Do you have a tenant who's months behind on his rent? Or maybe someone has some of your personal property and refuses to give it back? These are just a couple of examples of the types of claims or disputes that are resolved by the Oklahoma small claims courts.
And, now that you've realized that the only way you're going to get paid (or get your property) is to file a lawsuit, you need to know the mechanics of what to do and how to do it. In general, you have to have to know exactly who you're suing, have the right paperwork and file the suit in the right court.
Where to File
You file a small claims case with the clerk of the appropriate district court. In Oklahoma, there are 77 district courts, or one for each county. Generally, here is where you should file your lawsuit:
- In the county where the defendant lives, where the debt arose or where the contract was signed
- If the suit involves real property, like a landlord-tenant dispute, you can file in the county where the land is located
- If the defendant is an Oklahoma corporation, you can file in the county where it has its main office, where at least one officer lives, like the president or CEO, or where the claim arose
- If the defendant is a foreign corporation (meaning it's incorporated in a state other than Oklahoma, such as in Delaware), you can file in any county in which it has property; is owed money; where it's registered agent is located; where the claim arose; or where you live
- If there's a written contract involved, check to see if tells you where exactly any suit must be filed
Wherever the thing happened that made you want to file suit is where the "claim arose," such as where the car accident happened, if you're suing for personal injuries, for example.
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right district court, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper district. This can slow things down for you. So, if you're unsure about where to file your suit, contact the clerk's office for your area for some help.
Small Claims Affidavit
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Oklahoma small claims courts, there's a special form called the "Small Claims Affidavit." When filling out the form, you need to give information about case in a clear and simple way. Print neatly and just give the facts about your claim. Specifically, you'll need to give:
- Your name, address and a telephone number where you can be contacted during the day
- The defendant's name and address
- The amount of money you want the defendant to pay, or the property you want him to return and its value
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money
It's very important that you have the proper name and address of the party you're suing. If you're suing:
- A business that's not a corporation, like a sole proprietorship, you need to list the business owner's name and address. If you only know the name of the business, check with the Oklahoma Secretary of State's Office for the owner's name, or check with the local Better Business Bureau (BBB)
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from the Secretary of State's Office. You'll also find the name of the company's "registered agent," who is the person who accepts important documents for the corporation
- A partnership, you should list the name of the partnership as well as all of the individual partners. Again the Secretary of State may be able to help you get that information
The court clerk can help complete the Small Claims Affidavit, but she can't give you legal advice about your claim. And, you can either file your Small Claims Affidavit in person or by mail.
At the time you file your forms, you will need to pay your filing fees. In Oklahoma, the fee you have to pay depends on what kind of claim you have and how much money you're suing for (or the value of the property you want returned to you). There also may be slight variations from court to court, but generally the fees are:
- $45 for eviction actions (or "forcible entry and detainer" actions) if the amount owed is $1,500 or less. The fee is $82 if you're suing for an amount between $1,501 and $6,000
- $45 for actions to recover up to $1,500 (or property with a value up to $1,500. The fee is $147 if your suing for (or the property is valued at) an amount between $1,501 and $6,000
Generally, if you win your case, the small claims court will order the defendant to pay your filing fee (called "court costs"). This will be in addition to any other money or "damages" the court awards you on your claim.
Service of Process
"Service of process" is when one party gives the other party notice that he's being sued. Generally, this is done by making sure that the defendant gets a copy of the Small Claims Affidavit that you filed. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. When you file your Small Claims Affidavit, the clerk will give you detailed instructions on how to do this. Generally, you need to have a sheriff or process server deliver a copy of the Small Claims Affidavit to the defendant, and they will charge a fee for this. Or, you can pay the clerk the fees for having the Small Claims Affidavit mailed to the defendant by certified mail.
Make sure you have the right name and address! If the defendant isn't served properly your case can't go forward, and it may be dismissed, or "thrown out" of court, and you'll then have to start all over again. If you're suing a corporation, you need to serve its "registered agent." She's the person named by the corporation who's responsible for accepting important documents and papers on behalf of or for the corporation. If you're suing a sole proprietorship, you need to serve the business's owner or its registered agent, if it has one. If you're suing a partnership, you need to serve its general or managing partner.
Once you've filed suit, the defendant can do any number of things, such as :
- Settle the claim, that is, simply agree that he owes you money and pay you. If you agree to a settlement before trial, it must be in writing and you have to give a copy of it to the court so that it can approve it
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant gives the court a written and signed letter that sets out in clear and simple language why you shouldn't win the case
- Default. If the defendant doesn't show up for trial (or "defaults"), you automatically win, so long as he was properly served with notice and you can show the judge that your claim against defendant was valid
- Counterclaim, or file a claim against you. The defendant has to pay a $20 fee for filing it, it has to be filed with the clerk at least 72 hours before trial, and you have to be given a copy of it to give you time to prepare. If you need more time, you can ask for more time, which is called a continuance. If the counterclaim is for more than $6,000, the entire case (your claim and the counterclaim) will be transferred to the regular district court, unless you both agree to keep the case in the small claims court
- Ask that the court transfer the case to the regular district court. The defendant has to pay a $50 fee for this, and you have be given a copy of the request at least 48 hours before the trial date
Questions for Your Attorney
- I filed a small claims suit against a dog owner, who lives the next street over from me, because her dog bit me. She says that she never received "notice," but I know my affidavit was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge me to represent me in small claims court?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong district and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Small Claims Affidavit and pay another filing fee?