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 the kinds of legal claims or disputes that are settled by the Minnesota conciliation or "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 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 Minnesota, there's a district court for each county, but most district courts cover more than one county. You need to file your lawsuit in the district court for the county where the:
- Defendant lives. The "defendant" is the person you're suing
- Checks were written, if your case involves "bad checks"
- Real property or land is located, if your case is a landlord-tenant dispute
- Corporation has its business or branch office, if you're suing a corporation
If there's a written contract involved, like a lease or sales agreement, check it to see if it states exactly where any lawsuit must be filed.
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right court, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper district, or even to dismiss or "throw out" the case. 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 Claim and Summons
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Minnesota small claims courts, there's a special form called the Statement of Claim and Summons. The form is straightforward and self-explanatory, and some instructions are attached to it. 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 your 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 defendant's name and address
- The amount of money you want the defendant to pay, or what property you want him to turnover to you
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money, or why the property is rightfully yours
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 or a "dba" (meaning "doing business as"), you should contact the business or occupational license office or agency in the city or county where the business is located. That office should be able to tell you the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from Minnesota's Secretary of State. You'll also find the name of the company's "registered agent," the person who accepts important documents for the corporation
- A partnership, you should list the name of the partnership as well as the individual partners as defendants. Again the Secretary of State can help you get that information for some partnerships, or you can try the local Better Business Bureau (BBB) for this information
In Minnesota, you need to sign your Statement in the presence of the court clerk, or you need to have it notarized.
At the time you file your forms, you will need to pay your filing fees. In Minnesota, the fees are different for each county, but generally you can expect to pay between $40 and $80 to file your Statement of Claims. Be sure to ask the court clerk about the specific fee amount.
Generally, if you win your case, the conciliation or small claims court will order the other party 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 you filed. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. When you file your Claim, the clerk will give you detailed instructions on how to do this. Generally, though, if your claim is:
- Less than $2,500, the court clerk will arrange for it to sent to the defendant by first class mail
- More than $2,500 (or if the defendant can't be served by first class mail), you need to mail it by certified mail, return receipt requested; or you have to arrange for someone who's over 18 years old and not part of the lawsuit to deliver it (like a process server); or you have to pay to have the local sheriff hand-deliver it
Make sure you have the right name and address! If the defendant isn't served properly your case can't go forward, and it may be dismissed, or "thrown out" of court, and you'll then have to start all over again. If you're suing a corporation, you need to serve its "registered agent." She's the person named by the corporation who's responsible for accepting important documents and papers on behalf of or for the corporation. If you're suing a sole proprietorship, you need to serve the business's owner or its registered agent, if it has one. If you're suing a partnership, you need to serve its general or managing partner.
Once you've filed suit, the defendant can do any number of things, such as :
- Settle the claim, that is, simply agree with your claim and pay what he owes you (or return your property). If you agree to a settlement before trial, you need to have it in writing, signed by both of you, and you must notify the court clerk immediately
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant appears in court on the date scheduled by the court clerk and explains to the judge or referee why you shouldn't win the case
- Default. If the defendant doesn't appear or show up for the scheduled hearing or trial, he "defaults," and you may win automatically. You'll have to prove to the judge that the defendant was properly served with a copy of your Statement of Claim and that your claim against defendant is 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 five 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. If the counterclaim is for more than $7,500, the entire case will be moved out of the small claims court and into the regular district court where it will be a much more complicated process for both parties
- Ask for a continuance, which postpones 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 on the next street over from me, because her dog bit me. She says that she never received "notice," but I know My Statement of Claim was mailed to the right address. What should I do now?
- How much will you charge me to fill out the Statement of Claim 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 pay another filing fee?