You've been preparing for your small claims case for a while now. You have all of your bills, receipts, and other papers in order, and you've arranged for your witnesses to be at the trial. It's getting close to the time for the judge of a Missouri small claims court (or "people's court") to make a decision, and you're ready.
Now, instead of relaxing a bit and waiting, why not take some time to get an idea of what happens after the small claims trial is over. What can you do if you win? What if you lose? Whether you're the plaintiff (the person who filed the suit) or the defendant (the person who's being sued), you should know about some of your options.
At the end of the case, after he's seen all the evidence and has listed to each side's arguments, the judge will make a decision in the case, that is, decide who won. The decision is called a judgment. The judge may make the decision:
- Immediately at the end of the case, and either give each party a copy of the judgment or send it to them in the mail. In Missouri, it's rare for a judge to make a decision immediately
- After taking some time to think about the case and all of the evidence. This is called taking the case "under consideration" or "under advisement." The court clerk will mail a copy of the decision to each party later. This is very common in Missouri
Technically, the case is over when the judge makes a decision and the decision is entered into the court records by the court clerk. However, while the case may be over, you may still have some work to do, depending on whether either party thinks the judge made a mistake or whether the winner gets paid.
Not Happy about the Judgment?
Win or lose, you may have some options if you don't like the way the case turned out:
This is when you ask a higher court to look at the case because you think the judge made a mistake when he decided the case. In Missouri, either the plaintiff or the defendant may appeal. So, if you're the plaintiff and you won, the defendant may appeal; if you think the judge should have awarded you more money, then you may appeal. The appeal will be decided by the regular circuit court, and it will be a whole new trial of the entire case. And, either party may request a jury trial.
You have to file an appeal within 10 days after the judge decided the case. You do this by filing an Application for Trial de Novo, which is a sworn statement detailing why a judge or jury needs to hear the case. You also have to pay a fee when you file it, and sometimes other costs as well. The circuit court clerk can give you the forms you need to file an appeal as well as explain the current fees.
An appeal can be a complex matter. It's a lot more formal than the small claims trial, more stringent court rules apply, and the court clerk can't give you any help completing forms. It's a good idea to talk to an attorney if you're thinking about appealing.
Relief from Judgment
The plaintiff or the defendant can file a motion for relief from judgment or "motion for relief," which essentially asks the court for a new trial. This is commonly used when the defendant wants the judge to void or "vacate" a default judgment - a judgment for the plaintiff that was entered because the defendant failed to show up for trial. Another common example is when a plaintiff's case was dismissed because he didn't show up for trial. In the motion he'll ask the judge to vacate the dismissal so that he can continue the case against defendant.
To be successful on this type of motion, you need to "show cause," that is, have a good reason that justifies a new trial. Some examples of good cause include:
- Showing that you were unable to attend the first trial because of an emergency, such as illness
- You've discovered new evidence that wasn't available when the first trial took place
- You actually paid the plaintiff's claim or damages before the trial, or the plaintiff released you from liability on the claim
If you're the plaintiff and you win the case, and the judge orders the defendant to pay all or some of your claim, you need to begin collection efforts if the defendant doesn't pay you as ordered in the judgment. This may include having to appear at one or more hearings and possibly even taking some of the defendant's property and belongings. This can be a long and complicated process that may require the help of an attorney. This all applies, too, if you're the defendant and you won on a counterclaim.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I sued my former landlord and the judge ordered him to return $800 of my $1,200 security deposit. I think I should have gotten all of it. Should I appeal?
- I won my small claims case and the defendant said he was going to appeal. Can I challenge or fight his request for an appeal? I don't think he has a good reason for the appeal.
- Can I file a counterclaim against the plaintiff when I appeal judgment that was entered against me in small claims court?