Is a customer refusing to pay for the repairs you made to her car? Or is a former landlord refusing to let you get some personal belongings you left behind or refusing to refund all of your security deposit? These are the kinds of claims or disputes that are resolved by the Mississippi small claims courts.
And, now that you're ready to file a small claims lawsuit to get your money or property, you need to know the mechanics of what to do and how to do it. In general, you have to 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 justice court. There's at least one justice court in each of the 82 counties of the state. Generally, you need to file your suit in the justice court for the county where the defendant (the person you're suing) lives, or in the county where your claim arose. For example, if you're suing to get money for injuries you suffered in a car accident, you may file your lawsuit in the county where the accident happened. If there's a written contract involved in the case, like a lease or sales contract, it may say where exactly any lawsuit must be filed.
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right county, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper court, or even ask that the case be "dismissed," or thrown out of court. 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.
Declaration and Affidavit
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Mississippi claims courts, you need to fill out and file a "Declaration and Affidavit." The form is straightforward, but if you need some help, the clerk can give you some assistance, but don't expect legal advice about your lawsuit.
When filling out the form, you need to give information about 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 a description of the property you want the defendant 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 "dba" (meaning "doing business as"), you should contact the business or occupational license office in the city or county where the business is located. Or try the local Better Business Bureau (BBB). There you should be able to get the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from Mississippi'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 also check with the BBB and local business or occupational license office
At the time you file your forms, you will need to pay your filing fees. In Mississippi, the fees vary from court to court and it depends on how many defendants you sue. Generally, though, you can expect to pay between $50 and $70 if there's one defendant, plus an extra $10 for each additional defendant. Be sure to ask the clerk about these fees.
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 the Declaration and Affidavit you filed. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. When you file your papers, the clerk will give you detailed instructions on how to do this. Generally, you need to have the local constable, sheriff, or a court-appointed person deliver a copy of the papers to the defendant. You have to pay a fee for having the papers served, and the clerk can tell you about them.
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 you and pay what he owes, or return the property you sued for. If you agree to a settlement before trial, you should get it in writing and signed by both you and the defendant, and you need to contact the court clerk immediately
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant explains why you shouldn't win the case. He may do this either by giving the court a written and signed statement setting out in clear and simple language why you shouldn't win the case, or he may appear in court on the scheduled trial date and do so
- Default. If the defendant doesn't show up for trial on the date scheduled by the court clerk, he "defaults," and you win automatically, so long as you can prove to the judge that he was properly served with a copy of your Declaration and Affidavit and that your claim against the defendant is valid
- File a Counterclaim or set-off, that is, claim that you owe him money or have his property. It has to be filed with the clerk before trial, and the defendant has to get a copy of it to you before trial.
- 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 my Declaration and Affidavit, but I know it was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge me to fill out the paper work and represent me in small claims court?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong justice court and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Declaration and Affidavit and pay another filing fee?