Small claims court allows individuals to file lawsuits for a specific amount of money and have an informal proceeding to settle the matter. If you are thinking of filing a suit in small claims court, also called magistrate court in Georgia, you should be aware of the state's rules and limits on the use of this court.
Types of Cases and Damages Allowed
You may only file certain types of cases in small claims court, including:
- Eviction for not paying rent
- Rental security deposit return
- Refund or replacement of defective merchandise
Your claim must be worth less than $15,000, unless it is an eviction of a tenant, which has no limit. You may not waive your right to any excess value, so if your claim is worth $17,000, you cannot forgo the extra $2,000 just to use this court.
What to Include in Your Complaint
Your complaint must state certain information, including:
- A description of your complaint and the facts surrounding it, including relevant dates
- Your name, address, and phone number
- The defendant's name and residence address
- Your attorney's name, if using an attorney
- A description of the damages you seek
- Copies of relevant paperwork, such as receipts or bills
You must sign the form in front of a witness, either the court clerk or a notary public if filing by mail. You must also pay a filing fee based on the number of defendants.
Defendant's Rights and Responsibilities
The court serves a copy of your claim and a summons on the defendant who has 30 days from receipt of the summons to file an answer. This answer may include a counterclaim, as long as it is both related to your claim and worth less than $15,000. After receiving the answer, the court notifies both sides of the hearing date.
Preparing For and Attending the Hearing
You may have to try mediation just before your hearing. If you can settle your differences, you will not need to attend a hearing. Even so, you should prepare as if you will have a hearing. Gather all your documentation and other evidence. Make enough copies for the judge and all defendants. Make sure your witnesses are ready to appear, or request a subpoena to order them to appear. Practice presenting your case.
Jury trials are not allowed in Georgia's magistrate courts, so a judge will hear your case. Each side has a chance to present evidence and to cross-examine the other side, similar to a regular trial. The judge may make a decision right away or may review the evidence and mail copies of the judgment to everyone involved.
If either side fails to appear, the judge may choose to hear only the one side and make a decision based on that evidence. The judge may also postpone or dismiss the case.
Collecting Your Money
The court does not collect awards, so it is up to you to do it if you win. If the defendant refuses to pay, you have a few options:
- Send it to collections. You may have to pay the collection agency a percentage of what it collects.
- Request garnishment of the defendant's wages or bank account. You will usually receive the money in installments.
- Request a lien on property owned by the defendant. Some property is protected from liens.
Sometimes it is worth thinking about your chances of collecting on a judgment even before you decide to sue.
How a Small Claims Attorney Can Help
A Georgia small claims attorney can help you evaluate your claim, put together a strong case, and decide what damages to pursue. This can be valuable advice, even if you present your case yourself.