People have disputes over money all the time. Common examples are when a landlord refuses to refund all or part of a security deposit, or when a customer refuses to pay for something that was sold and delivered to him. It's also common for these types of legal problems to involve such a small sum of money that it's not worth it to pay an attorney to help. The fees she may charge may be close to or even more than the amount you're owed.
This is where a small claims court can help. In Minnesota, the small claims courts, or as they're commonly called the "conciliation" or "people's" courts, settle 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 courts of the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Minnesota. 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. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf"). Similarly, if the defendant is under 18, you need to name his parent or guardian as a defendant as well.
You file a small claims case in the appropriate district court, which usually is the district court of the county where the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions. The conciliation or small claims court is a special part or "division" of the district court.
In Minnesota, the most you can recover in small claims court is $7,500. If your claim is a little over $7,500, 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 $7,500, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
There's an exception to the $7,500 limit. If your case involves a "consumer credit transaction," the most you can recover is $4,000. A consumer credit transaction is when you're loaned money by a seller or business to buy something for personal, family or household use, and not for a commercial, agricultural or business purpose. Financing a washer or dryer for your home is a good example.
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 but not delivered or paid for
- Money loans
- Payment of medical bills for personal injuries
- Landlord/tenant disputes, like security deposit refunds and actions for unpaid or "back" rent. However, landlords can't file eviction actions in small claims court
- Credit card problems
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- The return of or possession to personal property, like furniture, equipment, and vehicles
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, legally changing your name, medical malpractice and claims for injury to your reputation because someone said ("slander") or wrote ("libel") something bad about you.
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 two years from the date of the accident, or from the date you "discovered" your injury, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Minnesota. 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 a "Statement of Claim and Summons." Basically, this form tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what your damages are, that is, how much money you want. 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), or you can get them online.
In Minnesota, you may either represent yourself in conciliation court, or you may hire an attorney to represent you. An attorney can give you valuable advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. In most instances, the court will order the other party to pay your attorney's fees if you win the case.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Statement of Claim, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim, such as whether the statute of limitations on your claim has expired. The clerk will give you a copy of your completed Statement, which will show a docket number, or reference number for your lawsuit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk. Also, the clerk will help you arrange for a copy of your Statement to be delivered to or "served on" the defendant. The clerk will notify you, by mail, of the date and time of the "hearing" or trial of the case.
Sometimes a case is settled before the trial, such as when the defendant pays what he 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 judge, or in some counties by a "referee" - usually an attorney who's appointed by the court to help in certain cases. At trial, you, 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. With the permission of the judge or referee, you'll each have a chance to ask each other questions, as well as question any witnesses.
There are no jury trials in the Minnesota conciliation courts.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge (or referee). After hearing the arguments of both parties, the judge 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. If the judgment is in your favor, it will specify how much money you've won. If either the plaintiff or the defendant are unhappy with the judge's decision, they have 20 days to appeal or "remove" the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked at again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Minnesota Conciliation Court Rules can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $8,200. 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?