Do you have a customer who refuses to pay you for the repairs you made to her car? Or maybe the roofer you hired didn't finish the work, or a friend won't return some machinery you loaned to him? These are just a few examples of the types of claims or disputes that are resolved by the Maine small claims courts.
Now that you've decided that the only way you're going to get what's yours 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 (you're called the "plaintiff") file a small claims case with the clerk of the appropriate district court. Maine is divided into 13 judicial districts or areas, and there are a total of 31 district courts in the state. Generally, you need to file your lawsuit in the district court for the town or county where the:
- Incident you're suing over took place, for example where the car accident happened if you're suing for damages to your car. This is also sometimes called the place where "your claim arose"
- Defendant lives. The "defendant" is the person you're suing
- Business has an office or other place of business, or where its "registered agent" or "corporate clerk" lives (the person who accepts important documents for the business), if you're suing a business
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 that the case be "dismissed," or 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.
Statement of Claim
Generally, any lawsuit begins when the plaintiff files a "complaint." In the Maine small claims courts, there's a special form called a Statement of Claim. The form is straightforward and self-explanatory, but if you need help filling it out, the clerk can give you some assistance, but don't expect legal advice about your suit.
When filling out the form, you need to give information about your 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 a description of the property you want from him
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money, or why you think the property you're after rightfully belongs to you
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 a "dba" (meaning "doing business as"), you may be able to get the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner from the occupational or business licenses office or agency in the town or county where the business is located. Or, you may want to check with the local Better Business Bureau (BBB) for this information
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from Maine's Secretary of State. You'll also find the name of the company's "registered agent" or "corporate clerk"
- 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, and you may need to check with the local BBB and occupational or business licenses office to get their names and addresses
You'll need at least two copies of your Statement: The original is given to the court, a copy must be sent to or "served on" the defendant, and you keep a copy for your records.
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 your Statement. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. The court clerk will give you detailed instructions on how to do this, but generally you may:
- Send it to the defendant either by first class or registered mail. If you send it by first class mail, you also need to send two copies of the Notice of Service and Acknowledgement form, one of which the defendant should send back to you once he's received it. If you send it registered, you'll get a "return receipt" after it's delivered to the defendant
- Arrange for the local sheriff to deliver the papers. You have to deliver the original Statement and one copy to the sheriff and pay a fee. The clerk or sheriff can tell you the current amount of the fee
- Let the court clerk arrange for service. There's a $15 fee per defendant for this, and the clerk usually will try to mail the papers first, and if that fails, have the sheriff serve them. You'll have to pay extra for service 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 should try to serve all of the partners, but at the very least serve its general or managing partner.
After the defendant has been served, the court clerk will schedule a trial or a "hearing."
Filing and Filing Fees
Within 20 days after the papers have been served on the defendant, it's time to actually file the lawsuit. You do this by mailing or hand-delivering to the court clerk:
- A $50 filing fee
- Proof that your Statement was delivered to the defendant. You need to give the clerk either an Acknowledgment form signed by the defendant; or the original certified mail return receipt signed by the defendant, or the return of service form signed by the sheriff
- The original Statement of Claim you filled out
Generally, if you win your case, the small claims court will order the defendant to pay your filing fee and whatever you had to pay to have the Statement served on the defendant. This will be in addition to any other money or property the court awards you on your claim.
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 or return the property you sued for. If you settle before the trial date, the agreement should be in writing, signed by both of you and a copy should be filed with the court clerk
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant either shows up for the trial and challenges your claim or sends the court a written statement explaining in clear and simple language why you shouldn't win the case
- Default. If the defendant doesn't show up for trial, he "defaults," and you may win automatically win if you can show that he was properly served with your Statement and that your claim against him is valid
- File a lawsuit against you. The defendant has to go through the same filing process and pay the same fees as you did when you filed your lawsuit. Generally, if the defendant files a lawsuit, the court will hold one trial for both claims
- 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, 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 said that I filed suit in the wrong district and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Statement of Claim and pay another filing fee?