How to Appeal a Small Claims Case - dummies

By Judge Philip Straniere

You can’t just sit back and rest after you decide to appeal your small claims case. You have decisions to make and actions to take. Generally, small claims court appeals are decided on the written submissions and the record. You probably won’t have to go to the appeals court and argue your case in front of the judges.

When there’s an appeal, the order of the parties’ names may or may not be changed on the papers. If the defendant is appealing, her name may now be first in the appellate court record and yours second. The person appealing is called the appellant or petitioner. The person responding to the appeal is called the appellee or respondent.

Post a bond or the judgment amount

Many small claims courts require the defendant to either post the amount of the judgment with the court pending an appeal or to purchase and submit an appeal bond. This is to insure that while the appeal is going on, the defendant doesn’t make herself judgment proof by disposing of all of her assets so that you can’t collect should the appeal either be denied or never completed.

The advantage of the bond for the defendant is that she doesn’t have to pay the entire judgment amount to bring the suit. She can delay paying and gamble that the appellate court will either reverse the lower court entirely or order a new trial.

If a party doesn’t go through with the appeal, the common term is to say the appeal was dismissed because the person appealing “failed to perfect the appeal.”

Monitor the status of an appeal

No matter which side of the fence you’re on in the appeal process, the status of your appeal may be something you want to monitor yourself, for a couple of reasons:

  • The appellate court may not notify you right away if the appeal is dismissed.

  • The person appealing may fail to act within the prescribed time, but the appellate court may wait before it issues an order dismissing the appeal. If you’re monitoring the process and see that the appellant missed the deadline to act, you can make an application to the appellate court asking that the appeal be dismissed.

You should be aware that the appellate court can take months and sometimes as much as a year or more to decide an appeal. If you start getting antsy about the time, it’s generally not a good idea to put the clerk of the appellate court and the appellate judges on speed-dial so you can monitor the case.

This can have two possible results, neither one of which is going to enhance your appeal. First, your case can find itself on the bottom of a very high pile because in reviewing it the court determined that there are important issues. Second, you are perceived as a really difficult litigant who doesn’t have legal representation for a good reason and the merits of your case are weak.

When to use a lawyer

Even though you may have been barred from having a lawyer for your small claims court trial or decided to go it alone initially, you can have lawyer represent you for your appeal. You still have to factor in whether the expense of a lawyer outweighs the cost involved. This applies whether you won or lost the case.

If the defendant files an appeal and you feel you need a lawyer for the appeal, it may make sense to take less money in full payment of the small claims judgment rather than pay for the lawyer. There’s also the possibility that you can lose the appeal and wind up with nothing other than the expense of hiring the lawyer.

On the other hand, if there are some real legal issues involved, such as interpretation of a statute and how it applies to the facts of your case, a lawyer may be worth the money to prepare papers that are clear and to persuasively argue the legal points.

Also some states have extremely technical rules for filing appeals including what font to use, page layout, how pages are numbered, and the like. In order to make an appeal a “less appealing” option, many states don’t relieve self-represented persons of these requirements. You’ll be held to the same standards as an experienced appellate lawyer.

Some of these filing requirements are so technical and regarded as archaic in this day and age that lawyers use legal-services companies to format, prepare, and print the papers they submit on appeals. If your state doesn’t have less stringent rules for small claims court appeals or appeals when you’re self-represented, the cost of this service can be an important factor in determining whether you even want to appeal.

Possible results

The appeals court can render several different decisions:

  • It can affirm, or uphold, the small claims court finding.

  • It can modify the decision of the small claims court. For example, it may increase or decrease the money you were awarded.

  • It can reverse the small claims court and make its own decision after reviewing the record.

  • It can reverse and remand for a new trial back in small claims court. This means both parties are put back to square one.