When people think of small claims court they may be reminded of televised courtroom shows where a theatrical judge yells at litigants. But real small claims courts are just like any other (non-TV) court. The procedures are merely simplified.
What Is a “Small Claim”?
In New York State, any civil controversy of $5,000 or less is considered a small claim. You cannot split a larger claim into multiple smaller cases to circumvent this limit. Also note that small claims in the eastern five towns of Suffolk County--Riverhead, East Hampton, Shelter Island, Southold and Southampton--are limited to $3,000 or less.
Small claims may be heard in a civil court or other local court one step below the Supreme Court, which is New York’s general trial court. A small claims case should be filed in the locality where the defendant (the person being sued) lives or works. If the defendant is in New York City, a small claim would be filed in the civil court for the applicable borough. On Long Island, small claims are heard by city, district or town courts depending on the exact location.
Any individual over the age of 18 can file a small claims case. Business entities such as corporations and partnerships may file commercial small claims. These are commonly used for matters like consumer debt collection. Like individual small claims, commercial small claims generally may not exceed $5,000.
You may not sue the State of New York or the U.S. government in small claims court. But you can bring a small claim against a municipality in New York, such as a town, village, city or county. By law, you must give a municipality at least 90 days notice before bringing your small claim.
How Does a Small Claims Case Work?
You can initiate a small claims case by filling out a form and filing it with the appropriate court. There is a nominal fee for filing a case, around $15-$20. The court will ensure the defendant receives proper service (notice) of your lawsuit.
The court will assign a trial date to your case. If the defendant fails to appear, the court may enter a default judgment in your favor. Likewise, if you fail to appear, the court will dismiss your case. Otherwise, there is a trial where both sides can present arguments, witnesses and other evidence. A case is usually heard by a judge without a jury. You can demand a jury trial for an additional fee.
There are different procedures in the five towns of western Suffolk County--Babylon, Huntington, Smithtown, Islip and Brookhaven. In these jurisdictions, small claims are heard by an arbitrator. An arbitrator is similar to a judge but generally conducts less formal proceedings. There is also no option for a jury trial in arbitrator-decided cases, and the arbitrator’s judgment cannot be appealed.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
Legally, you do not need a lawyer to file or pursue a case in small claims court. But you are certainly allowed to have a lawyer, and it is often a good idea to hire one. Even the simplified proceedings of a small claims court may confuse an inexperienced plaintiff or defendant. That is why if you plan to sue (or have been sued) in small claims court and would like the assistance of an experienced New York civil litigation attorney, contact our office right away.