You've been preparing for your case for a while now. You've arranged for your witnesses to be at trial and you have all the receipts and other documents ready. It's getting close to the time for the judge of a Delaware justice of the peace court, or "small claims" court, to decide if you win or lose.
Now's a good time to get an idea of what happens after the small claims trial is over. What can you do if you win? What if you lose? Whether you're the plaintiff (the person who filed the suit) or the defendant (the person who's being sued), you should know about some of your options.
After the judge has seen all of the evidence, like receipts and photographs, and after he's heard both sides of the story, he'll make a decision in the case, that is, decide who wins and who loses. The decision is called a judgment, and it may be made:
- Immediately at the end of the case, and he'll either give each party a copy of the judgment or send it to them in the mail later
- After taking some time to think about the case and all of the evidence. This is called "reserving judgment." The judge will arrange for each party to get a copy of the decision in the mail, usually within 30 days after the trial
Technically, the case is over when the judge makes a decision and it's entered into the court records by the court clerk. However, while the case may be over, you may still have some work to do, depending on whether either party thinks the judge made a mistake or whether the winner gets paid.
Not Happy about the Judgment?
Win or lose, you may have some options if you don't like the way the case turned out:
This is when you ask that the case be looked at again by another court or other judges because you think the judge of the justice of the peace court made a mistake. In Delaware, either the plaintiff or the defendant may appeal. So, if you're the plaintiff and you won, the defendant may appeal; if you think the judge should have awarded you more money, then you may appeal. The process of filing an appeal and who will hear the appeal depends on the suit that was filed in the justice of the peace court.
If the suit was for a debt (money owed), trespass (property damage) or replevin (the return of specific personal property), then you need to file a "Notice of Appeal" with the clerk of the court of common pleas for the county where the case was decided. The clerk of that court can give you this form and others you'll need. Generally, the Notice needs to be filed within 15 days after the judge made the decision, and you have to pay a fee for filing the appeal. You also need to ask and pay for a "transcript" from the justice of the peace court and file it with your Notice.
This type of an appeal is heard by a judge of the court of appeals, and it can be a complex matter. It's a lot more formal than the small claims trial, and more complicated court rules apply. It's a good idea to talk to an attorney if you're thinking about file an appeal.
If the suit was for an eviction or "summary possession," then you need to file a Notice and Allowance of Appeal with the same justice of the peace court that decided the original case. It has to be filed within 5 days after the date of the judgment, and there's a $50 filing fee. This type of appeal is heard by a panel of three judges from the justice of the peace court (the judge who made the original decision will not be a part of the panel).
Motion for a New Trial
Either the plaintiff or the defendant can file a motion for a new trial. You do this by filing a Request for Motion Hearing and paying a $10 filing fee. The judge who decided the case will decide if a new trial should be granted. To be successful on this Motion, you need to "show cause," that is, have a good reason that justifies a new trial. Some examples of good cause include:
- Showing that you were unable to attend the first trial because of an emergency, such as illness
- You've discovered new evidence that wasn't available when the first trial took place
- You actually paid the plaintiff's claim or damages before the trial, or the plaintiff released you from liability on the claim
You have to file this Motion within 10 days after the judge signed the judgment.
Dismissal and Default
If your Complaint was dismissed because you didn't show up for trial (called a "Non-Suit Judgment" in Delaware), or if a default judgment was entered against you because you didn't show up for trial, you may file a Request for Motion Hearing if you want to continue the case. With this Motion, you have to give the judge a good reason why you didn't appear at trial, such as illness, some type of mistake, or because you didn't receive a copy of the plaintiff's Complaint. If the judge grants your motion, a new trial will be scheduled.
If the case was for a debt, trespass or replevin, you have to file this Motion 15 days after the default or non-suit judgment, or within 30 days if you were served with the Complaint by certified mail. If the suit was for an eviction, you need to file the motion within 10 days after the default or non-suit judgment.
There's a $10 filing fee for this Motion.
If you're the plaintiff and you win the case and the judge orders the defendant to pay you or return some property to you, you need to begin collection efforts if the defendant doesn't follow the judgment. This may include having to appear at one or more hearings and possibly even taking some of the defendant's property and belongings. The same is true if you're the defendant and you win on a counterclaim. Collecting your money or getting your property can be a long and complicated process that may require the help of an attorney.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I sued my landlord and the judge ordered him to return $800 of my $1,200 security deposit. I think I should have gotten all of it. Should I appeal?
- I won my small claims case and the defendant filed a Notice of Appeal. Can I challenge or fight his request for an appeal? I don't think he has a good reason for the appeal.
- Can I file a counterclaim against the plaintiff when I appeal judgment that was entered against me in a justice of the peace court?