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MS Alternatives to Small Claims Court

Sometimes, customers don't pay for car repairs, and landlords refuse to refund security deposits or won't let former tenants get some personal belongings they left behind when they moved. The Mississippi small claims courts, or "people's courts," were designed for these kinds of legal problems. These courts are meant to be a fast, informal, and inexpensive way for people like to get the money they're owed or get their property back.

Maybe you're in a situation like this, but you don't want to file a lawsuit, not even in the people's court, to get your money or property. That's OK. A lot of people don't like courtrooms or dealing with the "legal process." There are alternatives to small claims court, though, like:

  • Personal Negotiation
  • Mediation
  • Arbitration

Any one of these tactics may help you get your money without having to step foot into a courtroom.

Personal Negotiation

This should be your first step, even if you're prepared to file a small claims law suit. All this involves is one or two simple phone calls or letters to the person who owes you money (he'd be called the "defendant" if you filed a lawsuit against him) asking that he pay you or return your property. Be polite and cordial. Maybe you can work out an agreement that benefits everyone.

If these first attempts don't get you anywhere, then consider writing a demand letter. It's exactly what it sounds like: A letter demanding that the other person pay you within a specific period of time, like 15 or 30 days. A good demand letter:

  • Briefly explains why you think the other person owes you money, or why the property you want belongs to you
  • States exactly how much money you're demanding, or what specific property you want
  • Clearly states that you intend to take legal action, including filing a lawsuit in small claims court, if you're not paid within the time you decide to give him (15 or 30 days, for instance)

Try to send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. It's more expensive than regular mail, but it requires the other person to sign for the letter when it's delivered to him. After it's delivered, you'll get the return receipt. Make sure you keep it, together with a copy of your letter, so that, if necessary, you can prove later that the letter was in fact delivered.

Mediation

Mediation is an informal meeting between you, the other person, and a neutral third party, called a "mediator." Most of the time you'll meet together, but sometimes you and the other person will meet separately with the mediator. The mediator's job is to help you both reach an agreement. She can suggest different options to help you reach that agreement, and she may even suggest a particular settlement agreement, but she can't force or order either of you to do anything.

In most instances, mediation will be offered at no or little cost to you or the other person. Depending on everyone's willingness to negotiate and compromise, it can lead to a very quick settlement of your claim that makes everyone happy.

The courts like mediation, mainly because it saves time and helps clear the courts' busy schedules. In fact, in some Mississippi small claims courts, after you file a lawsuit and show up for trial, the judge may ask you and the defendant if you'd like to mediate your claim. The case will go to trial only if you both don't agree to mediation or if you try to mediate but can't come to an agreement. In most cases, if you do reach an agreement, the judge will approve it and it will become an enforceable court order.

Some Rules to Know

There are some things to keep in mind about mediation, such as :

  • It's not binding, meaning that, even if you and the other person reach an agreement, the mediator can't enforce it. So, if the other person later breaks or "breaches" the agreement, you may need to start the whole process over again (personal negotiation, writing a demand letter, filing a lawsuit, etc.). This is, of course, unless the agreement is approved by a judge
  • The mediator can't provide legal or personal advice. She can only suggest possible ways to settle the matter and help you both make sure that you reach an agreement that's good for you both
  • It's you and the other person who make the terms of the agreement, not the mediator. The mediator will only write down or document what you've agreed to
  • The mediator doesn't make a "decision" in the case like a magistrate would in the small claims court. That is, she doesn't decide who "won." Rather, she merely helps you reach an agreement
  • At any time, either party can withdraw from mediation
  • If you don't reach an agreement through mediation you can still file a lawsuit in small claims court. In other words, you don't waive your right to file suit simply because you agree to mediation. This is true for the other person, too, if he has a "counterclaim" against you, that is, he claims that you owe him money
  • Attorneys are usually not present during mediation. You can, however, hire an attorney to advise you about your claim, if you'd like

If you want to try mediation, check with the clerk of justice court in your area or with the Mississippi Bar Association for a list of mediators in your area.

Arbitration

Arbitration is very similar to mediation. Here, a neutral third party, called an arbitrator, listens to both sides of the story, just like a mediator does, in the hopes of helping you reach an agreement. However, there are some important differences between arbitration and mediation:

  • If you and the defendant can't reach an agreement, the arbitrator will make a decision in the case, that is, decide if you're going to get paid and how much
  • The arbitrator's decision is binding, unless you and the defendant agree beforehand that it isn't binding. This means that it can be enforced by the arbitrator and, if necessary, the courts, if you or the defendant don't follow the decision
  • After going through arbitration, you can't file a lawsuit in a Massachusetts small claims court
  • Arbitration can be expensive. An arbitrator may charge over $125 for a four-hour block of time to listen to and decide your case. But, if you win, the costs of arbitration are usually added to the amount the defendant owes you

As with mediation, you and the other person have to agree to arbitration. However, you both also have to agree on the arbitrator. The circuit court clerk in your area may have a list of arbitrators that you may contact. Or, you can contact the American Arbitration Association for a list of arbitrators in your area.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • I can't get the defendant to answer my phone calls or letters. Is there any benefit to offering to mediate?
  • The defendant agreed to mediate my claim, but now he won't meet with or talk to the mediator. What should I do now?
  • How much will you charge me to file a lawsuit and represent me in small claims court? I mean, will the suit and the court fees cost me less than an arbitrator?
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