Common misconceptions about small claims court
If you think small claims court may be the right course for you to resolve a dispute, it’s important that you understand how it really works. You can read the guidelines for your local county, but here are five commonly held fallacies that they probably won’t describe.
The fallacies and realities
Fallacy #1 — Small claims court isn’t serious.
Small claims court has strict requirements. If you don’t follow the guidelines, you could lose your case or have it thrown out. Further, judgments from small claims courts are just as enforceable as those from traditional civil courts.
Fallacy #2 — You don’t need a lawyer for a small claims case.
Even if you don’t need a lawyer for trial—and you may not — lawyers can be very helpful to consult when you’re preparing your case. They can review the facts and your materials to be sure it’s something you can handle on your own, and they may be able to identify legal issues that you may not be aware of, but that may help or hinder your case. Additionally, your case may have more value than you realize.
Fallacy #3 — The trial is merely a chance to tell a story.
In addition to telling your story, you need to provide documentation of your claims or defenses, just as in a traditional civil courtroom. You may also need to subpoena witnesses and documents to support your case and make it credible.
Fallacy #4 — The disputed amount must be less than $10,000 to qualify as a small claim.
Though the limit for small claims court in Wisconsin is $10,000 (or $5,000 for tort/personal injury claims) for most money judgment and/or personal injury claims, that limit actually applies to the limit on the judgment you can win. Your disputed amount may be higher than $10,000, but when you consider the length of time and expected expense of a traditional civil action, you may choose small claims court and the lesser judgment. Small claims actions are usually resolved within six weeks of the filing date. Traditional civil actions often take a year or more. There also may be larger small claims judgment limits for evictions and some consumer loan/replevin type of cases.
Small claims court may also be a wise course if you think you may be liable for some percent (less than 50) of the claim, such as with a car accident where you sustain something like $7,000 worth of damages and the other party $1,000 and both of you are cited.
In some cases, including landlord-tenant disputes, courts will allow “fee shifting.” With fee shifting, courts can add attorneys’, filing, service and statutory fees to the judgment, thereby potentially surpassing the $5,000 limit. Generally, fee shifting is allowed in any dispute that falls under unfair trade practices, though there are some other areas as well.
Fallacy #5— The judge will berate the losing party.
You won’t find Judge Judy in local small claims courts, and the judge you do find likely won’t give either party a sense of being dishonored by the outcome. In fact, judges actively encourage people to resolve their disputes and normally handle cases with decorum, equity and a spirit of reconciliation.
Article by Joe Veenstra. For help with a small claims matter, call him at 608-784-5678.