Should You Appeal Your Small Claims Suit? - dummies

Should You Appeal Your Small Claims Suit?

By Judge Philip Straniere

How and when you find out who won in small claims court is a key element in the appeal process. It’s important because your time to appeal starts to run when each side gets notice of the small claims decision. The three common events that trigger your time to appeal are

  • If the judge renders a decision from the bench, the time may start running from that event.

  • If the judge reserves decision at the trial, that is, doesn’t rule from the bench, you’ll receive a copy of the decision in the mail. Your time to run may start either when the decision is mailed or when you receive (or should have received) the decision in the mail.

  • The judge reserves decision, but the court rules that the time to appeal runs from the date the judgment is entered in the court records, irrespective of when you got a copy of it. After the judgment is entered, you have constructive notice of its existence, which means that you have the opportunity to check the court records yourself and can find out the result.

When you get a copy of the judgment from the court, it should inform you of your right to appeal and how long you have to file.

Appeal on time

Your window of time to appeal is very short. In most states it’s 30 days, but it can be shorter. Don’t make assumptions about the time frame; find out before you leave the courthouse after your trial.

Just because you haven’t received a decision from the court, don’t assume that the case hasn’t been decided and a judgment entered. Check frequently. In some states you may be able to monitor the status of your case online. If you do, you can’t assume that the information is accurate or that you’ll be given extra time if there’s a mistake.

The best way to protect yourself is to personally check the court records. Most judgments are entered within a few days of the trial.

Keep on the good side of the courthouse staff. This is another occasion where having acted like a jerk can hurt you. Obviously if you show up at the court to check, you’ll get the information. However, if you opt for some other method like phoning every 15 minutes you’ll not be to successful.

Do you have the right to appeal?

In many states, you have a right to an appeal only if your case was heard by a judge. If your case was decided by a non-judge authorized to hear cases in your state, you may not be able to appeal.

For example, in New York City, you can only appeal a decision made by a judge. You can’t appeal a decision made by an arbitrator because there’s no record kept in these cases.

Litigants are told they have the choice of the judge or an arbitrator when the calendar is called and that there is no appeal from an arbitrator’s decision. When they appear before the arbitrator, the parties sign a statement acknowledging there is no appeal. In spite of all of these warnings, the court gets motions to vacate the arbitrator’s award or applications to permit an appeal. These are usually denied.

The key issue determining whether you can appeal is this: Was there a record made of the trial? A record is any type of court documentation of the testimony and evidence used by the court to make the decision. A record may be made by a stenographer who takes down the testimony of the witnesses or by some electronic recording device.

If there’s no record, there’s nothing for the appellate court to review. There’s no way to determine what went on at trial — who said what, what evidence was submitted, and what rulings were made by the judge. It’s the record that the appellate court looks at to determine whether the trial was properly conducted. Just because you appeal it doesn’t mean you get a whole new trial.

The standard in small claims court is substantial justice. So as long as the judge gave the parties substantial justice, her decision will generally be upheld.

The cost of an appeal

If you determined that you have a right to an appeal and that the benefits outweigh the downside of not appealing the small claims court decision, the next factor to consider is the cost. Most states charge a fee to appeal. This serves at least two purposes:

  • It covers part of the expenses the court system must incur in processing an appeal.

  • It discourages people from making frivolous appeals. If it were free, the appellate courts would be hearing just about every case over again.

In addition to the filing fee, in some states you have to pay to have a transcript prepared so that the appellate court has a written record to review. Generally, the cost of a transcript depends on the number of pages produced for review. As technology improves, some courts are permitting recordings or videotaping to be submitted instead of a transcript.

If you have limited financial resources, most court systems have a procedure to have fees waived. You’ll have to make an application to the court for a waiver. Whether to grant it or not is within the judge’s discretion. You’ll have to provide some proof of your financial situation such as establishing that you receive public assistance or perhaps something showing your monthly income and expenses.

The law doesn’t want to deny any person access to the court system or to an appeal if they legitimately lack the financial resources to pay filing fees.