People have minor disputes every day, like a customer who won't pay a mechanic for car repairs he made, to a tenant who stops paying rent. 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 or even more than the amount you're owed.
This is where a small claims court can help. In West Virginia, the small claims courts, or as they're commonly called, the "magistrate courts," settle legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. The courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast and a lot less formal than the other courts of the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses, and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in West Virginia. 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 a landlord and suing to evict a tenant, you're called the "petitioner" and the tenant is the "respondent".
If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf"). Likewise, if the defendant is under 18, you need to name his parent or guardian as a defendant, too.
In West Virginia, the most you can recover in small claims or magistrate court is $5,000. If your claim is a little over $5,000, 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 $5,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
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 but not delivered or paid for
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such as actions for security deposit refunds, for unpaid or "back" rent, and to evict tenants from the leased property
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Action for specific personal property, such as when a landlord won't let a tenant retrieve belongings she left behind, or when a lender wants to take property that a borrower used as collateral on a loan
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, to be declared the owner of real property or land and to have your name changed.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations 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 you "discovered" your injury, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in West Virginia. 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 form called a "Complaint." Basically, this form tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what you want, that is, how much money you want or what personal property you want turned over to you. The clerk of the magistrate court has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant). Or, you can many of the magistrate court forms online.
In West Virginia, you may represent yourself in a magistrate court or you may hire an attorney to represent you. An attorney can give you advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. In most instances, you may ask the court to include your attorney's fees in the amount of the judgment if you win the case.
The court clerk may help you complete the Complaint, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim, like telling you if the statute of limitations on your claim has expired. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Complaint, and will explain to how you to make sure the defendant gets (or is "served" with) a copy of your Complaint. The clerk will schedule a trial date after the defendant "answers" or responds to your Complaint.
Sometimes a case is settled before the trial, such as when the defendant pays what it owes you, for example. Other times your case may be heard by a mediator. He listens to you and the defendant, asks questions, and tries to get you both to reach an agreement. If neither of these happens in your case, a trial will be held before a magistrate, unless either you or the defendant request a jury trial. At trial, you, the defendant, and all 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.
The judgment is the decision given by the magistrate. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the magistrate 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. If the judgment is in your favor, it will specify how much money the defendant must pay you or what specific property he must turn over to you. If either of you is unhappy with the magistrate's decision, you have 20 days after the judgment is entered into the court records to appeal the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Rules of Civil Procedure for Magistrate Courts of West Virginia can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $3,200. 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?