Does someone owe you money, such as a former landlord who refuses to return your security deposit? Maybe a customer won't pay for work you did to her home, like roof repairs. These are the types of disputes that are settled by the New Jersey small claims courts.
Once you've made the decision that you're not going to get paid voluntarily and that it's time to file a small claims 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 and why, have the right paperwork, and file the suit in the right court.
Where to File
You file a small claims case with the clerk in the Office of the Special Civil Part of the Superior Court in the appropriate county. Generally, the "appropriate county" is where at least one of the defendants lives or where the defendant's business is located. Business defendants are "located" in:
- Any county where they're actually doing business, or
- The county where its registered office is located. The Department of Revenue can help you locate a business's registered office
If there's more than one defendant, you can file suit in the county where any one of the defendants lives or is located. If none of the defendants lives or is located in New Jersey, you have to file the lawsuit in the county where your claim arose. For example, if you're filing suit against a New York general contractor for faulty repairs made to your home in New Jersey, you have to file suit in the county where your house is located.
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right district, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper county, or maybe even have your case dismissed. So, if you're unsure about where to file your suit, contact the clerk's office for your area for some help.
Small Claims Complaint and Summons
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the New Jersey small claims courts, there's a special form called the "Small Claims Complaint and Summons" You can get this form and detailed instructions from the clerk's office, or you can get it online. The clerk can give you some assistance in filling out the form, but don't expect legal advice about your suit.
When filling out the complaint, you need to:
- Give your name, address and a telephone number where you can be contacted
- Give the name and address of the defendant. It's critical that you use the full, proper name of the defendant and identify the defendant as an individual; a non-corporate business, like a sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation. The Department of Revenue can help you find out the proper names of most businesses in New Jersey
- State the amount of money you want the defendant to pay
- Give the reasons why the defendant owes you money. Just give the bare facts of your claim: "The Defendant won't pay for repairs I made to her car." You don't have to give every single detail. That's what the trial is for
- Deliver the completed and signed form to the court clerk along with the appropriate filing fee. You can file the complaint and summons in person or by mail
Use the right form! In New Jersey, there are two different complaints, one for:
- Claims related to motor vehicles, such as claims for personal injuries you suffered in a car accident
- All other claims, such as claims to recover security deposits
The two forms are pretty much the same. The main difference is that for claims relating to motor vehicles, you need to know the names of the owner and driver of the other car.
In New Jersey, the costs for filing a complaint in small claims court are:
- $15 for one defendant
- $2 for each additional defendant
- $7 for each defendant who is served with the complaint by certified and regular mail. However, you may be charged a fee for mileage (instead of the $ 7 mailing fee) if the complaint is served personally by a court officer. These fees can change at any time, but the clerk's office can tell you the current fees
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 Small Claims Complaint and Summons that you filled out. Usually, the court clerk will take care of this for you.
It's critical that you have the right address! If the post office can't deliver the complaint (that is, serve" the defendant) and it's returned to the court, your case can't go forward. If the letter isn't returned, but it's discovered later that was never delivered or was sent to the wrong address, any judgment you may get will be voided or "vacated" by the court. You'll then have to start the whole lawsuit over again.
Once you've filed suit, the defendant can do any number of things, such as :
- Settle the claim, that is, simply agree that he owes you money and pay you. If you agree to a settlement, it must be in writing and it has to be filed with the court clerk
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant either files a written statement explaining why he doesn't owe you anything, or he simply appears in court on the trial date and defends himself
- Default. If the defendant doesn't show up for trial (or "defaults"), you automatically win, so long as he was properly served with the complaint and summons and you can show the judge that your claim is valid
- Counterclaim, or file a claim against you stating that you owe him money. The defendant has to pay a $32 fee for filing it, it has to be filed with the clerk before the trial date stated in the summons
- Ask for a continuance, which is postponing 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 "notice," but I know the complaint was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge me to fill out the Small Claims Complaint and Summons and represent me in small claims court?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong district and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Small Claims Complaint and Summons and pay another filing fee?