suit is filed. You may have some additional fees payable to the sheriff or process server to have the Notice of Small Claims served on the defendant. As an alternative, you may commence the suit by registered or certified, return receipt mailing. If you win your case, you are entitled to recover your costs of filing and service fees.

How Do I Get Started?

First, you will prepare a Notice of Small Claims form that is provided by the clerk. You are required to sign the Notice in the presence of the clerk, unless otherwise instructed by the court. On the Notice form, the clerk will enter a hearing date, trial date, or response date. It is the plaintiff’s responsibility to accurately identify the defendant, provide a proper address and, if possible, provide a phone number.

Serving the Notice

The clerk will assist you with all the steps and procedures of starting a suit. The clerk is not allowed to give legal advice or attempt to predict how the judge might rule in a given situation. Service of the claim form can be accomplished by any of the following: (1) the Sheriff’s office, (2) a process server; (3) any person of legal age (18) who is not connected with the case either as a witness or a party, and (4) by mailing the copies to the defendant by certified or registered mail with a return receipt requested

The Notice of Small Claims must be served on the defendant not less than ten (10) days before the first hearing. A return of service, or mail return receipt bearing the defendant’s signature, must be filed at or before the time of the first hearing. You cannot personally serve the claim.

Can the Defendant File a Counterclaim?

The defendant may file a counterclaim against the plaintiff for any money he believes the plaintiff owes him.  The counterclaim should be filed immediately upon receipt of the claim of plaintiff.  Both plaintiff’s claim and defendant’s counterclaim will be heard at the same hearing.

What If We Settle?

In most cases, neither party is one hundred percent right nor wrong. You are encouraged to try to settle your case before trial. If you settle the dispute before the hearing, you must inform the court in writing so the hearing can be canceled and your case dismissed. If the other party agrees to pay at a later date, you may ask the court for a continuance. If the other party pays before the postponed date, ask the court to cancel the hearing. If you do not receive your money by the time of the continued hearing, proceed with the case in court. If you drop the suit, you’re filing fee and service costs are not returned.

Preparing For The Trial

You can help yourself by being well prepared. To prepare for the trial, collect all papers, photographs, receipts, estimates, canceled checks, or other documents that concern the case. All documents you present, as evidence must be marked with Exhibit ‘A’, Exhibit ‘B’, etc. You will also need the originals plus three (3) copies of each document for the judge, defendant and yourself. It may be helpful to write down ahead of time the facts of the case in the order that they occurred. This will help you to organize your thoughts and to make a clear presentation of your story to the judge.

What Happens At The Trial?

When your case is called in the courtroom, come forward to the counsel table and the judge will swear in all the parties and witnesses.

Don’t be nervous-remember that a trial in small claims is informal. The judge will ask the plaintiff to give his or her side first, then will ask the defendant for his or her explanation. Be brief and stick to the facts. The judge may interrupt you with questions, which you should answer straight out and to the best of your knowledge.

Be polite-do not interrupt-not just to the judge but also to your opponent. Whatever happens, keep your temper. Good manners and even tempers help the fair, efficient conduct of the trial, and make a good impression.

After the judge has heard both sides, he or she will normally announce the decision right then.  The judgment will be sent to each party.

What If My Opponent Does Not Appear For Trial?

If the defendant fails to appear for trial, the plaintiff will be granted judgment for the amount of the claim proven in court, plus costs-provided the plaintiff can show proof of service. If the plaintiff fails to appear, the claim is dismissed; however, generally the court will permit the plaintiff to start over, if good cause for the non-appearance is shown.

How Do I Collect My Money?

A money judgment in your favor does not necessarily mean that the money will be paid. The Small Claims Court does not collect the judgment for you. If no appeal is taken and the judgment is not paid within 30 days, you may request (in writing) a transcript. Upon payment of the $ 20.00 transcript fee, the judgment will be entered into the civil docket of the court. At that time you may proceed with a method of collection such as garnishment of wages, bank accounts, and other monies of the defendant or an execution may be issued on cars, boats, or other personal property of the judgment debtor. Remember that the clerks cannot give you legal advice. You may need the assistance of an attorney or collection agency at this point. In the alternative, you may take your transcript of the judgment and file it in superior court for a fee of $20.00. The superior court clerk or county auditor may require other fees. When this is done, it places a lien against all real estate in the name of the judgment debtor that is located in the county.

When the judgment has been paid in full you must send written notice to the district court that the judgment has been satisfied.

Can You Appeal A Case If You Lose?

The party who files a claim or counterclaim cannot appeal unless the amount claimed exceeds $1,000.00. No party may appeal a judgment where the amount claimed is less than $250.00. To appeal a small claims follow the instructions in SMALL CLAIMS APPEAL.