People have minor disputes every day. They range from things like a mechanic having trouble getting a customer to pay for car repairs, to a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. You want your money, but if you hire an attorney, her fees may take a big chunk out of what you're owed. And what do you do if can't afford an attorney in the first place?
This is where small claims courts come into play. The New Jersey small claims court system settles legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. These courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast, and a lot less formal than the other New Jersey courts.
You file a small claims case with the Clerk of the Superior Court, Special Civil Part in the appropriate county.
The person who files a small claims lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person who's sued is called the defendant. Many plaintiffs present their own cases, that is, they don't hire attorneys. However, there's no rule against having an attorney in a New Jersey small claims court, so you can hire one to represent you if you want to.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses, and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in New Jersey. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf"). It's very important that you make sure the defendant (or defendants) is properly identified as an individual, a sole proprietorship, a partnership or a corporation. You can get the full, proper name of most businesses from the state's Department of Revenue.
In New Jersey, the most you can recover in small claims court is $3,000, or $5,000 if you're demanding the return of a security deposit from your landlord. If your claim is a little over these amounts, 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 suit is a lot more than $3,000, or $5,000, you may want to contact an attorney and ask about your chances of recovering the full amount in another New Jersey court.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common cases involve:
- Breach of a written or oral contract
- Return of money used as a down payment
- Property damage caused by a motor vehicle accident
- Damage to or loss of property
- Consumer complaints for defective merchandise or faulty workmanship
- Payment for work performed
- Claims based on bad checks
- Claims for back rent
- Return of a tenant's security deposit
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including:
- Professional malpractice, such as malpractice by a doctor or a lawyer
- Claims for spousal support or alimony
- Probate matters, such as the administration of or challenge to a decedent's last will and testament
- Actions by landlords to evict tenants
Statute of Limitations
This 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 were injured in a car accident, you generally have two years from the date of the accident, or from the date you discovered your injury, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in New Jersey. The time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your claim. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called "Small Claims Complaint and Summons." Basically, it tells the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what your damages are. The court clerk has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant). In addition, you can get the forms online.
An attorney can give you advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. In most instances, you may ask the court to include your attorney's fees in the amount of the judgment if you win the case.
The court clerk may help you complete the Complaint and Summons, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Complaint and Summons. Sometimes you'll be given a trial date and time as soon as file the Complaint. At other times, you'll be notified by mail within a few days after filing the Complaint. Also, the clerk will send a copy of the Complaint and Summons to the defendant.
Sometimes a case is settled before the trial, such as when the defendant pays what it 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. At trial, you, the defendant, and everyone's witnesses will be sworn in. Generally, you'll tell your side of the story first, and the defendant will get his turn. You'll each have a chance to ask each other questions, as well as to question any witnesses.
In New Jersey, the defendant can file a written demand for a jury trial within five days of the trial date. If the defendant makes this demand and pays a $50 fee, your case will be transferred to another court.
The judgment is the judge's decision on who wins your case. Typically, after hearing the arguments of both parties and the evidence, the judge will make a decision and the clerk will enter the judgment in the court records.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The New Jersey Small Claims Rules of Court can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a customer who refuses to pay $3,200 for repairs I made to her car. How much will you charge me to file suit against her? In other words, would it be cheaper for me to file a small claims action for $3,000 and forget about the other $200?
- From the day I file a small claims lawsuit, how long will it take for me to get paid if I win my case? Will it be faster if you file suit for me in another court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?
Related Resources on Lawyers.comsm
- Start the process with our New Jersey Small Claims Worksheet
- Next in the Small Claims series: Filing a Small Claims Suit in New Jersey
- Success In Small Claims Court
- Small Claims Court Terms
- Defending a Small Claims Court Case
- Visit our Small Claims Court Forum for more help