For disputes that are too contentious for the parties to settle among themselves but not substantial enough to merit full-blown litigation, most states provide an in-between option: small claims court, where individuals can air grievances in limited situations.
Arizona affords its citizens such a mechanism through the Small Claims Division housed within Justice Courts in each county.
What Types of Cases Are Permitted?
The state does not allow individuals seeking more than $2,500 damages to pursue small claims lawsuits. In most cases, attorneys are not allowed. Disputes that can be litigated in small claims court include:
- Monetary debts
- Personal injury
- Property damage
In addition to individuals, corporations, associations, and partnerships are permitted to instigate small claims court actions. An elected justice of the peace decides the dispute in a more informal structure designed to be understandable enough to permit individuals to represent themselves. Verdicts cannot be appealed to a higher court.
What County Has Jurisdiction?
The claim can be initiated in the county in which the incident occurred, the county in which the complainant—the person initiating the action—resides, or the county in which the defendant resides or conducts business.
The action must be initiated within two years of the incident in complaints about personal injury or property damage; contract disputes may be filed three years after the incident. Filing fees for documents vary from county to county and can change frequently.
What Is the Process for Filing a Complaint?
Forms for filing complaints in small claims court are available online, and the state has a website that guides individuals through the process. The complaint form itself is straight forward, and the site includes a checklist to help complainants track their deadlines and responsibilities as the case progresses.
The defendant is permitted 20 days after service of the complaint to file a response, or answer, outlining his version of the incident. Counterclaims, in which the defendant contends that the plaintiff should be declared at fault, also are permitted.
How to Prepare for the Hearing
Before the trial—generally 60 days after the response—compile evidence supporting your allegations, including:
- Receipts or cancelled checks proving payment
- Relevant photographs of damaged property
- Leases, contracts, or other legal documentation
- Reports from physicians or law enforcement agencies
- Repair estimates if property damage is involved
- Medical treatment estimates in injury cases
Be prepared to provide a succinct outline of the allegations and to cite relevant portions of the law. When your day in court arrives, dress conservatively, speak clearly, maintain a respectful demeanor, and make a strictly factual, nonemotional presentation.
Collecting the Debt
In many instances winning in Small Claims Court is only the beginning of the battle; you still have to collect the money. If the defendant does not readily agree to a payment plan, immediately ask the justice for a debtor's examination that will analyze the defendant's assets and income.
Armed with that information, you can request garnishment of earnings or financial accounts—mechanisms that require the employer or bank to distribute funds directly to you instead of to the defendant until the debt is paid. You also can request a writ of execution that, if granted, would result in local authorities auctioning the defendant's assets to satisfy the debt.
Though attorneys are not generally permitted in Arizona's Small Claims Division, and the paperwork is straightforward enough that it can be completed without assistance, a lawyer's advice can be helpful in gathering evidence and ensuring that you are aware of all applicable statutes. This article is intended only as an overview. For specific questions, consult a local attorney.