It’s well into a session at small-claims court in Silver Spring, Md., and the testimony—a shaggy-dog story involving rent, refunds, roommates and the inevitable oral agreement—has reached the topic of a stolen TV. The plaintiff admits to taking the TV as recompense for unrefunded rent money he insists he’s owed. The judge, reviewing the claim, responds incredulously, “On top of the refund, you want to be repaid for storing the TV you stole?”
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Oh, it’s better than Judge Judy. In small-claims court, you’ll witness enough human drama to provide the script for a long-running reality-TV series. But entertainment isn’t all this free show has to offer. You’ll also get pointers on how to win a case against your dry cleaner, your brother-in-law or your best friend over your small—but righteous—claim. Here are six lessons I gleaned from a morning at the people’s court.
1. Learn the drill.
Don’t expect teams of lawyers and a big payday for the winning side. Each state sets its own rules, but most states limit awards, from $3,000 to $10,000. With those relatively small numbers, it usually doesn’t make sense to hire a lawyer (although most states allow it). “Small-claims court is designed for people to be able to bring suits on their own. That’s the beauty of it,” says Diana Fitzpatrick, editor of Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court (Nolo).
2. Try mediation first.
The erstwhile roommates, Brian and Angelo, have been bickering over the disputed amount —$770, plus the storage fee for the TV—when the defendant remarks, “We’ve been friends for 25 years. We could have worked it out.” In fact, many states require that you try court-supervised mediation prior to going before a judge, which gives you the chance to solve the problem more creatively, says Nancy Cohen, a mediator in the Washington, D.C., area. One solution? An apology. “Sometimes, it’s not about the money,” she says.
3. Cut to the chase.
After listening to digressions on both sides, the judge elicits the basics: Angelo paid Brian upfront to rent a room in Brian’s house for three months. A month later, Brian’s girlfriend moved in, and Angelo had to leave. Angelo wants a refund for the remaining amount. That makes sense, but the back story has tried the judge’s patience. Bad idea. Before going to court, practice to get to the essentials, says Fitzpatrick. Here, the issue is the rent. Angelo wins the $770 and gets squat for the storage. (He has already returned the TV.)
4. Do your homework.
The next plaintiff is suing her brother-in-law for defamation of character (she says he spread rumors that they met at a hotel) and is asking for $5,000 in pain and suffering. The judge defines defamation as making a false statement or having a reckless disregard for the truth that causes harm. The plaintiff’s story meets neither that standard nor the requirements of small-claims court—to show damage on one side and fault on the other. And pain and suffering awards are rare. Case dismissed.
5. Bring the paperwork.
For all the drama of the morning, one element has so far been missing: tangible evidence. “Most of us don’t talk about expectations or write down how to handle differences that may come up,” says Cohen. That’s especially true of business dealings between friends, who often rely on oral agreements. Such agreements are accepted in small-claims court, but a written contract or a few pictures make for a better case.
6. Count on common sense.
One plaintiff did bring evidence: a beige comforter, plus a pillow sham with gold embroidery. Once, the comforter bore the same embroidery as the sham; post–dry cleaning, it did not. The dry cleaner’s response: The embroidery needed special treatment that the label didn’t spell out. That’s the manufacturer’s fault, not hers, she says. The judge is skeptical—after all, the dry cleaner seems to know how the comforter should have been treated. He awards the plaintiff $300, which is the cost of the comforter minus depreciation. In small-claims court, fairness prevails.
To learn how to file a claim, which costs as little as $30, visit the Web site of your local small-claims court.