Before you file a small claims suit, consider the importance of the matter in dispute and compare it to the time, effort and expense required to assert your claim. You should also consider the probable chances of winning your lawsuit.
If at all possible, try to settle your dispute out of court. When a reasonable agreement can't be reached, a small claims complaint may be filed. The first step in filing a small claims action is obtaining and filling out the necessary forms.
Where to File
A plaintiff begins a small claims case by filing a complaint with the clerk of the small claims division in a justice court. The plaintiff must file the complaint in the justice court in which the defendant resides or operates a business, or where the act giving rise to the claim took place.
A complaint form can be obtained from the clerk of the court. The information required on the complaint is:
- The name and address of the defendant
- The reason for filing the complaint
- The amount of money being disputed
Correct names and addresses are vital to your case because the court can't grant a judgment against a defendant who is improperly named in the complaint. Therefore, you must find out before you go to court the name and address of the person or business your claim is against.
If your lawsuit is against an individual who is married, you must name that person's husband or wife as a defendant, too. This is because Arizona is a community property state. That means that most property acquired by a married couple during the marriage belongs to both of them equally.
If you don't name the spouse of the person you are suing in your lawsuit and you win, you won't be able to garnish the defendant's wages or collect your judgment out of any bank accounts or other community property. If you don't know the name of the spouse or aren't sure whether the person is married, use either Jane Doe or John Doe.
If your lawsuit is against a business, you must find out who owns it. If the business is owned by an individual, sue the spouse as well.
If you are suing a corporation, call the Arizona Corporation Commission and ask for the name and address of the corporation's statutory agent. Every corporation that is incorporated or authorized to do business in Arizona must appoint what is called a statutory agent. This is a person or entity authorized to accept the service of lawsuits on the corporation's behalf.
Ask for and file a day of trial preference form with your complaint. The form allows you to state a preference for location and weekday or weekend hearing if your case goes to trial. Your court date will be held within 60 days of the defendant's filing of an answer.
At the time the complaint is filed, the clerk will issue a summons ordering the defendant to appear in court. The summons and complaint must be served on the defendant. This is called "service of process."
Service of Process
The defendant must be served with a copy of the summons and complaint. These documents may be served by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested. If the court provides this service, there is an additional fee. If the defendant can't be served by mail, the precinct constable or any registered private process server will serve the summons and complaint for a fee.
Whatever method you use, you must serve a separate copy of the summons and complaint on each defendant. You may photocopy the summons and complaint, and send the original to one defendant and a copy to any other defendants.
The defendant has 20 days to respond to your complaint. If an answer hasn't been filed by the 21st day after service of the complaint, file for a default judgment. If the defendant has counterclaimed, you will need to file an answer within 20 days of service of the counterclaim.
The filing fee, service by mail and answer fees are set by state law. The small claims clerk in your justice court can tell you specific fee amounts.
The judge or hearing officer may order costs incurred by the winning party to be paid by the party who loses the case.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What is "service" and how is it done?
- Can an attorney assist me with filling out my claim forms?
- What should I do if I can't make the court date that I set when I filed my complaint?