Do you have a customer who refuses to pay you for the repairs you made to her car? Or maybe a tenant is months behind in the rent and you want to get paid or get her out of the apartment. These are just a couple of examples of the disputes that are resolved by the Indiana small claims courts.
And, now that you're ready to file a small claims lawsuit, you need to know the mechanics of what to do and how to do it. In general, you have to have to know exactly who you're suing, have the right paperwork, and file the suit in the right court.
Where to File
You file a small claims case in the "small claims" division or "docket" of the appropriate Indiana "trial court," which could be a circuit, superior or county court, depending on where you live. If you live in Marion County, which includes the city of Indianapolis, you need to file suit in one of the county's small claims courts. Generally, you need to file the suit in the county (or township, if you're in Marion County) where the:
- Transaction or incident took place, such as where you signed the contract or where the car accident happened
- Where the obligation was supposed to be performed, such as where your house is located if a plumber or roofer didn't do his job properly, for example
- Defendant lives
- Defendant works or is employed at the time you file the suit
- Property is located, if the case is a landlord-tenant dispute
If, under these tests, it's possible for you to file in more than one county (or township), then you can choose in which of those counties or townships to file.
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right district, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper court, or ask that the case be dismissed, or "thrown out" of court. This can slow things down for you. So, if you're unsure about where to file your suit, contact the clerk's office for your area for some help.
Notice of Claim
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Indiana small claims courts, there's a special form called the "Notice of Claim." The court clerk can give you a copy of the form, or you may be able to get it online, depending on county in which you live. The forms usually have instructions to help you fill out the form, but if you need additional help, the clerk can give you some assistance. Don't expect legal advice about your suit, however.
When filling out the form, you need to give information about case in a clear and simple way. Print neatly and just give the facts about your claim. Specifically, you'll need to give:
- Your name, address and a telephone number where you can be contacted during the day
- The name and address of the party you're suing (called the "defendant")
- The amount of money you want the defendant to pay
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money
It's very important that you have the proper name and address of the party you're suing. If you're suing:
- A business that's not a corporation, like a sole proprietorship, you should contact the "assumed names" department or office at the county recorder's office for the county where the business is located to get the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner
- A corporation, you can get its exact legal name and address from Indiana's Secretary of State. You'll also find the name of the company's "registered agent," the person who accepts important documents for the corporation
- A partnership, you should list the name of the partnership as well as the individual partners as defendants. Again the county recorder's office and sometimes the Secretary of State can help you get their names and addresses
If your suit is based upon a written contract or account, like a lease or credit account for a customer, you have to give the clerk two copies of the contract or account statement when you file.
Get the right form!. In many of the Indiana small claims courts, there's a different Notice of Claim form for cases that involve real estate, like landlord-tenant disputes, and all other types of claims.
At the time you file your forms, you will need to pay your filing fees. In Indiana, the fees can vary from court to court, but expect to pay between $70 and $90 to file the Notice of Claim. And, there's a $10 charge for each additional defendant if you're suing more than one person or business. These fees can change at any time, so be sure to ask the court clerk about the fees for your case.
Generally, if you win your case, the small claims court will order the defendant to pay your filing fee (called "court costs"). This will be in addition to any other money or "damages" the court awards you on your claim.
Service of Process
"Service of process" is when one party gives the other party notice that he's being sued. Generally, this is done by making sure that the defendant gets a copy of the Notice of Claim that you filed. When you file your Notice of Claim, the clerk will give you detailed instructions on how to do this. Generally, you need to have a sheriff, constable or process server deliver a copy to the defendant, and they will charge a fee for this. Or, you can pay the clerk to have it mailed to the defendant by certified mail.
Make sure you have the right name and address! If the defendant isn't served properly your case can't go forward, and it may be dismissed, or "thrown out" of court, and you'll then have to start all over again. If you're suing a corporation, you need to serve its "registered agent." She's the person named by the corporation who's responsible for accepting important documents and papers on behalf of or for the corporation. If you're suing a sole proprietorship, you need to serve the business's owner or its registered agent, if it has one. If you're suing a partnership, you need to serve its general or managing partner.
Once you've filed suit, the defendant can do any number of things, such as:
- Settle the claim, that is, simply agree with you and either pay what he owes you or return your property. If you agree to a settlement before trial, it must be in writing and you have to give a copy of it to the clerk. The court will then enter an "agreed judgment," which usually specifies how much, when and how the defendant will pay you
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant either gives the court a written statement setting out in clear and simple language why you shouldn't win the case appears at trial to challenge your claim, or simply telephones the court and tells the clerk that he's challenging your claim
- Default. If the defendant doesn't show up for trial (or "defaults"), you automatically win, so long as he was properly served with your Notice of Claim and you can show the judge that your claim against defendant was valid
- Request a jury trial, which he has to do in writing and within 10 days after he receives the copy of your Notice of Claim. He also has to pay a jury fee, which is $70 in most Indiana small claims courts. The case will be transferred out of the small claims court and into the regular division or "docket" of the circuit, superior or county court where the case was filed
- Counterclaim, or file a claim against you, for up to $6,000. It has to be filed with the clerk and you have to get a copy of it within at least seven days before trial. If you don't get it within that time, you can ask for more time, which is called a continuance
- Ask for a continuance, which postpones the trial to another day. The request has to be writing and there must be a good reason for it, such as illness
Questions for Your Attorney
- I filed my small claims suit last week, but I've now discovered that my car has more damage than I listed in my Notice of Claim. Is there anyway I can change it?
- The defendant in my small claims case requested a jury trial. Is there any way I can challenge or fight his request? Why do you think he wants a jury trial?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong court and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Notice of Claim and pay another filing fee?
Related Resources on Lawyers.comsm
- Start the process with our Indiana Small Claims Worksheet
- Next in the Small Claims series: Small Claims Trials in Indiana
- Success in Small Claims Court
- Small Claims Court Terms
- Defending a Small Claims Case
- Visit our Small Claims Court Forum for more help.