Do you have a customer who refuses to pay you for the repairs you made to her car? Or maybe your former landlord won't return your security deposit? These are just a couple of examples of the types of claims or disputes that are handled by the Michigan small claims courts.
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 have to 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 Michigan, there are nearly 100 districts, with each covering at least one township, city, or county. You have to file your suit in the city or county where the:
- Incident, transaction, or dispute took place. For example, in the city or county where the car accident happened, or where the real property is located if you're suing to recover a security deposit
- Person or business you are suing is located. If you are suing more than one person or business, you can file in the district court where any of the persons live, or where any of the businesses operate
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 even ask that the case be dismissed. 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.
Affidavit and Claim
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Michigan small claims courts, there's a special form called the "Affidavit and Claim." You can get a copy of this form from the court clerk, or you can get it online, along with detailed 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 case in a clear and simple may. Print neatly and just give the facts about your claim. If the clerk or judge can't read the Affidavit, your case may be dismissed and you'll have to start over again. You need quite a bit of information to complete the form, such as:
- 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"), and whether the defendant is an individual, corporation, partnership, or sole proprietorship
- The amount of money you want the defendant to pay
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money
- Whether an individual defendant is at least 18 years old. If he's not, then you need to sue his parents
- Whether an individual defendant is mentally competent. If she's not, you can't sue her
- Whether an individual defendant is an active member of the US military. If she is, then the case can't go forward until the court appoints an attorney to represent her
In Michigan small claims court, a defendant may be sued in any name used by the defendant in:
- Advertisement or sign
- Sales slip, register tape, or business card
- Invoice or contract
- Any other communication or document published, displayed, or issued to the public in the course of the defendant's business
You need to sign the Affidavit and Claim either in front of the court clerk when or in front of a notary public. Also, you need to fill-out a separate Affidavit and Claim for each defendant. And, you have to have the right number of copies of each Affidavit and Claim. In most instances, you'll need four copies (one for you, one for the defendant, and two for the court). The court clerk can tell you how many copies you need.
You have to pay the clerk a filing fee. The fee is $25 if your claim is $600 or less; $45 for claims over $600 but less than $1,750; and $65 for claims over $1,750. These fees can change at any time, so be sure to ask the district court clerk about them. Also, you'll only be charged one filing fee if you're suing more than one defendant.
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 your Affidavit and Claim. You can't deliver or "serve" the Affidavit. You can either let the court clerk arrange for it to be served by a court bailiff or by certified mail. Both methods have a fee that has to be paid when you file suit. Check with the clerk for the fee amount because they change often and vary from court to court.
If you're the defendant and you think the plaintiff owes you money, you can file a written counterclaim against the plaintiff with the clerk. You have to serve the plaintiff with a copy by first-class mail.
After you file, you and the defendant will be notified of the trial date by mail.
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, you can either voluntarily dismiss your case or get a court judgment (or decision) stating how much the defendant owes you. If you want an enforceable judgment -- meaning one that the court can later help you collect on -- the settlement agreement must be in writing and you have to file a copy of it with the clerk
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant shows up at trial and defends himself, or, before trial, gives the court a written and signed letter that explains why you shouldn't win the case
- Object to your suit and have it moved out of small claims to the regular district court (this is called removal). Here, more stringent court rules apply, and both parties are allowed to have attorneys represent them in court
- 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
Questions For Your Attorney
- I filed a small claims and the defendant had it removed to the regular district court. How much will you charge to represent me?
- The defendant filed a counterclaim in my small claims suit. What kind of evidence do I need to win on the claim?
- The driver of the car that hit me gave the police a fake identification, and now I can't find him. What can I do?