People have minor disputes every day. They range from a buyer not getting the goods or services he paid for, to a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit or to return some property she left behind when she moved. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. The attorney's fees you may have to pay might be close to or even more than what you're owed, or you may not be able to afford one in the first place.
This is where a small claims court can help. In Montana, the small claims courts settle legal disputes that involve small amounts of money or personal property. The courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast and a lot less formal than the other courts of the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Montana. The person or business that files a small claims lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or business that is sued is called the defendant. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf"). Likewise, if the defendant is under 18, you need to name his parent or guardian as a defendant, too.
In Montana, the most you can recover in small claims court is $3,000. If your claim is a little over $3,000, you may want to consider filing in small claims anyway and forget about recovering the full amount. It will be faster, easier, and less expensive than filing suit in another court. If your claim is a lot more than $3,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common cases involve:
- Goods or services sold but not delivered or paid for
- Money loans
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such suits for refunds of security deposits and for unpaid or "back" rent
- Car repair disputes
- Suits to get specific personal property returned, like tools and equipment
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, changing your legal name, and evicting a tenant from your rental property. Also, you can't file a lawsuit in a Montana small claims court to get money for property damage or personal injuries.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is how long you have to file a lawsuit after something happens. The time period is based upon the type of claim you have. For example, if you're suing your former landlord to get your security deposit back and you have a written lease, you generally have eight years after the lease expired or was terminated to file a lawsuit. The time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your case. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called a "Complaint." This form tells the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what you're damages are. The clerk of the justice court has this and other forms you need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant), or you can get many of the forms need online.
In Montana, attorneys are generally not allowed in small claims court unless both parties hire an attorney. So, if you hire an attorney and the defendant doesn't, you can't have your attorney represent you in court. You may, however, use your attorney for advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. In most cases, if both parties hire an lawyer, the party who loses will have to pay the winning party's attorney's fees.
The clerk of the justice court may help you complete the Complaint and other forms, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim, such telling you if the statute of limitations on your claim has expired or if you have a "good case." The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed forms, which will show the date and time of your trial. You will also receive a docket number, or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk. Also, the clerk will help you make arrangements to have a copy of your forms delivered to or "served on" the defendant.
Sometimes a case is settled before the trial, such as when the defendant pays what he owes you, for example. Other times your case may be heard by a mediator. He listens to you and the defendant, asks questions, and tries to get you both to reach an agreement. If neither of these happens in your case, a trial will be held before a judge or "justice of the peace." Here, both you and the defendant, and your witnesses, will be sworn in. You'll tell your side of the story first, and the defendant will get a turn. You'll each have a chance to ask each other questions, as well as question any witnesses.
There are no jury trials in the Montana small claims courts.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties and seeing all of the evidence, like bills and receipts, the judge may make an immediate decision, or she may need more time to think about the case. When this happens, you'll be notified by mail when the decision has been made.
If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, the case is over and you can't get any money or property from the defendant. If the judgment is in your favor, it will state exactly how much the defendant must pay you or describe the specific property he has to turn over to you. If either you or the defendant are unhappy with the judge's decision, you have 10 days to appeal the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Montana Rules of Small Claims Procedure can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- A customer owes me $3,800. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than small claims court? Do you think I can recover the full amount?
- I rented office space in a building owned by the city. It's refusing to refund all of my security deposit. Can I sue the city in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?