People have minor disputes every day. They range from a mechanic not getting paid for car repairs he made, to a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. The fees you may have to pay an attorney may be close to the amount you're owed. And what if you can't afford to hire a lawyer in the first place?
This is where small claims court can help. In Connecticut, the small claims court settles legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. They're designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast, and a lot less formal than the other courts in the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Connecticut. The person or business that files a small claims lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or business that is sued is called the defendant. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf").
You file a small claims case either at the State's Centralized Small Claims Office in the City of Hartford, or the Small Claims Facility in the appropriate city. Generally, the "appropriate facility" is where you or the defendant lives. If the case involves a landlord-tenant dispute, then you have to file in the Centralized Small Claims Office or at the Small Claims Facility where the property is located. The locations of these facilities are available online, or check your local telephone book. Small claims cases are heard by a special "session" or part of the Superior Court of Connecticut.
In Connecticut, the most you can recover in small claims court is $5,000. If your claim is a little over $5,000, you may want to consider filing in small claims anyway and forget about recovering the full amount. It will be faster, easier and less expensive than filing suit in another court. If your claim is a lot more than $5,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
An exception to the $5,000 is limit is when a security deposit is involved. If it is, you can sue for double the amount of the security deposit, plus interest, even if this amount is over the $5,000.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common cases involve:
- Money loans
- Auto negligence and accidents
- Security deposit refunds
- Unpaid rent
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, evicting a tenant from premises leased from you, and libel and slander, which is when someone wrote or said something about you that hurt your reputation or caused you some type of damage.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is how long you have to file a lawsuit after something happens. The time period is based upon the type of claim you have. For example, if you were injured in a car accident, you generally have two years from the date of the accident, or from the date that you "discovered" your injuries, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Connecticut. The time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your case. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing and filing a "Small Claims Writ and Notice of Suit," which is available online or from any Small Claims Facility. You need several copies of this form, so be sure to ask the clerk at the Small Claims Facility how many you need before you show up to file.
In Connecticut, an attorney can't be present with you in the courtroom when the case comes to trial. You can, however, hire an attorney to discuss your case and evidence and to help you fill out your paperwork, if you'd like. If you hire an attorney, though, there's no guarantee that the small claims court will make the other party pay those fees, even if you win.
The court clerk may help you complete the Small Claims Writ and Notice of Suit ("claim"), like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim. The clerk will schedule a court date, and then mail to you and to the defendant a copy of the Claim. However, if you're suing a corporation that's not incorporated in Connecticut, called a "non-resident corporation," you have to make sure that the defendant gets a copy of the claim. The clerk will explain this process to you.
Trial or "Hearing"
After the defendant is served with your claim, he can either pay you, or he can file an answer and challenge your claim and/or he can file a counterclaim against you. That is, file a claim that you owe him money. The trial or hearing will be held before a magistrate or a commissioner. Both you and the defendant, and your witnesses, will be sworn in. You'll tell your side of the story first, and the defendant will get a turn. You'll each have a chance to ask each other questions, as well as question any witnesses.
There are no jury trials in the Connecticut small claims courts. However, the defendant (or you, if the defendant filed a counterclaim) can request that the case be transferred to the regular superior court (or the housing court, for landlord-tenant matters). A jury can be requested in those courts. You have to pay a $75 fee for filing the Motion to Transfer and a $350 jury fee.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing both parties' arguments, the judge may make an immediate decision, or she may need more time to think about the case. When this happens, you'll be notified by mail when the decision has been made.
If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, the case is over and you can't recover any money or damages. If the judgment is in your favor, the judgment will state how much the defendant must pay you. Likewise, if the defendant files a counterclaim against you and wins, the judgment will state how much you have to pay.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Connecticut Small Claims Rules of Procedure can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $5,800. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than the small claims court?
- My family and I moved out of a public school system and it won¿t give me a refund on administrative fees I paid at the beginning of the year for my son. Can I sue the school district in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?