People have minor disputes every day. They range from a repairman not getting paid for fixing someone's refrigerator to a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. The fees you may have to pay an attorney may be close to or more than what you're owed. And what if you simply can't afford to hire a lawyer?
This is where the small claims courts can help. In Iowa, the small claims courts resolve legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. The courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast and a lot less formal than the other courts of the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Iowa. The person or business that files a small claims lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or business that is sued is called the defendant. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf"). Similarly, if the defendant is under 18, you should name his parent or guardian as a defendant as well.
You file a small claims case in the appropriate district court, which usually is the district court of the county where the defendant lives. There are some exceptions, however.
In Iowa, the most you can recover in small claims court is $5,000. If your claim is a little over $5,000, you may want to consider filing in small claims anyway and forget about recovering the full amount. It will be faster, easier and less expensive than filing suit in another court. If your claim is a lot more than $5,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common cases involve:
- Goods or services sold but not delivered or paid for
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Possession or the return of personal property that you're entitled to or rightfully belongs to you, like personal belongings, equipment or furniture
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such suits for security deposit refunds, unpaid or "back" rent, and even evictions actions (sometimes called actions for "forcible entry and detainer")
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, bankruptcy and changing your name.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is how long you have to file a lawsuit after something happens. The time period is based upon the type of claim you have. For example, if you were injured in a car accident, you generally have two years from the date of the accident, or from the date that you "discovered" your injuries, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Iowa. The time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your case. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called "Original Notice," either for money for an eviction. Basically, the form tells the defendant why you're suing and what your damages are, that is, how much money you want or what rental property you want vacated. The district court clerk has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant). Or, you can get them online.
In Iowa, you can either represent yourself in small claims court, or you may hire an attorney to represent you. An attorney can give you advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. In most instances, the defendant will be required to pay your attorney's fees if you win the case.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Original Notice, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim, like explaining the law to you. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Notice, which will show the date and time by which the defendant has to "appear or answer," meaning show up for a hearing or file a written response to your claim. The form also will be stamped with a docket or claim number. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk. The clerk will arrange for a copy of the Notice to be sent to or "served on" the defendant.
Trial or "Hearing"
Sometimes a case is settled early, such as when the defendant pays what he owes you, for example. Other times your case may be heard by a mediator. He listens to you and the defendant, asks questions, and tries to get you both to reach an agreement. If neither of these happens in your case, a trial or "hearing" will be held before either a district court judge, or in some courts, by a magistrate, who's usually an experienced attorney who helps the court with certain types of cases. At trial, you, the defendant and all witnesses will be sworn in. You'll tell your side of the story first, and the defendant will get a turn. You'll each have a chance to ask each other questions, as well as question any witnesses.
There are no jury trials in the Iowa small claims courts.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge or magistrate. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the judge may make an immediate decision, or she may need more time to think about the case. When this happens, you'll be notified by mail when the decision has been made.
If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, the case is over and you can't recover any money or damages. If the judgment is in your favor, it will specify exactly how much the defendant must pay you or what property he must give you. If either of you thinks that the judge made a mistake, you have 20 days to file an appeal, that is, ask a higher court to look at the case again.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Iowa Small Claims Rules of Court can tell you more about how the small claims process works. You can ask the court clerk where you can find a copy of these rules, you can check your local library, or you can find them online by searching the Iowa Code.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a tenant for $5,600 of unpaid rent. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than small claims court? Would it be faster and less expensive to sue him for $5,000 in small claims?
- I was in an accident with a state-owned maintenance truck. The state won't pay for my car repairs or medical bills, which total $2,300. Can I sue the State of Iowa in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?