People have minor disputes every day, like a buyer not getting the goods or services he paid for or a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. His fees may be close to or even more than what you're owed; you may not be able to afford one in the first place.
This is where a small claims court can help. In New Mexico, the small claims courts, or "magistrate courts," handle legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. The courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast and a lot less formal than the other courts in the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses, and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in New Mexico. 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 person you're suing is under 18 years old, you need to name her parent or guardian as a defendant as well.
You file a small claims case in either a:
- Magistrate court, or
- Metropolitan court, or "Metro Court," such as the Bernalillo County Metro Court, which includes the Albuquerque area
Generally, you file the case in the court that serves the area or county where the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions. And, whether there's a magistrate or metro court in your area depends on the population there. Check your local telephone book or local courthouse to determine which type of court you have in your area.
In New Mexico, the most you can recover in small claims court is $10,000. If your claim is a little over $10,000, 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 $10,000, 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
- Failure to repay money loans
- Auto negligence
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such as suits for security deposit refunds, unpaid rent and eviction
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Recovery of specific personal property, like furniture and farm equipment
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, disputes over land ownership and legally changing your name.
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 were injured in a car accident, you generally have three years from the date of the accident, or from the date you "discovered" your injury, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in New Mexico. 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 "Civil Complaint" and "Civil Summons." Basically, the Civil Complaint tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what your damages are, that is how much money or what property you want. The Civil Summons tells the defendant when he has to file an "answer," that is, respond to your suit. The clerk of the magistrate or metro court in your area has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant). Or, you can get them online.
In New Mexico, you may represent yourself in small claims court or you may hire an attorney to represent you in court. A lawyer 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 clerk of the magistrate or metro court 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, such as tell you if you have a "good" case or if the statute of limitations has expired. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed forms, which will show a docket number, or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk.
It's your job to make sure that the defendant gets a copy of or is "served with" the Complaint and Summons. The clerk will explain your options for this, as well as the fees for having them served.
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 magistrate (or judge, in a metro court). At trial, you, the defendant, and all 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.
In New Mexico, either the plaintiff or the defendant may demand a jury trial in the small claims courts. If you're the plaintiff, you must make your demand in the Complaint; if you're the defendant, you demand a jury trial in your Answer. The person demanding a jury has to pay fees; the court clerk can give you the exact amounts.
The judgment is the decision given by the magistrate. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the magistrate 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 recover any money or damages. If the judgment is in your favor, it will specify how much the defendant must pay you or what property he has to turn over to you. If either the plaintiff or the defendant is unhappy with the decision, you have 15 days to "appeal" the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $10,800. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than small claims court?
- A city-owned maintenance truck damaged my lawn, but the city won't pay for repairing it. Can I sue the city in a New Mexico Magistrate or Metropolitan Court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?