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CT Alternatives to Small Claims Court

Is a former landlord refusing to refund your security deposit? Were you involved in a fender-bender and the other driver won't pay to have your car fixed? These are the types of disputes that are handled by the Connecticut small claims court. It's a court that's designed to be a fast, informal and inexpensive way for people like you to get the money they're owed.

Maybe you don't want to file a lawsuit, not even in the small claims court. It's a common scenario. Some people don't like courtrooms or dealing with the "legal process." You do have some alternatives to filing a lawsuit in small claims court, such as:

  • Personal negotiation
  • Mediation
  • Arbitration

Any one of these tactics may help you get your money without having to step foot into a courtroom.

Personal Negotiation

Personal negotiation should be your first step, even if you're prepared to file a small claims lawsuit. All this involves is a simple phone call to the person who owes you money asking that he pay what's owed to you. Be polite and cordial. Maybe you can work out an agreement that benefits everyone. (The person who owes you money would be called the "defendant" if you decide to file a lawsuit against him).

If first attempts don't work, then consider writing a demand letter. It's exactly what it sounds like: A letter demanding that the other person pay you within a specific period of time, usually 15 or 30 days. To be effective, the letter should:

  • Briefly explain why you think he owes you money
  • State exactly how much money you're demanding
  • Clearly state that you intend to take legal action, including filing a lawsuit in small claims court, if you're not paid within 15 or 30 days

At the very least, you should mail the letter certified mail, return receipt requested. The other person has to sign for the letter, and when he does, you'll get a return receipt. When you get it, , make sure you keep it (along with a copy of your letter) so that, if necessary, you can prove later that he in fact got the letter.

Mediation

Mediation is an informal meeting between you, the other person and a neutral third party called a "mediator." Most of the time you'll meet together, but sometimes you and the other person will meet separately with the mediator. The mediator's job is to help you both reach an agreement. She can suggest different options to help you reach that agreement, and she may even suggest settlement, but she can't force or order either of you to do anything.

In most instances, mediation will be offered at no or little cost to you or the other person. Depending on the willingness of you and the other party to negotiate and compromise, it can lead to a very quick and mutually satisfactory resolution of your claim.

The courts like mediation, mainly because it saves time and court resources. In fact, in Connecticut, if you file a lawsuit in a small claims court, the court may ask you and the defendant if you'd like to mediate the dispute. If you both agree, the court will "stay" the lawsuit, that is, put it on hold, and send the case to mediator. Then, if you and the defendant don't settle the matter in mediation, the case will go back to the magistrate for trial.

The clerk of the superior court in your area can give you more information on mediation.

Some Rules to Know

There are some things to keep in mind about mediation, such as :

  • It's not binding, meaning that, even if you and the defendant reach an agreement, the mediator can't enforce it. So, if the defendant later breaks or "breaches" the agreement, you may need to start the whole process over again (personal negotiation, writing a demand letter, filing a lawsuit, etc.)
  • The mediator can't provide legal or personal advice. She can only suggest possible ways to settle the matter and help you both make sure that you reach an agreement that's good for you both
  • It's you and the defendant that make the terms of the agreement, not the mediator. The mediator will only write down or document what you've agreed to
  • The mediator doesn't make a "decision" in the case like a magistrate would in the small claims court. That is, she doesn't decide who "won." Rather, she merely helps you reach an agreement
  • At any time, either party can withdraw from mediation
  • If you and the defendant don't reach an agreement through mediation you can still file a lawsuit in small claims court. In other words, you don't waive your right to file suit simply because you agree to mediation. This is true for the defendant, too, if he has a "counterclaim" against you, that is, he claims that you owe him money
  • Attorneys are usually not present during mediation. You can, however, hire an attorney to advise you about your claim, if you'd like

Arbitration

Arbitration is very similar to mediation. Here, a neutral third party, called an arbitrator, listens to both sides of the story, just like a mediator does, in the hopes of helping you reach an agreement. However, there are some important differences between arbitration and mediation:

  • If you and the defendant can't reach an agreement, the arbitrator will make a decision in the case, that is, decide if you're going to get paid and how much
  • The arbitrator's decision is binding, unless you and the defendant agree beforehand that it isn't binding. This means that it can be enforced by the arbitrator and, if necessary, the courts, if you or the defendant don't follow the decision
  • After going through arbitration, you can't file a lawsuit in a Connecticut small claims court
  • Arbitration can be expensive. An arbitrator may charge over $125 for a four-hour block of time to listen to and decide your case. But, if you win, the costs of arbitration are usually added to the amount the defendant owes you

As with mediation, you and the defendant have to agree to arbitration. However, you both also have to agree on the arbitrator. The clerk of the superior court in your area has a list of arbitrators that you may contact. Or, you can contact the American Arbitration Association for a list of arbitrators in your area.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I can't get the person who owes me money to answer my phone calls or letters. Is there any benefit to offering to mediate?
  • The defendant agreed to mediate my claim, but now he won't meet with or talk to the mediator. What should I do now?
  • How much will you charge me to file a lawsuit and represent me in small claims court? Would the suit and the court fees cost me less than an arbitrator?
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