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. The fees you may have to pay an attorney may be close to the amount you're owed.
This is where small claims court can help. In Oregon, the small claims court, or the "people's 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.
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. Check a local telephone book or with the circuit court clerk if you're uncertain about which court is available in your area.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Oregon. 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").
In Oregon, the most you can recover in small claims court is $7,500. If your claim is a little over $7,500, 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 $7,500, 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 $7,500.
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
- 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, evicting a tenant from property leased from you and legally changing your name.
Statute of Limitations
This 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 Oregon. 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 "Claim and Notice of Claim" form. This form tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what your damages are. The clerk of the justice or circuit court where you file the lawsuit can get you the forms and tell you how much it costs for you to file, or the "filing fee."
In Oregon, an attorney can't be present with you in the courtroom when the case comes to trial. You can, however, hire an attorney to discuss your case and evidence and to help you fill out your paperwork, if you'd like. 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 claim form, 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 claim. You need to make sure that the defendant gets a copy (is "served" with) of the claim form. The court clerk can explain the various ways to serve someone and the fees, but it's usually done by a deputy sheriff or process server.
Hearing (or Trial)
After the defendant is served with your claim, he can either pay you, or he can request a hearing and/or file a counterclaim against you. That is, file a claim that you owe him money. If a trial is requested, you'll be notified of the trial date and time by mail. The trial will be held before a judge. 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.
If your claim against the defendant is more than $750, the defendant may request a jury trial. The request must be in writing and he must pay certain filing fees. You'll also have to file a formal complaint in the circuit court and pay additional filing fees.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing both parties' arguments, the judge may make an immediate decision, or she may need more time to think about the 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. You have to pay his costs for requesting a hearing, and other fees as well. If the judgment is in your favor, the judgment will state how much the defendant must pay 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 that was entered for the other party. For example, you can ask that a higher court review the judgment that was entered for the defendant on his counterclaim.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Oregon Small Claims Rules of Court can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $7,800. How much will you charge me to file suit against him?
- My family and I moved out of a public school system and it won't give me a refund on administrative fees I paid at the beginning of the year for my son. Can I sue the school district in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?