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? These are just a couple of examples of the types of claims or disputes that are resolved by the Massachusetts small claims courts, or the "people's court."
And, now that you're ready 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 know exactly who you're suing, have the right paperwork, and file the suit in the right court.
Where to File
You file a small claims case with the clerk of the appropriate district court. In Massachusetts, there are 62 districts, and each district covers several counties. Generally, you should file your suit in the district where either you or the defendant live, work or have a business. If your suit is against your landlord, you can file in the district where the property is located. If there's a written contract involved, it may say exactly where any suit must be filed.
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. 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 Small Claim and Notice of Trial
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Massachusetts small claims courts, there's a special form called the "Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial." There are instructions to help you fill out the form. If you need additional help, 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 the 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 name and address of the party you're suing (called the defendant)
- The amount of money you want the defendant to pay
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money
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 clerk at the city or town hall to get the "legal name" and address of the business
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from the Commonwealth's Corporations Division
- A partnership, you should list the name of the partnership as well as the individual partners. Again the Commonwealth's Corporations Division can help you get that information
- Someone for injuries or damages caused in a car accident, you need to name the registered owner of the car as the defendant (not the driver, if they're different)
In Massachusetts, you can file your Statement in person or by mail.
At the time you file your forms, you will need to pay your filing fees. In Massachusetts, the fee is $30 if your claim is $500 or less, and $40 for claims over $500. These fees can change at any time, so be sure to ask the district court clerk about the fee.
Generally, if you win your case, the small claims court will order the defendant to pay your filing fee (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 and Notice that you filled out. If you're the defendant and you think the plaintiff owes you money, you can file a counterclaim against the plaintiff. You then have to make sure that the plaintiff gets a copy of your counterclaim.
Once the Statement of Claim and Notice has been filed, the clerk will send a copy of it to the defendant by first class mail. If the defendant doesn't live in Massachusetts, she will be notified by certified mail. Make sure you have the right address! If the post office can't deliver the letter (that is, serve the defendant) and it's returned to the court, your case can't go forward. If the letter is not returned, but it's discovered later that was never delivered or was sent to the wrong address, any judgment you may get will be voided or "vacated" by the court. You'll then have to start the whole lawsuit over again.
Once you've filed suit, the defendant can do any number of things, such as :
- Settle the claim, that is, simply agree that he owes you money and pays you. If you agree to a settlement, it must be in writing and you have to give a copy of it to the clerk
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant gives the court a written and signed letter that sets out in clear and simple language why you shouldn't win the case
- Default. If the defendant doesn't show up for trial (or defaults), you automatically win, so long as he was properly served with notice and you can show the magistrate that your claim against defendant was 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 at least two days before trial, and you have to be given a copy of it to give you time to prepare. If you need more time, you can ask for more time, which is called a continuance
- Ask for a continuance, which postponing 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 the next street over from me, because her dog bit me. She says that she never received "notice," but I know the complaint 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 Notice 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 Notice and pay another filing fee?