Sometimes, a buyer doesn't get something he paid for, or a landlord refuses to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, these kinds of minor 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 more than the amount you're owed.
This is where a small claims court can help. In Wisconsin, the small claims 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 in the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Wisconsin. 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"). Likewise, if the defendant is under 18, his parent or guardian has to be named as a defendant as well.
In Wisconsin, the most you can recover in small claims 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 paid for or delivered
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Minor accidents
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such as actions for refunds of security deposits, to recover unpaid or "back" rent and to evict tenants from rental properties
- Credit card problems
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Actions to recover specific personal property, like furniture and equipment
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, and you can't use the court to have your legal 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 three years from the date of the accident to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Wisconsin. 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 Summons and Complaint. Basically, it tells the court and the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what your damages are, that is, how much money you want or what property you want returned to you. The circuit court clerk has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant). Many of the forms you'll need are online, too.
In Wisconsin, you may represent yourself in small claims 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 circuit court clerk may help you complete the Summons and 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 you have a "good" claim or if the statute of limitations has expired on your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed forms, which will show the date and time of your trial. You will also receive a docket number, or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk. Also, the clerk will explain your options for having a copy of your Summons and Complaint delivered to or "served on" the defendant.
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, usually before a commissioner, but sometimes circuit court judges hear small claims cases. Commissioners are persons appointed by the court to help in certain kinds of cases, including small claims cases. At trial, you, 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 you don't want the case decided by a commissioner or judge by himself, either the plaintiff or the defendant may request or "demand" a jury trial. However, if you do so, the case will be taken out of the small claims court and moved to the regular circuit court, where it will be a much more complicated matter for both parties. Also, you have to pay an additional fee for a jury trial. The court clerk can tell you the current fee amount.
The judgment is the decision given by the commissioner or judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the commissioner 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 after 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 the defendant has to pay you or what specific property he has to turnover to you. If either one of you is unhappy with the decision, you have at least 10 days to appeal the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by a judge or a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Wisconsin Rules of Procedure in Small Claims Actions (which you can find in the Wisconsin laws) and the local rules for the small claims court in your area can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $5,600. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than small claims court?
- 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?