Should You File a Small Claims Suit? - dummies

By Judge Philip Straniere

One of the first things to do before heading for the courthouse is to decide whether you really belong in small claims court: Do you really have a legal problem that requires you to go to court? You may have very valid reasons to go to court to resolve a dispute, but the decision to take a case to court should not be made lightly.

Not everything that happens in your life results in harm that a court of law can fix, so the first consideration really is whether there is a better way to resolve your issue, including just letting it go.

For example, you have, after massive effort and six years in school, graduated from your local college with a degree in accounting. In spite of your efforts, you can’t get a job anywhere.

It can’t be because you have shown up late for every interview, have typos in your resume, or arrive to appointments with conservative companies sporting a purple Mohawk and wearing ripped clothing that shows off your plentiful tattoos. It must be the fault of the college for not educating you properly. You decide to sue the college for “negligent education.”

The clerk of the court, after nearly passing out from laughing at the ridiculousness of your claim, cannot reject the papers just because no one ever brought such a suit before. Only a court can decide whether you have a viable claim. Some courts may even let the case proceed to a full trial.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. In small claims court, you don’t need a lawyer to represent you. And because you, the potential plaintiff of a small claims case, are not bound to the same ethical prohibitions as a lawyer, you can in theory bring any case you want. (In “regular” court, ethical rules require lawyers only to bring lawsuits that they reasonably believe have a legal basis.).

Generally speaking, the clerk of the court can’t look at your papers and proclaim you a blithering idiot and refuse to accept the filing, even though she may want to. Only a judge has the ability to do that. She can, however, refuse to file if you’ve screwed up the paperwork in some way.

Consider these factors before gathering up your legal-size notepad and studying the latest episodes of all the current law shows:

  • Who are you going to sue? Are you planning to sue a relative or a merchant you’ve dealt with for years? If you bring a lawsuit against someone, you must be willing to forgo any further relationship with them. Maybe you should just tell them the problem and hope you can work it out. Or contact a third party to see if the problem can be resolved that way.

  • Do you have proof to support what you’re saying? Having something happen to you is a completely different issue from being able to prove it happened, that the defendant did it, and that you suffered some harm. Sometimes discretion is a better part of valor, and treating the incident as a life lesson rather than a lawsuit is the best course.

  • What do you really want the outcome to be? Many small claims cases are brought because people don’t communicate. One person feels that the other person did something wrong and either won’t take responsibility for her action or won’t acknowledge causing bad feelings. In these cases, perhaps some counseling service makes more sense than coming to court. Judges aren’t therapists.

  • Do you really want to air your dirty linen in public? Your case will be brought in front of others, many of whom may be neighbors or friends. Sometimes local newspapers run stories about interesting small claims cases. Is your case something you want people to read about? If you’re a businessperson, do you want people to know either that you sue or refuse to settle disputes with customers?

    Keep in mind that a record will be made by the court for posterity. In some states, the information is readily available online. Do you work someplace or are you applying for a job where a background check is going to bring out the fact that you are a litigious person? Such information may adversely affect your position.

  • Are you willing to commit the time and money necessary to bring the suit? You may have to take time off from work to file the claim with the court or to try the case if there are no night or weekend sessions in your area. You may have to ask witnesses to do the same, and they may be willing to do so only if you pay them.

Suing isn’t always the most prudent action. It may result in outcomes that don’t better your situation, and in fact make it much worse. For example, say you’re looking for a new job and the prospective employer does a background check, which shows that you sued several prior employers for discrimination or filed wages claims against them.

A background check may show that you have filed a number of suits against neighbors and merchants in the community. The prospective employer may conclude that, even though you’re qualified on paper, you have difficulty getting along with people and are a lawsuit waiting to happen.