Whether the issue is debt a customer owes or a landlord withholding a security deposit, many states have established small claims courts that allow individuals to resolve grievances in a less formal, less expensive legal venue.
Connecticut affords residents such an opportunity through its small claims system in which specially trained attorneys called magistrates issue bindings ruling in disputes.
What Types of Cases Are Permitted?
Plaintiffs must seek no more than $5,000 in damages in order for cases to qualify as small claims, with the one exception being landlord-tenant disputes. In disagreements involving security deposits, the plaintiff may double the amount and add interest, even if the total comes to more than $5,0000. Other disputes that can be litigated include property damage, back rent (though not evictions), medical bills and contract disputes.
Where Should the Claim Commence?
An individual, partnership or corporation can initiate a claim at either the state's Centralized Claims Office or at the local claims office where the plaintiff resides, where the defendant resides or conducts business, or where the incident occurred. Out-of-state residents can be sued only if they own property in Connecticut.
In general, the plaintiff has two or three years following the incident to file an action, though the amount of time can vary. The filing fee is $90.
What Is the Process for Filing a Complaint?
Complaint forms are available electronically or on paper from the Centralized Claim Facility or any local office. Compile information such as the person or business's full legal name—it is important to be specific in order to avoid problems later—as well as address before filing, and create a concise summary of the situation. Plaintiffs must have the signature on the claim notarized and pay the $90 filing fee.
The plaintiff or a representative delivers the claim and other required documentation to all defendants, who then must respond to the allegations prior to the "answer date" that a court clerk assigns and lists on the documentation. In addition to the response, defendants can file counterclaims blaming the plaintiff for any damages or cross-claims blaming another party.
Preparing for and Attending the Hearing
Though attorneys are permitted in small claims cases, more often, individuals take advantage of the less-formal structure and lower stakes to represent themselves. This means they will need to compile evidence in the case, such as:
- Proof of payment (for example, cancelled checks or receipts)
- Photographic images of damaged or disputed property
- Copies of correspondence between parties
- Leases, contracts or other legal agreements
- Repair estimates if property damage is involved
Parties who represent themselves should be prepared during the hearing to succinctly outline the allegations and supporting evidence. Both sides should inform witnesses of the trial date and issue subpoenas ordering them to attend if there are any concerns that they might not appear.
During the hearing, both sides will present evidence and call witnesses, and the magistrate will issue a final ruling. Small claims cases may not be appealed.
Collecting the Debt
If the plaintiff wins and the defendant does not begin paying the required amount quickly, the plaintiff can ask the magistrate to order regular payments. If that does not work, the plaintiff also can ask that the defendant's pay or financial accounts be garnished, with a portion of the money going to the plaintiff until the debt is satisfied.
This article is a general overview of Connecticut's small claims systems. Though the system is designed to be easy enough for laypeople to represent themselves, some individuals find it helpful to have an attorney review the case.