People have minor disputes every day. They range from a landlord who refuses to return a tenant's security deposit, to a customer who won't pay for car repairs made by a mechanic. Many times, these kinds of 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. And what if you can't afford an attorney in the first place?
This is where small claims court can help. In Michigan, the small claims 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 state's other courts.
The person or business that files a small claims lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or business that's sued is called the defendant. Any individual defendant must be at least 18 years old and mentally competent. If a defendant is in active military service, your case can't proceed until the court arranges to have him represented by an attorney.
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.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Michigan. You need to know the name and address of each defendant and whether the defendant is an individual, partnership, corporation or sole proprietorship. The Michigan Secretary of State can help you figure out if a defendant is a business.
In Michigan, the most you can recover in small claims court is $3,000. If your claim is a little over $3,000, 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 $3,000, you may want to talk to an attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common cases involve:
- 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
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Breach of contract
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including fraud, libel, slander, assault, battery, and other intentional torts, like trespassing and invasion of privacy. You also can't use the court for things like changing your name or contesting someone's last will and testament.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations 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, or from the date you discovered your injury, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Michigan. These time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your claim. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called an "Affidavit and Claim." This form tells the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what you're damages are. The district court clerk can give you this form, or you can get it online, along with instructions on how to complete it.
In Michigan, you can't have an attorney represent you in small claims court. However, you are free to hire an attorney to help you figure out how much you should sue for, how long you have to file a claim (the statute of limitations), and other matters related to your suit. If you want to have an attorney represent you in court, you need to file your lawsuit in the regular district court.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Affidavit and Claim, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim. When you file the Affidavit and Claim, the clerk will ask how you want to have the defendant notified of the suit (called "service of process"), and she will arrange for the defendant to get a copy of your Affidavit and Claim.
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 there's no resolution in your case, a trial will be held before an attorney-magistrate (or "magistrate") or by a judge. At trial, 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 Michigan's small claims court.
The judgment is the decision given by the magistrate or judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the magistrate makes a decision, and the clerk will enter it into the court record. If the magistrate doesn't make a decision immediately after trial (called "taking it under advisement"), you and the defendant will be notified by mail about the decision.
If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, the case is over and you can't recover any money or damages. If the judgment is in your favor, the magistrate's judgment will state how much the defendant owes you, how and when it must be paid, and what happens if it's not paid. The district court clerk can get you the judgment form, or it's available online.
Either party can appeal (have a higher court look at the case) a decision made by a magistrate. You have seven days from the date of judgment to appeal. However, if a judge makes a decision in your case, neither party can appeal.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Michigan 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 outside of small claims court?
- Can you fill out the forms for my small claims case? I don't want to make a mistake while filling them out.
- How long will it take to get a decision from the time I file a small claims suit? Will it be faster if I hire you to sue in another court?