Do you have a tenant who's months behind in the rent? Or maybe you were in a car accident and the other driver won't pay for the damages to your car or your medical bill. These are just a couple of examples of the types of claims or disputes that are handled by the Iowa small claims courts.
And, now that you've decided that the only way you're going to get paid is 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 with the clerk of the appropriate district court. In Iowa, there are eight judicial districts, with each covering several counties. Generally, you need to file your suit in the county where the:
- Defendant (the person you're suing) lives
- The event or incident that you're suing over happened, for example, the county where the car accident occurred
- Contract, such as a lease or sales contract, specifies where any lawsuit must be filed
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right district, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper district or ask that it be "dismissed," that is, 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.
Generally, a lawsuit begins when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Iowa small claims courts, there's a special form called an "Original Notice." The form is self-explanatory, but if you need help, the court clerk may offer some assistance, but he can't give you legal advice about your suit.
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 defendant's name and address
- The amount of money you want the defendant to pay, or the premises from which you want him evicted
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money or why you're evicting him
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 or dba (meaning "doing business as," you should contact the County Recorder's office for the county where the business is located. Or, you can check with the local Better Business Bureau (BBB). You should be able to get the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner from one of these resources
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from Iowa'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, BBB and sometimes the Secretary of State, can help you get that information
Get the right form! The Iowa small claims courts use two different forms, depending on whether you're suing for:
- (called "forcible entry and detainer")
- Possession or the return of personal property that you're entitled to or that rightfully belongs to you
If you're suing for money, the court clerk will schedule a trial or hearing date after the defendant files an "appearance and answer" (discussed below) or doesn't file it in time, usually 20 days after your Original Notice was filed. If you're suing for eviction, the court clerk will schedule a hearing immediately when you file; the hearing will be held within five days.
At the time you file your forms, you will need to pay your filing fees. In Iowa, the fee is $50, but it can change at any time, so be sure to ask the district court clerk about the current fee.
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 Original Notice you filed. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. When you file your Notice, the clerk will explain your options and the fees. Generally, if you're suing for:
- Money, you can pay the clerk to have the Notice mailed to the defendant, or you can arrange and pay for the Notice to be hand-delivered to the defendant by the sheriff of the county where the defendant lives
- Eviction, you must have the Notice delivered by the sheriff
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 your claim and pay you. If you agree to a settlement before trial, you should contact the court immediately
- File an Appearance and Answer by the date stamped on your Original Notice, which is usually 20 days from the date you filed the Notice. The defendant will get this form when your Notice is filed, and he may use it to admit or deny all or part of your claim against him
- Default. If the defendant doesn't file an appearance or doesn't show up for the hearing, you may win automatically (called a "default judgment"). You'll have to show the judge that the defendant was properly served with a copy of your Notice and that you have a valid claim against the defendant
- Counterclaim, or file a claim against you. The defendant has to file this with the clerk on or before the appearance or hearing date, and the clerk will send you a copy of it. It the counterclaim is for more than $5,000, the counterclaim or the entire small claims case may be moved out of small claims court and into the regular district court, where it will be a much more complicated trial
- 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 a small claims suit against a dog owner, who lives on the next street over from me, because her dog bit me. She says that she never received "notice," but I know the complaint was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge me to fill out the Original Notice represent me in small claims court?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong district and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Original Notice and pay another filing fee?