You've been preparing for your small claims case for a while now. You've arranged for your witnesses to be at trial and you've organized all the receipts and other documents you need to prove your case. It's getting close to the time for the magistrate of a West Virginia magistrate court, or "small claims" court, to decide if you win or lose.
You're ready for trial, but don't sit back and relax yet. It's a good time right now to get an idea of what happens after the small claims trial is over. What can you do if you win? What if you lose? Whether you're the plaintiff (the person who filed the suit) or the defendant (the person who's being sued), you should know about some of your options so you can plan your next steps, win or lose.
When the magistrate has seen all the evidence and has heard from all the parties and witnesses, he'll decide who won. The decision is called a judgment. The magistrate can announce the judgment:
- Immediately at the end of the case, and either give each party a copy of the judgment before they leave the courthouse, or send it to them in the mail later
- After taking some time to think about the case and all of the evidence. This is called taking the case "under consideration" or "under advisement." The court clerk will mail a copy of the decision to each party
Technically, the case is over when the magistrate makes a decision and it's entered into the court records by the clerk. However, while the case may be over, you may still have some work to do, depending on whether either party thinks the magistrate made a mistake or whether the winner gets paid.
Not Happy about the Judgment?
Win or lose, you may have some options if you don't like the way the case turned out:
This is when you ask a higher court to look at the case because you think the magistrate made a mistake when he decided the case. In West Virginia, either the plaintiff or the defendant may appeal. So, if you're the plaintiff and you won, the defendant may appeal; if you think the magistrate should have awarded you more money, then you may appeal. The appeal will be decided by the circuit court of the county where the small claims case was decided. If the small claims trial was before a:
- Magistrate, that is, there was no jury, the circuit court will look at the "record" - the testimony and other evidence - made in the magistrate court and decide if there was a mistake
- Jury, the circuit court will hold a new trial, without a jury, and decide the case all over again
You have to file an appeal within 20 days after the magistrate decides the case. You do this by filing a "Petition for Appeal." There are two different Petition forms: One for cases decided without a jury (called a "bench trial") and one for cases decided by a jury. Basically, these forms tell the circuit court and the other party why you think there was a mistake and what you want the circuit court to do, such as award you more money. You have to pay a fee for filing an appeal, and there are other costs, too. The circuit court clerk can give you the forms you need to file an appeal as well as explain the current fees.
An appeal can be a complex matter. It's a lot more formal than the small claims trial, and more stringent court rules apply. It's a good idea to talk to an attorney if you're thinking about filing an appeal.
Relief from Judgment
The plaintiff or the defendant can file a motion for relief from judgment or "motion for relief," which essentially asks the court for a new trial. This is commonly used when the defendant wants the magistrate to void or "vacate" a default judgment - a judgment for the plaintiff that was entered because the defendant didn't file an answer or didn¿t show up for trial. Another common example is when a plaintiff's case was dismissed because he didn't show up for trial. In the motion he'll ask the magistrate to vacate the dismissal so that he can continue the case against the defendant.
To be successful on this type of motion, you need to "show cause," that is, have a good reason that justifies a new trial. Some examples of good cause include:
- Showing that you were unable to attend the first trial because of an emergency, such as illness
- You've discovered new evidence that wasn't available when the first trial took place
- You actually paid the plaintiff's or returned the property her sued for before the trial, or the plaintiff told you that you didn't have to pay or give him the property, which is called being "released from liability" on the claim
Generally, you have to file the motion within 20 days after the judgment was entered by the magistrate.
If you're the plaintiff and you win the case (or the defendant and you win on a counterclaim), and the magistrate orders the defendant to pay you or return some property to you, you need to begin collection efforts if the defendant doesn't follow the magistrate's judgment. This may include having to appear at one or more hearings and possibly even taking some of the defendant's property and belongings. This can be a long and complicated process that may require the help of an attorney.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I sued my landlord and the magistrate ordered him to return $800 of my $1,200 security deposit. I think I should have gotten all of it. Should I appeal?
- I won my small claims case and the defendant filed a Petition of Appeal. Can I challenge or fight his request for an appeal if I don't think he has a good reason to appeal?
- Can I file a counterclaim against the plaintiff when I appeal judgment that was entered against me in small claims court?