People have minor disputes every day. They range from a buyer not getting the goods or services he paid for, to a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. The fees you may have to pay an attorney may be close to the amount you're owed.
This is where small claims court can help. In Massachusetts, small claims court, or as it's commonly called, the "people's court," settles legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. The courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast and a lot less formal than the other Commonwealth courts.
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.
The person or business that files a small claims lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or business that is sued is called the defendant. In most cases you can represent yourself, or you can hire a lawyer to represent you in court. However, even though there's no rule against attorneys, some courts may have special rules about hiring attorneys for small claims actions, so be sure to check with the court clerk before you hire an attorney to help you.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses, and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Massachusetts. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or on your behalf). If you're suing a business that's not a corporation, like a sole proprietorship, you need to contact the clerk at the city or town hall and ask for the precise name of the business. If you're suing a corporation or partnership, the Commonwealth's Corporations Division can give you its exact legal name.
In Massachusetts, the most you can recover in small claims court is $2,000. If your claim is a little over $2,000, you may want to consider filing in small claims anyway and forget about recovering the full amount. It will be faster, easier and less expensive than filing suit in another court. If your claim is a lot more than $2,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
There are two exceptions to the $2,000 limit, though:
- If your lawsuit is over property damage that was caused by a motor vehicle and the applicable Massachusetts law allows you to recover double or treble (triple) damages, then you can sue for $4,000 or $6,000 (double or triple damages, respectively)
- You can sue for double or triple damages, plus court costs and your attorney's fees, in certain landlord/tenant disputes
If you think your case falls within one of these exceptions, or if you're not sure, you may want to talk to an attorney to make sure you recover the full amount of your damages.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common are:
- Goods or services sold
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Security deposit refunds
- Unpaid rent
- Minor accidents
- Landlord/tenant disputes (but landlords can't file eviction actions in small claims court
- Credit card problems
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Breach of contract
- Product liability
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, and you can't use the court to have your legal name changed.
Statute of Limitations
This is how long you have to file a lawsuit after something happens. The time period is based upon the type of claim you have. For example, if you were injured in a car accident, you generally have three years from the date of the accident to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Massachusetts. The time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your case. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called "Statement of Claim and Notice." This form tells the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what you're damages are. The district court clerk has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant).
An attorney can give you advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. In most instances, you may ask the court to include your attorney's fees in the amount of the judgment if you win the case.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Statement of Claim and Notice Form, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Statement, which will show the date and time of your trial. You will also receive a docket number, or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk. Also, the clerk will send a copy of the Statement to the defendant.
Sometimes a case is settled before the trial, such as when the defendant pays what it owes you, for example. Other times your case may be heard by a mediator. He listens to you and the defendant, asks questions, and tries to get you both to reach an agreement. If neither of these happens in your case, a trial will be held before a magistrate (also known as a clerk-magistrate). Here, both you and the defendant, and your witnesses, will be sworn in. You'll tell your side of the story first, and the defendant will get a turn. You'll each have a chance to ask each other questions, as well as question any witnesses.
There are no jury trials in Massachusetts' small claims court. The exception is when the defendant appeals a judgment and requests a jury trial.
The judgment is the decision given by the magistrate (or mediator). After hearing the arguments of both parties, the magistrate may make an immediate decision, or she may need more time to think about the case. When this happens, you'll be notified by mail when the decision has been made.
If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, the case is over and you can't recover any money or damages. You don't have to pay the defendant's court costs, though. If the judgment is in your favor, the magistrate will issue a "Notice of Judgment and Order," which orders the defendant to pay all or part of your damages and your court fees. The defendant, however, has 10 days to appeal the decision, that is, he can ask that the case be looked again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Massachusetts Small Claims Rules of Court can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $3,200. How much will you charge me to file suit against him?
- My family and I moved out of a public school system and it won't give me a refund on administrative fees I paid at the beginning of the year for my son. Can I sue the school district in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?