Do you have a customer who refuses to pay you for the repairs you made to her car? Or maybe the roofer you hired didn't finish the work? These are just a couple of examples of the types of claims or disputes that are resolved by the Oregon small claims courts, or the "people's court."
And, now that you're ready to file a small claims 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.
In Oregon, it's your responsibility to try to settle the dispute before you file a lawsuit. You can do this by calling the defendant or writing a letter and asking for payment. When you actually file the lawsuit, you have to sign a sworn statement that you tried to settle the case.
Where to File
You file a small claims case with the clerk of the small claims division of the appropriate justice or circuit court. In Oregon, each county has a circuit court, but not every county has a justice court. And, some counties have more than one justice court. Generally, you should file your suit in the county where your claim arose, such as where a car accident happened, or in the county where the defendant lives. If not, file in the circuit court. If you're suing a business, you can sue in the county where the business is located. Basically, if there's a justice court where the claim arose or where the defendant lives or is located, then file in that court. If there's a written contract involved, it may say where exactly any lawsuit must be filed.
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right county, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper court. Or, he can ask that the case be dismissed or "thrown out" of court. This can slow things down for you. So, if you're unsure about where to file your suit, contact the clerk of the circuit court in your area for some help.
Claim and Notice of Claim
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Oregon small claims courts, there's a special form called the "Claim and Notice of Claim." The court clerk can give you the form, and she can give you a little help filling it out. Don't expect legal advice about your suit, though. The clerk can't tell you if you have a good claim or your chances of winning, for example.
When filling out the form, you need to give information about the 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
- 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 should contact the "assumed names" department or office at the county courthouse city or town hall to get the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from Oregon's Secretary of State. You'll also find the name of the company's "registered agent," the person who accepts important documents for the corporation
- A partnership, you should list the name of the partnership as well as the individual partners. Again the Secretary of State can help you get that information
At the time you file your forms, you have to pay a filing fee. The fee varies from court to court, and the exact amount is based upon how much money you're suing for. Nonetheless, you can expect to pay anywhere from $40 to $100 for filing a Claim and Notice and Claim. If you're the defendant and you request a hearing and/or file a claim against the plaintiff (called a "counterclaim"), you'll have to pay fees between $40 and $100. The court clerk can tell you the exact amount of your fee when you file.
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 Claim and Notice of Claim that you filed. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. When you file your Claim, 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 Claim to the defendant, and they will charge a fee for this. You can't serve the defendant personally, that is, you can't hand-deliver a copy to the defendant.
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. Then you'll 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 has 14 days to:
- Settle the claim, that is, simply agree that he owes you money and pay it to the court clerk, plus your court costs (or return to you the personal property you sued over, plus your court costs)
- Deny your claim, and demand a hearing, where he can choose to file a counterclaim, that is, file a claim that you owe him. The defendant has to pay filing fees for demanding a hearing or filing a counterclaim. If the counterclaim is for more than $7,500, the judge will ignore it, unless the defendant files a written request for and pays a fee for transferring the case of the small claims division and into the regular circuit court. The clerk will notify you by mail of the hearing date and time
- Demand a jury trial, if your claim is for more than $750 and the defendant pays a fee for a jury trial. The case will be moved to the regular circuit court. The clerk will give detailed instructions on what to do if the defendant requests a jury trial, but generally you have to file a formal complaint and pay a new filing fee
- Default. If the defendant demands a hearing and doesn't show up for it (or "defaults"), you can file a "Request for Default Judgment," and the court will award you the amount of your claim, plus your costs. You can get the default judgment form from the court clerk
In some circuit courts, your case may be required to go to arbitration if the defendant demands a jury trial. This is called "mandatory arbitration," or it may be called mandatory "mediation" in the court you're in. This is a process where a neutral third party, called an "arbitrator" or "mediator" listens to you and the defendant, looks at your evidence, and tries to get you to reach a settlement. If you don't come to an agreement or settle the case, it will go back to the judge for a jury trial. You and the defendant will have to pay for arbitration, which may be between $50 to $125 per hour. The court clerk can tell you if arbitration is mandatory and how much you'll have to pay.
If the case is transferred to the circuit court, it's a good idea to talk to an attorney. Both you and the defendant can have an attorney represent you in court, and the trial will be much more complex than if it was held in the small claims court.
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 the complaint was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge to represent me in a jury trial that the defendant demanded in my small claims lawsuit?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong court and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another claim and pay another filing fee?