Before you file a small claims suit, consider the importance of the matter in dispute and compare it to the time, effort and expense required to assert your claim. You should also consider the probable chances of winning your lawsuit since you must prove that the person or business you are suing owes you something.
Make sure that you have some proof of the debt such as a receipt, note, bill of sale, warranty or a witness. If at all possible, try to settle your dispute out of court. When a reasonable agreement can't be reached, a claim may be filed.
Assistance from Clerk of Court
You can get the form and information you need to complete a claim from the clerk of court. The clerk will give you a statement of claim form, an information sheet, a handbook about small claims and a sample sheet showing you how to complete the form.
Statement of Claim
A small claims case begins when a plaintiff files a statement of claim with the clerk of court. The following information is required on the statement of claim form:
- Your name, address and telephone number
- The correct name and address of the party you are suing
- A simple but complete statement of why you are suing
If you are suing a business, you must list the name of the business, the owner or registered agent's name and full address. If you don't have this information, you can get it from the license branch of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs or you may visit the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Web site.
Correct names and addresses are vital to your case because the court can't grant a judgment against a defendant who is improperly named in the claim. Therefore, you must find out before you go to court the name and address of the person or business your claim is against.
Court Costs and Interest
Your claim may request that the other party pay court costs and interest. Court costs consist of all the costs you have paid to the court. Interest will be set at the legal rate unless you have a written contract that was signed with another interest rate noted.
Either the plaintiff or defendant may demand a trial by jury. The demand must be filed by the time for appearance of the defendant stated in the notice unless the court granted an extension based upon good cause. If a trial by jury is properly demanded, the case will be referred to the Civil Division and scheduled for trial on an expedited basis.
You will need to bring two copies of any written evidence such as contracts, repair estimates, leases, letters, written records, receipts, promissory notes, paid bills or canceled checks when filing your claim for damages.
At the time of filing, the plaintiff must pay a filing fee. If you can't afford to pay the fees for filing a claim, tell the clerk that you would like to have the prepayment of fees set aside.
The court will set a court date when a claim is filed.
Service of Process
In small claims court you may notify the person being sued that a claim has been filed against them either by certified mail or by a process server. If the party chooses a special process server, the filing party is responsible for making service.
A process server is someone that you, not the clerk, hire for a fee to serve your claim. A process server can also be someone you know who is 18 years or older, who lives or works in the District of Columbia and who has nothing at all to do with the case. Your process server will have to fill out an affidavit, provided by the clerk, and have it notarized. The affidavit must be returned to the clerk no later than five business days before the court date.
If you're being sued in small claims court, you will receive a statement of claim notifying you of a hearing date. You aren't required to file an answer, plea or other defense in writing except when you have a counterclaim.
If you believe the party who is suing you owes you money, you may notify the clerk that you want a counterclaim form, which you must complete and file. Counterclaims are usually heard at the same time as the plaintiff's claims.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What is "service" and how is it done?
- Can an attorney assist me with filling out my claim forms?
- What should I do if I can't make the court date?