Is a homeowner refusing to pay for repairs you made to his roof? Is a former landlord refusing to let you get some personal belongings that you left behind when you moved? These are just a couple of examples of the types of legal claims or disputes that are handled by the Louisiana small claims courts.
And, now that you've decided that the only way you're going to get your money or your property 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
Where you file a small claims case depends on where you and the defendant (the person you're suing) live or where the incident you're suing over happened. If it's in a big city, you probably need to file your case in a City Court, like the Baton Rouge City Court. If it's outside city limits, that is, in a "rural" area, you probably need to file suit in a Justice of the Peace Court, such as the Livingston Parish Justice of the Peace Court. Generally, you need to file your suit in the court that covers:
- Where the defendant lives
- Where the property damage or personal injury you're suing over happened, such as the City Court for the area where the car accident happened
- Where the real property is located, such as the parish where the apartment is located if you're suing your former landlord over a security deposit
- If the defendant is a business, in the city or parish where it does business or has an office
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right court, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper court or even to "dismiss" the case, that is, throw it 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.
Statement of Claim and Citation
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Louisiana small claims courts, there's a special form called the "Statement of Claim and Citation." The court clerk can give you this form. In fact, in many of the Louisiana small claims court, you can tell the court clerk what your suit is about and he'll help you figure out what to say and even type it for you. The clerk isn't a lawyer, though, so he can't give you legal advice.
When you're ready to file, you need to be able to give information about your case, like:
- 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 a description of the personal property that you want the defendant to turn over to you
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money or why he doesn't have a right to hold the property you want
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 business licenses office or department in the city or parish 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 name and address from Louisiana's Secretary of State. You'll also find the name and address 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 Secretary of State can help you get that information for some partnerships, or you can check with your local Better Business Bureau (BBB)
In Louisiana, you can file your Statement of Claim and Citation in person or by mail. In some courts you can also file by facsimile ("fax"), but you have to pay an extra charge for this and you have to get the original papers to the court within five days.
At the time you file your forms, you will need to pay your filing fees. In Louisiana, the fees vary from court to court, but you can expect to pay between $50 and $150 for suing one defendant, and there's usually an additional fee for each defendant you sue if there's more than one. Be sure to check with the court clerk for the exact fees.
Generally, if you win your case, the small claims court will order the defendant to pay your filing fees (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 Statement of Claim that you filed. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. When you file your Statement, the clerk will give you detailed instructions on how to do this. Generally, you may pay the clerk to have it sent to the defendant by certified mail, return receipt requested. Or, you can pay to have the local constable or the sheriff deliver the papers. The court clerk can tell you the fees you have to pay for service.
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.
When you file your case, you can ask the court clerk to schedule the case for arbitration. This is where a neutral third party, called an "arbitrator," listens to your evidence, tries to get you to settle the matter, and then makes a decision. Arbitrators are usually experienced attorneys, and the court will decide who the arbitrator will be. In order to arbitrate, the defendant has to agree to it and you both have to agree to follow the arbitrator's decision.
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 what he owes you or return your property to you. If you agree to a settlement before trial, you should put it writing, sign it, have the defendant sign it, and take it to the court clerk
- Answer the suit. Within 10 days after your Statement of Claim and Citation is delivered to the defendant, he must either: (1) Give the court a written statement explaining why you shouldn't win the case (an "Answer" form will be delivered to the defendant at the same time he gets your Statement), or; (2) Appear in court and explain verbally to the judge why you shouldn't win
- Default. If the defendant doesn't file an answer or show up for trial, he "defaults," and you may win automatically. The judge will enter a "default judgment" in your favor so long as you can show the judge that the defendant was properly served with your Statement and that your claim against him is valid
- Counterclaim, or file a claim against you. The defendant has to pay a fee for filing it, it has to be filed with the clerk before the trial date, and he has to make sure that you get a copy of it to give you time to prepare a defense to it. If the counterclaim is for more than $3,000 (in City Court) or $5,000 (in Justice of the Peace Court), the case will be moved from the small claims court and into a regular court. The case will be more complicated for both parties, and so you may want to hire an attorney
- Request that the case be moved from the small claims court to the regular court. This can be done only if you filed the case in a City Court
- 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 my Statement of Claim and Citation, but I know it was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge me to fill out the Statement of Claim and represent me in small claims court?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court asked that it be moved to the regular City Court. Is there anyway I can fight or challenge his request? I don't understand the regular court's rules and I don't think I can afford to hire you.