Is a former landlord refusing to return your security deposit? Were you involved in a fender-bender and the other driver won't pay to have your car fixed? These are the types of disputes that are handled by the Utah small claims court. It's a court that's designed to be a fast, informal, and inexpensive way for people to get the money they're owed.
Maybe you don't want to file a lawsuit, not even in the small claims court. That's OK. A lot of people don't like courtrooms or dealing with the "legal process." You do have some alternatives to filing a lawsuit in small claims court, such as:
- Personal negotiation
Any one of these tactics may help you get your money without having to step foot into a courtroom.
This should be your first step, even if you're prepared to file a small claims lawsuit. All this involves is a simple phone call or letter to the potential defendant asking that she pay what's owed to you. Be polite and cordial. Maybe you can work out an agreement that benefits everyone.
If your initial conversations don't work, then consider writing a demand letter. It's exactly what it sounds like: A letter demanding that the other person pay you within a specific period of time, usually 15 or 30 days. To be effective, the letter should:
- Briefly explain why you think the other person owes you money
- State exactly how much money you're demanding
- Clearly state that you intend to take legal action, including filing a lawsuit in small claims court, if you're not paid within the 15 or 30 days
At the very least, you should mail the letter certified mail, return receipt requested. When you get the return receipt, make sure you keep it (along with a copy of your letter) so that, if necessary, you can prove later that the defendant got the letter.
Mediation is an informal meeting between you, the defendant, and a neutral third party, called a "mediator." Most of the time you'll meet together, but sometimes you and the defendant will meet separately with the mediator. The mediator's job is to help you both reach an agreement. She can suggest different options to help you reach that agreement, and she may even suggest a particular course of action, but she can't force or order either of you to do anything.
In most instances, mediation will be offered at no or little cost to you or the defendant. Depending on your and the defendant's willingness to negotiate and compromise, it can lead to a very quick and mutually satisfactory resolution of your claim. You and the defendant have to agree to mediate, though. Also, in Utah, once you and the defendant reach an agreement, it will be reviewed by a judge, who will make the agreement a court order. This order can be enforced by the court if either you or the defendant break or "breach" the agreement.
The courts like mediation, mainly because it saves time and court resources. In fact, in some areas in Utah, if you appeal a decision from the small claims court, you're required to go through mediation before the appeal goes to trial before a judge.
Some Rules to Know
There are some things to keep in mind about mediation, such as:
- Unless an agreement is reviewed by a judge and made a court order, it's not binding, meaning that, even if you and the defendant reach an agreement, the agreement can't be enforced. So, if the defendant later breaks or "breaches" the agreement, you may need to start the whole process over again (personal negotiation, writing a demand letter, filing a lawsuit, etc.)
- The mediator can't provide legal or personal advice. She can only suggest possible ways to settle the matter and help you both make sure that you reach an agreement that's good for you both
- It's you and the defendant that make the terms of the agreement, not the mediator. The mediator will only write down or document what you've agreed to
- The mediator doesn't make a "decision" in the case like a judge would in the small claims court. That is, she doesn't decide who "won." Rather, she merely helps you reach an agreement
- At any time, either party can withdraw from mediation
- If you and the defendant don't reach an agreement through mediation you can still file a lawsuit in small claims court. In other words, you don't waive your right to file suit simply because you agree to mediation. This is true for the defendant, too, if he has a "counterclaim" against you, that is, he claims that you owe him money
- Attorneys usually aren't present during mediation. You can, however, hire an attorney to advise you about your claim, or to review any agreement that you make through mediation before it goes to the judge for review
Arbitration is very similar to mediation. Here, a neutral third party, called an arbitrator, listens to both sides of the story, just like a mediator does, in the hopes of helping you reach an agreement. However, there are some important differences between arbitration and mediation:
- If you and the defendant can't reach an agreement, the arbitrator will make a decision in the case, that is, decide if you're going to get paid and how much
- The arbitrator's decision is binding, unless you and the defendant agree beforehand that it isn't binding. This means that it can be enforced by the arbitrator and, if necessary, the courts, if you or the defendant don't follow the decision
- After going through arbitration, you usually can't file a lawsuit in a Utah small claims court
- Arbitration can be expensive. An arbitrator may charge over $125 for a four-hour block of time to listen to and decide your case. But, if you win, the costs of arbitration are usually added to the amount the defendant owes you
As with mediation, you and the defendant have to agree to arbitration. However, you both also have to agree on the arbitrator. The clerk's office in your area may have a list of arbitrators that you may contact. Or, you can contact the American Arbitration Association for a list of arbitrators in your area.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I can't get the defendant to answer my phone calls or letters. Is there any benefit to offering to mediate?
- The defendant agreed to mediate my claim, but now he won't meet with or talk to the mediator. What should I do now?
- How much will you charge me to file a lawsuit and represent me in small claims court? Will the suit and the court fees cost me less than an arbitrator?
Related Resources on Lawyers.comsm
- Start the process with our Utah Small Claims Worksheet
- Next in the Small Claims series: What is Small Claims Court in Utah?
- Success In Small Claims Court
- Small Claims Court Terms
- Defending a Small Claims Court Case
- Visit our Small Claims Court Forum for more help