You've been preparing for your case in an Iowa small claims court for a while now. You've arranged for your witnesses to be at trial and you have all the receipts, repair estimates and other documents organized and ready for the judge to look at. Soon the judge will decide if you win or lose.
Before you go to courthouse, though, you should have 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 listened to both sides and has looked at all of the evidence, she'll decide who wins the case. The decision is called a judgment. The judge may announce the judgment:
- Immediately at the end of the case, and either give each party a copy of the judgment before they leave the courthouse or have it sent to them in the mail
- After taking some time to think about the case and all of the evidence. This is called taking the case "under consideration" or "under advisement." The court clerk will mail a copy of the judgment to you and the other party
Technically, the case is over when the judge makes a decision and the decision is 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 because you think the judge made a mistake. In Iowa, either the plaintiff or the defendant can appeal. For example, if you're the plaintiff and you won, the defendant can appeal. Or, you can appeal if you think the judge didn't award you enough money.
To file an appeal, you need to either:
- Tell the judge that you want to appeal after the hearing or trial and after the judge has made decision, or
- File a written Notice of Appeal with the clerk of the district court where the small claims case was decided. You have to file this within 20 days after the decision
No matter how you file the appeal - by telling the judge or filing a Notice of Appeal - you have to pay a fee to district court clerk within 20 days after the judgment. The clerk can tell you the current filing fee.
Who decides the appeal? If a magistrate decided the case in the small claims court, then a district associate or district court judge will decide the case on appeal. If a district associate judge decided the case, a district court judge will decide the appeal. If the case was decided by a district court judge, then the appeal will be decided by a new district court judge.
If, after the appeal, you're still not happy with the decision, you may ask the Supreme Court of Iowa to look at the case, but there's no guarantee that the Court will do so.
An appeal can be complicated, so you may want to talk to an attorney if you're thinking about filing an appeal.
Relief from Judgment
The plaintiff or the defendant can file a motion for relief from judgment or "motion for relief," which essentially asks the court for a new trial. To be successful on this type of 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
This type of motion is also used to correct minor errors in the judgment. For example, if at the end of the hearing the judge ordered the defendant to pay you $4,500, but the written judgment lists the amounts as $450, you can file this motion to have the judgment corrected. The court clerk can give you the forms you need to file this motion and tell you about any filing fees.
Dismissal and Default
If you're the plaintiff and your complaint was dismissed because you didn't show up for trial, you can't sue the defendant again over the same claim unless you ask the court to "set-aside" or "vacate" the judgment dismissing your case. You have to file a motion with the district court clerk, and you have to have a good reason for not appearing at trial, such as illness or a family emergency. If the judge grants your motion, a new trial will be scheduled. This also applies if you're the defendant and your counterclaim against the plaintiff - your claim that he owes you money - was dismissed because you didn't appear at trial.
If you're the defendant and the plaintiff was given a default judgment against you because you didn't file an answer or show up at the hearing, you may file a motion to set aside or vacate the default judgment. You have to file a motion with the district court clerk, and you have to have a good reason for not filing an answer or appearing at trial. A new trial will be scheduled if the judge grants your motion.
If you're the plaintiff and you win the case (or the defendant and you win on a counterclaim), and the judge orders the defendant to pay all or some of your claim, you need to begin collection efforts if the defendant doesn't pay you as ordered in 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. This can be a long and complicated process that may require the help of an attorney.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have to show up at the payment review hearing?
- How much will you charge to represent me on an appeal from small claims judgment?
- Can I file a counterclaim against the plaintiff when I appeal judgment that was entered against me in small claims court?