What to Expect When You Show Up for Small Claims Court - dummies

What to Expect When You Show Up for Small Claims Court

By Judge Philip Straniere

Knowing what to expect when you show up for small claims court can help things go smoothly. One of the most important things you can do to get in good with the court is be on time. Better still, get there early! Getting there early means you have time to find a place to park and look for your case is on the calendar without worrying about missing it.

How to look for your case

In all likelihood, there will be a list of cases posted outside the courtroom door. This is called the calendar or docket. The calendar usually has the cases listed in numerical order. Your case is given a number when you file it, so look for the number on the calendar.

After the case number, the docket usually lists the name of the plaintiff and the name of the defendant. In some places the cases are listed alphabetically by the name of the plaintiff. This of course makes it much easier to find your case.

If you’re the defendant, look for the plaintiff’s name.

Large cities like New York can have more than a hundred cases scheduled for each small claims session. This makes it crowded at the courthouse. You don’t want to be in the hall looking for your case on the calendar when the clerk is calling it — another reason to get to the court early.

A large number of people can make for a noisy courtroom, so it’s important to pay attention. Telling the clerk you missed the case because you didn’t hear it is not a good way to start things off, especially if the clerk has a side job hawking beers at your local ballpark and the voice to prove it.

How to enter the court

After you find your case on the calendar, go to the courtroom and pay attention to what’s going on. In less populated places, you may be asked to check in with the clerk. This means you give the clerk your name or case number, and tell the clerk whether you’re the plaintiff or the defendant.

In places with many cases on the calendar, a clerk will call the calendar, meaning he starts at the top of the docket and announces each case. For instance, the clerk may yell, “Penn A. Pasta against Duncan Doughnutt.” If you brought the case, you would respond “plaintiff” or “plaintiff present.” Or if you’re being sued, “defendant” or “defendant present.”

In all likelihood, the clerk will call out the entire calendar to see how many cases have both sides ready for trial or which ones have someone asking for an adjournment. In courts with smaller calendars, where you check in with the clerk when you get there, the clerk may start calling the cases and send them to the judge for trial.

Yelling “Yo” or “Yup” like you’re at a storage auction isn’t a good idea. Court personnel consider it disrespectful, and such a response doesn’t identify who you are in the case.

Don’t just wave your hand or just stand up. You must announce who you are. Why, you ask? Because if you’re the plaintiff and the defendant doesn’t show up, you’ll either be given a judgment on default or proceed to inquest. An inquest is a trial where the plaintiff presents his evidence without the defendant being present.

If the plaintiff is suing a bunch of different people, including you, make sure you answer to your name and not to the first one for that plaintiff. If you answer to the wrong name, you may be running around later trying to get a default judgment cleared up. If you respond to the wrong name, the lawsuit gets resolved under that name.

Then, when your name actually is called, you may be long gone from the courtroom, so you don’t respond, and the plaintiff can likely get a default judgment because you weren’t there for the trial! Remember a default judgment is just as valid as a judgment after a trial and it’s awarded in situations where the defendant doesn’t show up.

If you’re the defendant, and the plaintiff doesn’t respond, the case will be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to appear. You don’t want to be looking for the clerk after the calendar call trying to explain that you were on time and in the courtroom but either didn’t hear your name or didn’t know you had to tell anyone you were there.