The small claims court process begins with the filing of a small claims summons and complaint with the clerk of courts. The filing fee is $85, and, depending on the county you are in, the clerk can often serve the defendant by mail for $2. You can also hire the sheriff’s office to serve the lawsuit upon the defendant for a variable fee.
If you win your case, the defendant may have to pay some of your costs, but it’s wise to consider the fees before filing a complaint. If you have a claim for $100, for example, it’s likely not worth the filing fee.
When you file a summons and complaint, the clerk will issue a "return date." That’s the date of your first appearance in the court. In most counties, if you do not appear that day, your matter will be dismissed. If the defendant resides in La Crosse County, is not on active military duty and does not appear, you will receive a default judgment. Defendants outside La Crosse County may file an answer with the court by that date as an alternative to appearing in person.
If both parties appear on the return date and no lawyers are involved or if you have a landlord-tenant dispute, you will be scheduled for mediation with a La Crosse County law clerk, which usually occurs right after the return date.
You should prepare for mediation by bringing any relevant documents with you. Photos, invoices and other documents can help persuade the mediator in your favor, as can a succinct explanation of all the facts and the law that supports your position. Many cases — between 80 and 90 percent — are resolved successfully in mediation.
If your matter is not resolved in mediation, you will be given a trial date. In that instance, the defendant must file an answer by a date specified by the court. Failure to do so will result in a default judgment.
Small claims trials are relatively informal hearings. You’ll have about 20 to 30 minutes to present your case. If you think you’ll need more, alert the court beforehand. During the hearing, the judge will hear sworn testimony and review evidence. If your witnesses will not come voluntarily, you will need to subpoena them in advance and pay each $16 plus mileage and any sheriff’s fees involved.
The judge often will rule orally once the evidence is concluded. If you win a judgment, the other party must complete a financial disclosure; their failure to do so could result in contempt of court and potential jail time until the disclosure is completed. Note that winning a judgment does not necessarily mean you’ll be paid. Some people just don’t have the money to pay, and some people file bankruptcy.
The usual route for collection is to garnish wages, but a stipulation for income withholding is often a better alternative. With such an agreement, the debtor’s employer will send you a set amount of money on payday until the judgment is paid in full. This accomplishes the same as garnishment but without the fees which can be high.
If you decide to use small claims court, there are instances where attorneys may be helpful. The first is before you file a complaint. A demand letter from an attorney can let the other party know you’re serious about resolution and motivate them to work things out before the matter escalates to court.
Additionally, attorneys can be helpful in explaining the laws that support your case and can recommend ways to present your argument. They can also argue on your behalf in the court room. Generally speaking, the use of an attorney in small claims court is not cost effective if your case involves less than $1,000.
The good news is that mediators and judges in small claims courts are not looking for sophisticated legal arguments. They are accustomed to working with people from a variety of backgrounds and just need the facts of your case to try to reach a fair judgment.
For more information about small claims court in Wisconsin, see the Basic Guide to Wisconsin Small Claims Actions.
By Joe Veenstra, consumer lawyer at Johns, Flaherty & Collins, SC. For a consumer lawyer in La Crosse, WI, call him at 608-784-5678.