WHO CAN SUE AND BE SUED?
Any individual, business, partnership, or corporation (with a couple of exceptions) may bring a small claims suit for recovery of money only for an amount up to $5,000.00. In general, the claim must be filed in the county of the defendant’s residence. Exceptions and specific rules can be found at RCW 3.66.040. The state of Washington may not be sued in Small Claims Court. Attorneys and paralegals are excluded from appearing or participating with the plaintiff or defendant in a small claims suit unless the judge grants permission.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
You must pay the court clerk a filing fee at the time the suit is filed. The filing fee is $14.00. You may have some additional fees payable to the sheriff or process server to have the Notice of Small Claims served on the defendant. As an alternative, you may serve notice on the defendant by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested with restricted delivery. If you win your case, you are entitled to recover your costs of filing and service fees.
HOW DO I GET STARTED?
First you will prepare a Notice of Small Claim form that is provided by the clerk. You are required to sign the Notice in the presence of the clerk, unless you sign before a notary public. On the notice of small claim form a hearing date will be entered by the clerk. It is the plaintiff’s responsibility to accurately identify the defendant, provide proper address and, if possible provide a telephone number.
SERVING THE NOTICE
The clerk will assist you with forms and general information about the process. The clerk is not allowed to give legal advice. Service of the claim can be accomplished by any of the following:
- The Sheriff’s Office;
- A process server;
- Any person of legal age (18) who is not connected with the case either as a witness or as a party; or
- By mailing the copy to the defendant by certified mail, return receipt requested with restricted delivery.
The Notice of Small Claim must be served on the defendant not less than ten (10) days before the first hearing. A return of service, or mail return receipt bearing the defendant’s signature, must be filed at or before the time of the first hearing. You cannot personally serve the claim. See RCW Chapters 4.28 and 12.40, and CRLJ 5 for more detailed information.
WHAT IF WE SETTLE?
In most cases, neither party is one hundred percent right or wrong. You are encouraged to try to settle your case before trial. If you settle the dispute before the hearing, you must inform the court so that the hearing can be canceled and your case dismissed. If the other party agrees to pay at a later date, you may ask the court for a continuance. If the other party pays before the postponed date, ask the court to cancel the hearing. If you contact the court by telephone to cancel the court will need you to also send something in writing stating that you have settled and no longer need a hearing. If you do not receive your money by the time of the continued hearing, proceed with the case in court. If you drop the suit, your filing fee and service costs are not returned.
PREPARING FOR THE TRIAL
You can help yourself by being well prepared. To prepare for the trial, collect all papers, and other documents that have to do with the case. It may be helpful to write down, ahead of time, the facts of the case in the order that they occurred. This will help you to organize your thoughts and to make a clear presentation of your side to the judge. YOU MUST BRING THREE (3) COPIES OF ANY DOCUMENTATION YOU PLAN TO PRESENT IN SUPPORT OF YOUR CASE.
It is also a good idea to sit through a small claims court session before the date of your hearing. This will give you first-hand information about the way small claim cases are heard.
WHAT HAPPENS AT THE TRIAL?
When you arrive at the court, have a seat in the courtroom, when your case is called come forward to the counsel table and the judge will swear in all the parties and witnesses as they testify.
Don’t be nervous, remember that a trial in small claims court is informal. The judge will ask the plaintiff to give his or her side first, then will ask the defendant for his or her explanation. Be brief and stick to the facts. The judge may interrupt you with questions, which you should answer straight out and to the best of you knowledge.
Be polite, not just to the judge, but also to your opponent. Do not interrupt. Whatever happens, keep your temper. Good manners and even tempers help contribute to the efficient conduct of the trial, and make a good impression.
After both sides have been heard by the judge, he or she will normally announce the decision right then and will sign a judgment.
WHAT IF MY OPPONENT DOES NOT APPEAR FOR TRIAL?
If the defendant fails to appear for trial, the plaintiff will be granted judgment for the amount of the claim proven in court, plus costs, provided the plaintiff can show proof of service. If the plaintiff fails to appear, the claim is dismissed; however, generally the court will permit the plaintiff to start over, if good cause for the non-appearance is shown.
HOW DO I COLLECT MY MONEY?
A money judgment in your favor does not necessarily mean that the money will be paid . The Small Claims Court does not collect the money for you.
If no appeal is taken and the judgment is not paid within 30 days, or the time set by the court in the payment plan, you may request (in writing) a certified copy of the judgment, for a $6.00 fee. You may request that the certified judgment be entered into the civil docket of the court, for $20.00 filing fee. The amount of the judgment will automatically be increased by the amount of the $6.00 and $20.00 fees. At that time you may proceed with a method of collection such as garnishment of wages, bank accounts, and other monies of the defendant or an execution may be issued on cars, boats, or other personal property of the judgment debtor. Remember, clerks cannot give you legal advice. You may need the assistance of an attorney or collection agency at this point. In the alternative, you may take your transcript of the judgment and file it in superior court for a fee of $20.00. Other fees may be required by the superior court clerk or county auditor. When this is done, it places a lien against all real estate in the name of the judgment debtor that is located in the county. When the judgment has been paid in full you must send written notice to the district court that the judgment has been satisfied
CAN YOU APPEAL A CASE?
The party who files a claim or counterclaim cannot appeal unless the amount claimed exceeds $1,000. No party may appeal a judgment where the amount claimed is less than $250.00. If an appeal is taken to the superior court, the appealing party is required to follow the procedures set out in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 12.36. The following steps must be taken within 30 days
of the judgment:
- Prepare a written Notice of Appeal and file it with the district court.
- Serve a copy of that Notice on the other parties, and file an acknowledgment or affidavit of service in district court.
- Pay the district court a $200.00 filling fee either in cash, money order, or cashier’s check.
Post a bond of $100.00 in the form of a cashier’s check or money order. If you want the enforcement of the judgment ‘stayed’ you must post a bond in a sum equal to twice the amount of the judgment and costs, or twice the amount in controversy, whichever is greater, (cash or surety) at the district court.
When the appeal is filed in superior court and the bond has been transferred, the appellant may request that the superior court suspend enforcement of the judgment until after the appeal is heard.
Within 14 days of filing the Notice of Appeal the appellant will file with the clerk of the superior court a transcript of entries made in the small claims court docket and a verbatim electronic recording of the trial and any exhibits. The appellant, when notified that the transcript is ready, will pay a $40.00 appeal preparation processing fee to district court.
Once the judgment has been appealed to the superior court, then enforcement of any judgments entered in the case will be handled in the same manner as any other superior court judgment.