If you’re trying to recover an amount that doesn’t exceed $5,000, you’ll probably be taking your dispute to small claims court. It’s a venue for settling arguments over things like security deposits, minor damage, inadequate repair work, or a failure to abide by the terms of a contract. A small claims court judge can usually only make a financial award. That means you’ll have to go to a different court if you’re looking for a restraining order, a divorce, or anything else that isn’t strictly about recovering your money.

In New York City and other densely populated areas in the State, small claims cases are heard in civil court. In Nassau and Suffolk counties, you’ll be heading for district court. Rural areas use the justice court to hear these claims. The limit for justice courts is $3,000.

Depending on the type of claim you’re bringing the statute of limitations is usually three to six years. If you don’t commence your action in time, you’ll probably lose your right to bring a claim.

Filing a Claim

The first step in getting to a hearing is filing your claim. You’ll be asked to fill out the details, including a broad outline of the circumstances and how much you’re trying to recover. You’ll also have to pay a fee of about $20 depending on the award you’re seeking.

You’ll then be given a date for the hearing and the defendant will be served with notice that an action has been taken against them.

Preparing Your Case

The key to winning in small claims court is adequate preparation. You don’t need to have an attorney to represent you, but depending on the complexity of your claim seeking legal advice when you’re getting organized is always a good idea.

  1. Prepare a Persuasive Statement

When you’re bringing forth a case, you have the burden of proving it. That means you’re going to be asked to go first. Your statement should be a concise explanation of what happened and how you intend to back up your claims. Stick to the facts, and make sure you have some type of evidence to support every one of them.

  1. Prepare Your Paperwork

Judges need to see evidence, so make sure you gather all of the contracts, written commitments, receipts, invoices, photographs, emails, or other documents supporting your right to the money you’re asking for. Make at least three copies of everything you plan to present in court.

  1. Prepare Your Witnesses

If want to have other people testify about what they’ve seen or heard, check that they’re available for your court date. Read them your statement and make sure they’re comfortable with what you’ll be telling the judge. You need to be absolutely certain that they’ll support your claim and won’t contradict any of the facts you’re relying on.

  1. Prepare Your Testimony

This is your “case-in-chief”, the part where you get to tell the judge exactly why the defendant owes you money. Think carefully about the order in which you’ll present your evidence and how you can make your argument as convincing and easy to follow as possible. Tell your story in a forthright and straightforward manner, leading to the conclusion that you should be awarded the compensation you’re asking for.

  1. Prepare for Cross-Examination

If the defendant didn’t voluntarily pay you the money owed, they’re unlikely to go down without a fight. Think about the reasons they’ll come up with for not resolving the issue, and be ready to counter their arguments. You’ll be able to ask the defendant questions, after they’ve given their testimony. That’s the time to expose their dishonesty or any information they may be withholding by asking pointed questions. The defendant and the judge will most likely have questions for you as well, so try to anticipate these and prepare your answers long before your hearing.

 

Winning a case in small claims court is all about being organized. Make sure to file within the deadlines, keep your claim within the maximum limits, and ensure you have all the evidence you need to back up every part of your argument. The amounts involved can make hiring an attorney to represent you prohibitively expensive, but paying for a consultation to go over your case will pay off in the long run when it comes to being ready for your day in court.

 The author, Diamond Brown, is a New York barred attorney for Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig PLLC.

 

Posted in: Litigation & Disputes