You've been preparing for your small claims case for a while now. You've arranged for your witnesses to be at trial and you have all the receipts and other documents ready. It's getting close to the time for the magistrate of a North Carolina small claims court (or "magistrate court") to decide who wins.
And, now that you're ready, it's a good time to get an idea of what happens after the small claims trial is over. What can you do if you win? What if you lose? Whether you're the plaintiff (the person who filed the suit) or the defendant (the person who's being sued), you should know about some of your options so you can plan your next steps.
After seeing all of the evidence and hearing both sides of the story, the magistrate will make a decision in the case, that is, decide who won. The decision is called a judgment. The magistrate can announce the judgment:
- Immediately at the end of the case, and either give each party a copy of the judgment before they leave the courthouse or send it to them in the mail
- After taking some time to think about the case and all of the evidence. This is called taking the case "under consideration" or "under advisement." The magistrate may take up to 10 days to make a decision, and after it's made, the court clerk will mail a copy of the decision to each party
Technically, the case is over when the magistrate makes a decision and the decision is entered into the court records by the court clerk. However, while the case may be over, you may still have some work to do, depending on whether either party thinks the magistrate made a mistake or whether the winner gets paid.
Not Happy about the Judgment?
Win or lose, you may have some options if you don't like the way the case turned out:
This is when you ask a higher court to look at the case because you think the magistrate made a mistake when he decided the case. In North Carolina, either the plaintiff or the defendant may appeal. So, if you're the plaintiff and you won, the defendant may appeal; if you think the magistrate should have awarded you more money, then you may appeal. The appeal will be decided by the district court for the county where the small claims case was decided. The appeal will be a whole new trial of the entire case. And, either party may request a jury trial.
You have to file an appeal within 10 days after the magistrate decided the case. You do this by either:
- Telling the magistrate that you want to appeal after he's made the decision in the case
- File a Notice of Appeal with the clerk of the superior court (the superior court clerk acts as the clerk for the district court). Basically, this form tells the court and the other party why you're appealing and what you want the court to do, like award you more money, for example. If you file a Notice of Appeal, you have to make sure that the other party gets a copy of it within 10 days after the judgment.
You have to pay a fee for filing an appeal, which is around $90; there's an additional fee if you request a jury. The court clerk can get you the forms you need, tell you the current fees, and explain how to deliver or "serve" the Notice of Appeal on the other party.
An appeal can be a complex matter. It's a lot more formal than the small claims trial, and more complicated court rules apply. It's a good idea to talk to an attorney if you're thinking about appealing.
Relief from Judgment
The plaintiff or the defendant can file a motion for relief from judgment or "motion for relief," which essentially asks the court for a new trial. To be successful on this type of motion, you need to "show cause," that is, have a good reason that justifies a new trial. Some examples of good cause include:
- Showing that you were unable to attend the first trial because of an emergency, such as illness
- You've discovered new evidence that wasn't available when the first trial took place
- You actually paid the plaintiff or returned his property before the trial, or the plaintiff said that you didn't have to pay or return the property (this called being "released from liability")
Generally, you have to file the motion within one year after the magistrate's judgment.
Dismissal and Default
If you're the plaintiff and your case was dismissed because you didn't show up for trial, you may or may not be able to re-file your case against the defendant. If the cased was dismissed "without prejudice," you may re-file the case, but you need to start over from scratch: Filing a new Compliant and Summons, paying a new filing fee, etc. Or, instead of re-filing, you can appeal to the district court, but that may be more expensive and more complex than refilling in the small claims court. All of this is the same if you're the defendant and your counterclaim (your claim that the plaintiff owes you money or has your property) was dismissed because you didn't show up for trial.
If your case (or counterclaim) was dismissed with prejudice, you can't file your claim again. However, you can file an appeal to the district court, and it has to be done within 10 days after the dismissal.
If the other party got a default judgment against you because you didn't show up for trial, you need to file a Motion to Set Aside an Order or Judgment, which essentially is like a motion for relief from judgment. You need to have a good reason why you missed the trial. If the magistrate grants the motion, a new trial will be scheduled.
If you're the plaintiff and you win the case (or you're the defendant and you win on a counterclaim), and the magistrate orders the defendant to pay you or return your property, you need to begin collection efforts if the defendant doesn't do so. This may include having to appear at one or more hearings and possibly even taking some of the defendant's property and belongings. This can be a long and complicated process that may require the help of an attorey.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I sued my landlord and the magistrate ordered him to return $800 of my $1,200 security deposit. I think I should have gotten all of it. Should I appeal?
- I won my small claims case and the defendant filed a Notice of Appeal. Can I challenge or fight his request for an appeal? I don't think he has a good reason for the appeal.
- Can I file a counterclaim against the plaintiff when I appeal a judgment that was entered against me in small claims court?