The purpose of small claims court is to hear disputes involving relatively small amounts of money—for example, if you want to get your landlord to return your security deposit, or an auto repair shop to give you a refund for shoddy work. Along many states, New York does not allow landlords to file eviction cases in small claims court.
Court procedures are simple, inexpensive, quick, and informal. Most people who appear in small claims court present their own case and don't have a lawyer.
Small claims court rules, including maximum amounts for which you can sue, vary by state. This article provides an overview of small claims cases in New York, from the perspective of the person filing the court case (the plaintiff).
In New York, small claims cases are heard in civil courts in cities (including New York City); in district court in Nassau and Suffolk counties; and in justice court in rural areas. We refer to all of these courts as small claims court in this article.
Who Can Sue in Small Claims Court in New York
If you are at least 18 years old (or an emancipated minor), you can file a claim in small claims court. Corporations and partnerships cannot sue in small claims court in New York, but may appear as defendants. (This does not apply to municipal and public benefit corporations and school districts.). Check with your small claims court clerk for applicable rules and other options, such as commercial small claims (city and district courts).
Dollar Limit on New York Small Claims Cases
To bring your case in small claims court in New York, you must be seeking to recover $5,000 (town and village justice courts, $3,000). If you want to sue for more than the limit, you have to go to a different court, which may not be worth it given the complicated rules and costs of hiring an attorney.
Suing for Something Other Than Money
With a few exceptions, small claims courts in New York can only award money, up to the $5,000 limit ($3,000 in town and village justice courts). If you need an order to make someone do (or stop doing) something, other courts are available. For example, if you want to file for divorce or seek higher child support, you will need to go to a family law court.
Deadline for Filing a Small Claims Case in New York
Under New York state law (N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 201 et. seq.), there are limits (called statute of limitations) on the amount of time you have to bring a lawsuit. The statute of limitations for most cases in New York is usually three or six years, depending on the type of case, but you’ll want to contact your small claims court or do some legal research to verify the limit for your specific case.
You can consult an attorney if you’ve missed the deadline and still want to pursue legal action, although there are very limited situations when you might be able to do so.
Filing a Small Claims Suit in New York
The first step in filing a small claims case is to obtain and fill out the necessary forms and pay the required fees. You’ll need some basic information to complete the paperwork, like the name and address of the person or business you’re suing (the defendant) and some details about your claim including the date the claim arose and the amount you intend to ask for in damages. Check with the small claims court where you are filing your action to make sure you have all the information you need and fees required to start your lawsuit.
Most small claims actions are filed in the small claims court in the city, town, or village where the person being sued lives, or where the business is located. Rules about where you can bring your lawsuit vary depending on the situation and you may have other choices, such as filing where the incident giving rise to the claim occurred.
Clarify what forms you need to complete and how to serve them on the person or business you are suing (the defendant).
Small Claims Trials
After the complaint has been filed and the defendant served, both sides need to prepare their cases for court. Careful preparation is key to success. This involves:
writing a compelling statement
gathering documents and evidence, such as contracts, credit card statements, and photographs
selecting reliable witnesses (people who saw what happened or experts on the subject matter of the claim involved), who will come to court to tell what they have seen or heard
deciding on the order in which you will present your evidence, and
preparing what you will say in court.
The Court Judgment
The decision in a small claims court case (the judgment) will usually be mailed to the parties, usually a few days or a few weeks after the case is heard. There are exceptions however, typically if one side doesn’t show up and the other wins by default (default judgments are often announced right in the courtroom).
If you win, and the judgment is in your favor, the judge will order the other party to pay a specified amount of money. If things go smoothly, you’ll get your money and that’s it. But sometimes, the person (or business) that lost the case may not have the money to pay the judgment, or may simply refuse to pay it. In that situation, you may need to take legal action (and spend money) to enforce the judgment. The court won't collect the judgment for you.
Filing an Appeal
New York law allows either party to file an appeal within 30 days, but appeals are allowed only on the ground that “substantial justice” was not done. Check with the small claims court where you filed your case for details on the appeal process.
Working With a Lawyer in New York Small Claims Court
An attorney can represent you in small claims court in New York (check court rules for details). Even if you don’t have attorney representation in court, you may want to seek a lawyer’s advice about your case—for example, if you are suing your landlord for the return of your security deposit, you may want to consult an experienced tenants’ attorney to make sure you have a strong case. Or if your dispute involves another business, you may want advice from a business lawyer. Check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory, to find a New York attorney who specializes in your type of legal issue.
More Information on Small Claims Court in New York
The New York Courts website has useful guides to small claims cases, including a New York State guide to claims in city, town and village courts, and a guide to small claims and commercial small claims in New York City, Nassau County, and Suffolk County.
For detailed information on every phase of small claims court, from preparing a winning case to collecting money if you win, see Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo).
Questions for Your Attorney
What’s “service” and how is it done?
I was injured and my car was damaged in an accident with a city-owned maintenance truck. The city refuses to pay some of my medical bills and all of my car repairs. Can I sue the city in small claims court?
Do I have to appear in court, and what happens if I can’t make it?