Do you have a customer who paid for the car repairs you made with a check that "bounced?" Is your landlord refusing to refund all of your security deposit, or won't let you back into the apartment to get some things you left behind when you moved? These are the kinds of disputes over property and money that are handled by the West Virginia magistrate courts, or "small claims" courts.
And, now that you're ready to file a 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 lawsuit in the right court.
Where to File
You file a small claims case with the clerk of the appropriate magistrate court. In West Virginia, there's a magistrate court for each county in the state. Generally, you need to file your lawsuit in the magistrate court for the county where the defendant lives. However, if your lawsuit:
- Involves personal injuries, you may file in the county where the injuries happened, such as the county where the car accident happened
- Involves real property, like an eviction or another landlord-tenant tenant dispute, you must file in the county where the property is located
- Is against someone who doesn't live in West Virginia, you may file in the county where you live or in any a county you can find the defendant, such as when he comes into the state to visit or work
- A defendant that's a corporation, you may file in the county where it has its principal office or where its chief officer lives
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right court, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper court or even 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's office for your area for some help.
Complaint and Summons
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the West Virginia magistrate courts, there's a special form called a "Civil Complaint." The court clerk can give you the form and some basic instructions on completing it, or you can find the materials online. The form is straight-forward and self-explanatory, but if you need help, the clerk can offer some assistance. He can't give you legal advice about your suit, though. The "Summons" essentially tells the defendant when and where to show up for trial. The clerk completes most of this form.
When filling out the Complaint, you need to give information about your 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, or what property you want from him
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money, or why the property you're after rightfully belongs to you
It's very important that you have the defendant's proper name and address. If you're suing:
- A business that's not a corporation, like a sole proprietorship or a "dba" (meaning "doing business as"), you should check the "trade name" records and registrations in the county clerk's office for the county where it does business. There you should be able to get the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from West Virginia'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 as defendants. Again the, Secretary of State can help you get that information for some partnerships, and you should check with the county clerk as well. If you still can't find the proper names, check with the local Better Business Bureau (BBB)
Get the right form! In West Virginia, there are different Complaint forms for suits involving "bad" or worthless checks, evictions from a residential home or factory-built home site (eviction forms are called "Petitions"), and all other claims for money or property.
Want a jury trial? If so, there's a place on the Complaint (or Petition) for you to elect to have a jury, or there's a separate form if you decide that you want a jury trial after you've filed. You (or the defendant) may ask for jury trial only if you're suing for at least $20 or it's an eviction action. Any request must filed within 20 days after the defendant files his Answer (or 5 days if it's an eviction action). If a jury is requested, the magistrate may make the losing party pay a jury fee, or he may order you and the defendant to share the cost. The clerk can tell you the amount of this fee.