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ME Alternatives to Small Claims Court

Is a customer refusing to pay for repairs you made to her car, or is your former landlord refusing to refund all or part of your security deposit? Has someone refused to return some tools or equipment you loaned to him? These are the types of disputes that are handled by the Maine small claims courts. A small claims lawsuit is designed to be a fast, informal and inexpensive way for people to like you to get their property or money.

What if you're like a lot of people, though, and you don't want to file a lawsuit, not even in the small claims court, because you don't like courtrooms or dealing with the "legal process?" You do have 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 without having to step foot into a courtroom.

Personal Negotiation

Personal negotiation should be your first step, even if you're prepared to file a small claims lawsuit. All this involves is a simple phone call or letter asking the other person (he'd be called the "defendant" if you filed a lawsuit against him) to return your property or pay what he owes you. Be polite and friendly. Maybe you can work out an agreement that benefits everyone.

If your first attempts don't get 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 the property you're after rightfully belongs to you
  • State exactly how much money you're demanding or describe the 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 amount of time you decide to give him

At the very least, you should mail the letter certified mail, return receipt requested. This requires the other person to sign for the letter when it's delivered. 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, mediation will be offered at no or little cost to you or the other person. Depending on everyone's willingness to negotiate and compromise, it can lead to a very quick settlement of your claim that makes everyone happy.

The courts like mediation, mainly because it saves time and helps clear the courts' busy schedules. In fact, in Maine, after you file a lawsuit and you and the defendant show up for trial, the judge usually will order you and the defendant to mediate your dispute. The case will go to trial only if you and the defendant can't reach a settlement through mediation. If you do reach an agreement, it will be sent to the judge for approval, and if he approves it, the agreement will be treated like a judgment from the court.

Some Rules to Know

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

  • Unless an agreement is approved by a judge, mediation isn't 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 find an agreement that works for everyone
  • 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 would in a small claims court. That is, she doesn't decide who "won." Rather, she merely helps you reach an agreement
  • At any time, either party can withdraw from mediation (unless you've been ordered to mediate by a judge)
  • 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
  • Attorneys are usually not present during mediation. You can, however, hire an attorney to advise you about your claim, if you'd like

If you're interested in trying mediation, check your local telephone book for mediation services, or check with the clerk of the district court in your area for a more information.

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, or what property the other person has to turn over to you
  • 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 usually can't file a lawsuit in a Maine small claims court
  • Arbitration can be expensive. An arbitrator may charge over $125 for a four-hour block of time to listen to and decide your case

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

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I can't get the person who owes me money to answer my phone calls or letters. Is there any benefit to offering to mediate?
  • The person who owes me money agreed to mediate my claim, but now he won't meet with or talk to the mediator. What should I do now?
  • How much will you charge me to file a lawsuit and represent me in small claims court? Would a lawsuit and the court fees cost me less than an arbitrator?
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