People have minor disputes every day. They range from a mechanic not getting paid for car repairs he made, to a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney because of the amount of fees you may have to pay him. And what if you can't afford to hire a lawyer in the first place?
This is where the small claims courts can help. In Oklahoma, the small claims court settles legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. They're 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 Oklahoma. 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").
You file a small claims case with the clerk of the appropriate district court. There are 77 district courts in Oklahoma, and generally you file in the district court for the county where the defendant lives.
In Oklahoma, the most you can recover in small claims court is $6,000. If your claim is a little over $6,000, 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 $6,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
You can also file suit to recover personal property that the defendant is holding and refuses to return, so long as the property's value is under $6,000.
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
- Money loans
- Auto negligence and accidents
- Security deposit refunds
- Unpaid rent
- Evictions, so long as the tenant is behind in rent or is not following the conditions of the lease (damaging the property, for example)
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Return of personal property, such as a car, furniture or electronics
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, legally changing your nam,; and libel and slander, which is when someone wrote or said something about you that hurt your reputation or caused you some type of damage.
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 two years from the date of the accident, or from the date that you "discovered" your injuries, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Oklahoma. 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 "Small Claims Affidavit." This form tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what your damages are. The clerk of the district court where you file the suit can give you the form you need to file suit. You also have to pay a filing fee, which varies depending on what your claim is about and how much money is involved. Generally, though, you should expect to pay between $45 and $156 to file. The court clerk can tell you the exact fee amount.
In Oklahoma, an attorney can represent both you and the defendant in small claims court, but you don't have to hire one. An attorney can give you valuable help in preparing your case. If you hire an attorney, though, there's no guarantee that the small claims court will make the other party pay those fees, even if you win.
The court clerk may help you complete the Small Claims Affidavit, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Small Claims Affidavit, and it will show the date and time your case will go to trial. Also, you need to make sure that the defendant gets a copy (is "served" with) of the Small Claims Affidavit. The court clerk can explain the various methods of service and the fees, but it's usually done by a deputy sheriff, process server or by mail.
After the defendant is served with your Small Claims Affidavit, he can either pay you, show up for trial and challenge your claim or file a "counterclaim" against you. That is, file a claim that you owe him money. At the trial, both you and the defendant, and your 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.
Generally, the trial will be heard and decided by a judge, that is, there are usually no jury trials in Oklahoma small claims court. However, if your claim against the defendant (or her counterclaim against you) is more than $1,500, either you or the defendant may request a jury trial.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing both parties' arguments, the judge may make an immediate decision and give you both a copy of the judgment before you leave the courthouse. Sometimes the judge needs more time to think about a 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, the judgment will state how much the defendant must pay you, or what property he has to return to you. Likewise, if the defendant files a counterclaim against you and wins, the judgment will state how much you have to pay. Either of you may appeal the judgment if you think the judge made a mistake or you're not happy with the result.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Oklahoma Small Claims Procedure Act or "rules" can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $6,800. How much will you charge me to file suit against him outside of small claims court?
- I was in a car accident with a state-owned car that was being driven by a state employee. The state won't pay some of my medical bills and car repairs. Can I sue the state of Oklahoma in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?