In New York, the small claims court is a simple, inexpensive and informal court where an individual can sue for money only, up to $5,000, without a lawyer. Claims for more than $5,000 may not be brought in a small claims court; they must be brought in another part of the court or in a different court.
The person or business that files a claim to sue another is called the plaintiff or claimant. The person or business that is sued is called the defendant.
If you have a claim for damages for more than $5,000, you can't "split" it into two or more claims to meet the $5,000 limit (i.e. bring one $5,000 claim and another $1,500 claim to recover damages at $6,500).
Since the small claims court hears suits for money only, you can't sue in small claims court to force a person or business to fix a damaged item. You also can't sue in small claims court to make a person or business fulfill a promise made in an advertisement, and you can't sue for pain and suffering.
Because the small claims court procedures are informal, you don't need an attorney to represent you. You may, however, choose to hire an attorney to represent you whether you are a claimant or defendant.
Suing an Agency of the City
If you want to sue an agency of the City of New York, the small claims clerk can provide you with a list of addresses for all the New York City agencies. First you must notify the agency within 90 days of the occurrence. When you deliver your notice to the agency you will receive a claim number. You must wait 30 days for the city to make an offer of settlement or to deny your claim. If the city denies your claim, you then can proceed to the small claims court office to begin your small claims case. You have one year and 90 days from the occurrence to start your small claims action. If you don't notify the city within 90 days of the occurrence, your case may be dismissed.
Suing a Municipality or County
You can also sue a municipality (town, village or city) or county in small claims court. However, the law requires you first to notify the municipality of your intention to sue. That notice must be given to the municipality within 90 days after the occurrence of the incident that is the subject of your suit. You must wait 30 days for the municipality to make an offer of settlement or to deny your claim. If the municipality denies your claim you can then proceed to the small claims court office to begin your small claims case. You have one year and 90 days from the occurrence to commence your small claims action. If you don't notify the municipality within 90 days of the incident, your case may be dismissed.
Suing the State or an Agency of the State
You must go to the Court of Claims court to start a lawsuit against the State of New York or an agency of the State of New York.
Choosing a Judge or an Arbitrator
In New York City and Nassau County, you can choose a judge or arbitrator to try your claim. In Suffolk County, your case will be sent directly to an arbitrator for trial. An arbitrator is an experienced attorney who is specially trained to hear and decide small claims. Because there are more arbitrators available to hear cases than there are Judges, an arbitrator will hear your claim more quickly. The hearing before an arbitrator is informal. The arbitrator applies the same law to your case as a judge would apply. One important difference between a judge and an arbitrator is that an arbitrator's decision can't be appealed because there is no official record of the proceedings. A trial before a judge will result in a decision that can be appealed, as the trial will be heard with a court reporter or recording device, therefore there will be a court record necessary to process an appeal.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If my claim is for just over the dollar limit, should I still file a lawsuit in small claims court?
- Will an attorney assist me with my small claims case if I want to represent myself at the trial?
- Can I sue a federal agency in small claims court?