Do you have a customer who refuses to pay you for the repairs you made to her car? Or did you give a roofer a down payment, but he never started the job? These are just a couple of examples of the types of claims or disputes that are resolved by a Missouri small claims courts, or the "people's court."
And, now that you've decided that the only way you're going to get your money is to file a lawsuit, 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 circuit court. Each county (and the City of St. Louis) has a circuit court, and small claims cases are heard by a special part or "division" of each circuit court. Generally, you should file your suit in the circuit court for the county where:
- The defendant lives (this is the person you're suing). If you're suing more than one defendant, you may file in the county where any one of them lives
- The incident you're suing over occurred. For example, if you're suing to get money for injuries you suffered in a car accident, you may file in the county where accident happened
- You live, so long as the defendant may be found in that county, such as when he works in that county or has a business office there
- The defendant or its "registered agent" has an office. Registered agents are persons selected by businesses, usually corporations, to accept important papers for the business, including legal documents
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right circuit court, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper district or 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.
Petition Small Claim Court
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Missouri small claims courts, there's a special form called the "Petition Small Claims Court." The clerk can give you the form, or you can get one online. The form is self-explanatory and straight-forward, but if you need 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 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
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money
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 Occupational Licenses office or agency in the city or county where the business is located to get the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner. Your local Better Business Bureau (BBB) may be able to help as well
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from Missouri's Secretary of State office. 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 partners. Again check with the Secretary of State, Occupational Licenses office, or local BBB to get this information
In Missouri, you can file your Petition in person or by mail.
At the time you file your forms, you will need to pay your filing fees. In Missouri, the fees vary from court to court and are based upon the amount of money you're suing for. However, you should expect to pay between $20 and $100 for filing the Petition. Ask the court clerk for details about the fees in your area.
Generally, if you win your case, the 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 Petition you filed. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. When you file, the clerk will give you detailed instructions on how to do this. Generally, though, you may pay the clerk to have the forms mailed to the defendant by certified mail, return receipt requested. Your other option is to pay a fee for a process server or the sheriff of the county where the defendant lives to hand-deliver the papers.
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. If you agree to a settlement, it should be in writing, signed by both of you, and filed with the court clerk
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant either gives the court a written and signed statement that sets out in clear and simple language why you shouldn't win the case, or he appears in court on the scheduled trial date and challenges your claim
- Default. If the defendant doesn't show up for trial he "defaults," and you may win automatically if you can show the judge that the defendant was served properly with a copy of your Petition and that your claim against the defendant is valid
- Counterclaim, or file a claim against you. Generally, he has to file a counterclaim within 10 days before the trial date and has to make sure that you get a copy of it before trial. If the counterclaim is for more than $3,000, you both have to agree to have it settled by the small claims court. If there's no agreement, the defendant can either file a separate lawsuit in another court, or he can give up any right to recover more than $3,000.00 and keep the claim in the small claims court
- 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 Petition, but I know it was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge me to fill out a Petition and represent me in small claims court?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong circuit court and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Petition and Notice and pay another filing fee?