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How to Handle Dismissals in Small Claims Court

When it comes to small claims courts, a dismissal isn’t a good thing. Having your case dismissed at any time during the proceedings usually creates problems you may not be able to fix.

However, in some situations, you can lose your case and still not be knocked out of the box. If the judge rules against you after a trial, an inquest, or a motion, you still may be able to rise like a phoenix and come back. It depends on whether your case is dismissed with or without prejudice:

  • With prejudice: A dismissal with prejudice is not a good result. In fact, it’s a bad result. It means your case is over for good; you can’t come back. The judge is saying that based on the law, you have no case at all.

    For example, a plaintiff is in a profession that requires licensing. The plaintiff doesn’t have his license at the trial because it was revoked for violating the license law based on complaints from this defendant and others. This case would call for a dismissal with prejudice because the plaintiff could never comply with the law.

  • Without prejudice: A dismissal without prejudice, although not as good as a win, does permit you to bring your case again, assuming the statute of limitations hasn’t run or some other legal impediment doesn’t arise between the dismissal and the date you bring a new case. A dismissal without prejudice is usually done when you’ve made some technical error and the judge gives you a chance to correct it.

    If the error was minor, and subject to a quick remedy, the court may just grant an adjournment and make everyone come back at a later date. If the error was more serious, the court may dismiss the case without prejudice to renew. This means you can bring it again by starting a new lawsuit or, in some situations, by a motion to restore the case to the calendar.

    For example, say the plaintiff is a licensed businessperson, but left his license at home. The court may adjourn the case to give the plaintiff a chance to bring in his license. Or, at trial, the plaintiff produces his license but when the judge looks at the license, he sees that it expired the day before the trial.

    Because the law requires the plaintiff to be licensed to bring his case, the court may dismiss the complaint without prejudice to renew when the plaintiff gets a new license.

In many states, if there’s a dismissal without prejudice, you don’t have forever to refile your case. Your state may limit the time you have so as not to prejudice the rights of the defendant and his ability to defend the case. After all, you’re the one who can’t go forward. Many states limit this to one year or less.

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