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MT After Small Claims Court

You've been preparing for your small claims case for a while now, and you're ready. You've arranged for your witnesses to be at trial and you have all the receipts and other documents ready. It's getting close to the day when the judge or "justice of the peace" of a Montana small claims court will decide who wins the case.

Now's a good 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 so that you can plan you next steps.

Judgment

After the trial, when the judge has seen everyone's documents and papers and has listened to both sides of the story, the judge will make a decision in the case, that is, decide who won. The decision is called a judgment. The judgment may be made:

  • Immediately at the end of the case, and the judge will arrange for each party to get a copy of the judgment before they leave the courthouse or have it sent to them in mail later
  • After the judge takes some time to think about the case and all of the evidence. This is called taking the case "under consideration" or "under advisement." A copy of the decision will be mailed to each party

Technically, the case is over when the judge makes a decision and it's 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:

Appeal

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 Montana, 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 district court for the county where the small claims case was decided.

You have to file an appeal within 10 days after the judge decided the case. You do this by filing a Notice of Appeal with the district court clerk. You have to pay a fee when you file it, and sometimes other costs as well. You also need to arrange and pay for a copy of the Notice to be "served on" or delivered to the other party. The district court clerk can give you the all of the forms you need to file an appeal as well as explain all of the fees involved.

An appeal can be a complex matter. It's a lot more formal than the small claims trial, and more complicated court rules apply. It's a good idea to talk to an attorney if you're thinking about filing an appeal.

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 said you didn't have to pay him, which is called being "releasing you from liability"

This motion may also be used to correct typographical or clerical errors in the judgment. For example, if at the end of the trial the judge said that the defendant had to pay you $3,500, but the written judgment says he owes you $350, you can file a motion for relief to have the judgment corrected.

Generally, you have to file a motion for relief within 30 days after the judgment was entered by the judge.

Plaintiff Collects

If you're the plaintiff and you win the case, and the judge orders the defendant to pay all or some of your claim or to return some personal property to you, you need to begin collection efforts if the defendant doesn't follow 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. The same is true if you're the defendant and you won on a counterclaim against the plaintiff. This can be a long and complicated process that may require the help of an attorney.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I sued my 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 filed a Notice of 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?
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