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LA Alternatives to Small Claims Court

Are you having trouble getting your security deposit back from your old landlord, or is he not letting you get some personal belongings you left behind when you moved? Were you involved in a fender-bender and the other driver won't pay to have your car fixed? You could file a lawsuit in a Louisiana small claims court to get your money or property. They're designed for people just like you: A fast, informal, and inexpensive way to settle minor legal problems without hiring a lawyer.

Some people don't want to file a lawsuit, not even in a small claims court. If you're like this and you don't like courtrooms or dealing with the "legal process," you should know about some alternatives to filing a lawsuit in small claims court, such as:

  • Personal negotiation
  • Mediation
  • Arbitration

Any one of these tactics may help you get your money or property without having to step foot into a courtroom.

Personal Negotiation

This should be your first step, even if you're prepared to file a small claims lawsuit. All this involves is a one or two simple phone calls or letters to the person who owes you money or has your property (he'd be called the "defendant" if you filed a lawsuit against him) asking that he pay what's owed to you. Be polite and cordial. Maybe you can work out an agreement that benefits everyone.

If your first letters and calls aren't getting you anywhere, then consider writing a demand letter. It's exactly what it sounds like: A letter demanding that the other person pay you within a specific period of time, like 15 or 30 days. To be effective, the letter should:

  • Briefly explain why you think the other person owes you money or why you think the property you want rightfully belongs to you
  • State exactly how much money you're demanding, or what specific property you want
  • Clearly state that you intend to take legal action, including filing a lawsuit in small claims court, if you're not paid or don't get the property within the time you give him

Try to send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. This costs a little more than regular mail, but it requires the other person to sign for the letter when it's delivered to him. After it's delivered, you'll get the return receipt. Make sure you keep it, together with a copy of your letter, so that, if necessary, you can prove later that the letter was in fact delivered.

Mediation

Mediation is an informal meeting between you, the other person, and a neutral third party, called a "mediator." Most of the time you'll meet together, but sometimes you and the other person will meet separately with the mediator. The mediator's job is to help you both reach an agreement. She can suggest different options to help you reach that agreement, and she may even suggest a particular settlement agreement, but she can't force or order either of you to do anything.

In most instances, the costs of mediation are low, and may be much lower than the costs of filing a lawsuit and seeing it through to the end. Usually, you and the other person will share the costs of mediation. And, depending on everyone's willingness to negotiate and compromise, it can lead to a very quick settlement of your claim that makes everyone happy. In order for mediation to work, though, both you and the other person have to agree to mediate, that is, you can't mediate by yourself!

Some Rules to Know

There are some things to keep in mind about mediation, such as :

  • It's not binding, meaning that, even if you and the other person reach an agreement, the mediator can't enforce it. So, if the other person later breaks or "breaches" the agreement, you may need to start the whole process over again (personal negotiation, writing a demand letter, filing a lawsuit, etc.)
  • The mediator can't provide legal or personal advice. She can only suggest possible ways to settle the matter and help you both make sure that you reach an agreement that's good for you both
  • It's you and the other person who make the terms of the agreement, not the mediator. The mediator only writes down or documents what you've agreed to
  • The mediator doesn't make a "decision" in the case like a judge or justice of the peace would in a Louisiana small claims court. That is, she doesn't decide who "won." Rather, she merely helps you reach an agreement
  • At any time, either you or the other person can withdraw from mediation
  • If you don't reach an agreement through mediation you can still file a lawsuit in small claims court. In other words, you don't waive your right to file suit simply because you agree to mediation. This is true for the other person, too, if he has a "counterclaim" against you, that is, he claims that you owe him money or that you have his property or belongings
  • Attorneys are usually not present during mediation. You can, however, hire an attorney to advise you about your claim, if you'd like. Also, an attorney can look over any agreement you reach to make sure that it's fair to you, and can help you if the other person ever breaks or breaches the agreement

Arbitration

Arbitration is very similar to mediation. Here, a neutral third party, called an arbitrator, listens to both sides of the story, just like a mediator does, in the hopes of helping you reach an agreement. However, there are some important differences between arbitration and mediation:

  • If you and the defendant can't reach an agreement, the arbitrator will make a decision in the case, that is, decide if you're going to get paid and how much
  • The arbitrator's decision is binding, unless you and the defendant agree beforehand that it isn't binding. This means that it can be enforced by the arbitrator and, if necessary, the courts, if you or the defendant don't follow the decision
  • After going through arbitration, you can't file a lawsuit in a Louisiana small claims court
  • Arbitration can be more expensive than mediation or filing a lawsuit, but it's often much faster than both of those alternatives

As with mediation, you and the other person have to agree to arbitration. However, you both also have to agree on the arbitrator. The court clerk of the City or Justice of the Peace Court in your area may have a list of arbitrators that you may contact. Or, you can contact the American Arbitration Association for a list of arbitrators in your area.

The Louisiana small claims courts like arbitration, mainly because it saves time and helps clear the courts' busy schedules. In fact, in some Louisiana courts, you can ask that your dispute be set for arbitration before you actually file a lawsuit. Both you and the other person have to agree to arbitrate and to follow (or be "bound to") the arbitrator's decision. In addition, in some small claims courts, when you and the defendant show up for trial, the judge may send or "refer" the case arbitration. If so, the arbitrator, who's usually an experienced attorney selected by the court, will decide the case, and it's just as binding as a decision by a judge.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I can't get the defendant to answer my phone calls or letters. Is there any benefit to offering to mediate?
  • The defendant agreed to mediate my claim, but now he won't meet with or talk to the mediator. What should I do now?
  • I've tried to call the other party at the phone number he gave me after a car accident we had, but the number's been disconnected. And, the letters I've sent to the address he gave me have been returned to me. What should I do now?
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