You've been preparing for your small claims case for a while now. You've arranged for witnesses to be at trial and you have all the receipts and other documents ready. It's getting close to the time for the magistrate (or clerk-magistrate) of the Massachusetts small claims court (or people's court) to make a decision.
Now's a good time to get an idea of what happens after the small claims trial is over. What can you do if you win? What if you lose? Whether you're the plaintiff (the person who filed the suit) or the defendant (the person who's being sued), you should know about some of your options.
It's the beginning of the end of the case when the magistrate makes a decision in the case, that is, who won. The decision is called a judgment. The magistrate can announce the judgment:
- Immediately at the end of the case, and either give each party a copy of the judgment or send it to them in the mail. In Massachusetts, it's rare for a magistrate to make a decision immediately
- After taking some time to think about the case and all of the evidence. This is called taking the case "under consideration." The magistrate will then mail a copy of the decision to each party. This is very common in Massachusetts
The actual documents you'll receive are a Notice of Judgment and Order and, if the defendant loses (or if the plaintiff loses on a counterclaim filed by the defendant, a Notice of Payment Hearing).
Not Happy about the Judgment?
Win or lose, you may have some options if you don't like the way the case turned out:
This is when you ask a higher court to look at the case because you think the magistrate made a mistake, either about the facts of the case or in applying the law to the case.
In Massachusetts, only the defendant can appeal a decision from the small claims court. An exception, however, is when the plaintiff losses on a counterclaim that was filed by the defendant.
You have to file an appeal within 10 days after receiving the Notice of Judgment. You file an appeal by completing an affidavit of appeal, which is a sworn statement detailing why a judge or jury needs to hear the case. You also have to pay a $25 fee, and sometimes post an appeal bond in the amount of $100. The district court clerk can give you the required forms and the current fee amounts.
An appeal can be a complex matter. It's a lot more formal than the small claims trial, and more stringent court rules apply. It's a good idea to talk to an attorney if you're thinking about appealing.
Relief from Judgment
The plaintiff or the defendant can file a motion for relief from judgment or "motion for relief," which essentially asks the court for a new trial. This is commonly used when the defendant wants the magistrate to void or "vacate" a default judgment - a judgment for the plaintiff that was entered because the defendant failed to show up for trial. Another common example is when a plaintiff's case was dismissed because he didn't show up for trial. In the motion he'll ask the magistrate to vacate the dismissal so that he can continue the case against defendant.
To be successful on this type of motion, you need to "show cause," that is, have a good reason that justifies a new trial. Some examples of good cause include:
- Showing that you were unable to attend the first trial because of an emergency, such as illness
- You've discovered new evidence that wasn't available when the first trial took place
- You actually paid the plaintiff's claim or damages before the trial, or the plaintiff released you from liability on the claim
Generally, you have to file the motion within one year after the judgment was entered by the magistrate.
If you're the defendant and you lose, and you don't want to or don't have the legal grounds to file an appeal, you have two options:
- Pay the plaintiff the amount that's listed in the Notice of Judgment. This is called "satisfying the judgment," or
- Appear at the payment review hearing at the time listed in the Notice of Payment Hearing and ask the magistrate to develop a payment plan that fits your budget. Or, you may be able to convince the magistrate that you're unable to pay anything at all right now. You need to complete a form called Financial Statement of Judgment Debtor, which you can get from the district court clerk. You also need to give the plaintiff a copy of it before the hearing
If a payment review hearing isn't scheduled automatically after the judgment, you may ask the magistrate's office to schedule one.
If you're the plaintiff and you win the case, and the magistrate orders the defendant to pay all or some of your claim, you need to begin collection efforts if the defendant doesn't pay you as ordered in the judgment. This may include having to appear at one or more hearings and possibly even taking some of the defendant's property and belongings. This can be a long and complicated process that may require the help of an attorney.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have to show up at the payment review hearing?
- How much will you charge to represent me on an appeal from a small claims judgment?
- Can I file a counterclaim against the plaintiff when I appeal judgment that was entered against me in small claims court?