Is a customer refusing to pay for repairs you made to her car? Has a tenant stopped paying you rent? Maybe you loaned someone some tools or equipment that he won't return to you? These are the types of legal disputes over money and property that can be settled by the Delaware justice of the peace courts, or "small claims" courts. They're designed to be a fast, informal and inexpensive way for people to get their property or money their owed.
However, not everyone with these types of problems wants to file a lawsuit, and that's OK. A lot of people don't like courtrooms or dealing with the "legal process." You do have some alternatives to filing a lawsuit in small claims court, however, such as:
- Personal negotiation
Any one of these tactics may help you get your money without having to step foot into a courtroom.
Personal negotiation should be your first step, even if you're prepared to file a small claims lawsuit. All this involves is one or two a simple phone calls or letters asking the other person (he'd be called the "defendant" if you filed a lawsuit against him) to pay you or return your things. Be polite and cordial. Maybe you can work out an agreement that benefits everyone.
If these first attempts don't get you anywhere, 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, like 15 or 30 days. To be effective, the letter should:
- Briefly explain why you think the other person owes you money or property that belongs to you
- State exactly how much money you're demanding, or describe the property you want
- Clearly state that you intend to take legal action, including filing a lawsuit in small claims court, if you're not paid or given the property within the amount of time give (15 or 30 days, for instance)
At the very least, you should mail the letter certified mail, return receipt requested. This requires the other person to sign for the letter when it's delivered to him. After it's delivered, you'll get the return receipt. Make sure you keep it, together with a copy of your letter, so that, if necessary, you can prove later that the letter was in fact delivered.
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 a particular way of settling the dispute, 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 everyone's willingness to negotiate and compromise, it can lead to a very quick settlement of your claim that makes everyone happy.
The courts like mediation, mainly because it saves time and helps clear the courts' busy schedules. In fact, in some Delaware justice of the peace courts, after you file a lawsuit and you and the defendant show up for trial, you and the defendant may be asked if you'd like to mediate your claim. The case will go trial only if one of you refuses to mediate or you can't reach a settlement agreement through 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 other person reach an agreement, the mediator can't enforce it. So, if the other person 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 other person who make the terms of the agreement, not the mediator. The mediator only writes down or documents what you've agreed to
- The mediator doesn't make a "decision" in the case like a judge would in a justice of the peace 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 don't reach an agreement through mediation you can still file a lawsuit in a justice of the peace court. In other words, you don't waive your right to file suit simply because you agree to mediation. This is true for the other person, too, if he has a "counterclaim" against you, that is, he claims that you owe him money or you have his property
- Attorneys are usually not present during mediation. You can, however, hire an attorney to advise you about your claim, if you'd like
If you're interested in trying mediation, check your local telephone book for mediation services, or check with the clerk of the justice of the peace court in your area for more information.
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, or what property you're entitled to
- 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 usually can't file a lawsuit in a Delaware justice of the peace 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
As with mediation, you and the other person have to agree to arbitration. However, you both also have to agree on the arbitrator. The clerk of the justice of the peace court may have 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 other person 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 a lawsuit and the court fees cost me less than an arbitrator?