Please note, this is a guide only, and is not meant to include every step of the Small Claims Court process. For legal advice, consult with a private attorney.
Is Small Claims Court Right for You?
Known popularly as the people's court, small claims court is an informal and inexpensive forum to help you settle disputes of $7,000 or less.
Though the above is the general rule and covers a majority of potential claims, there are a few limited exceptions:
- If your case is based upon property damage sustained in an automobile accident, the award may exceed $7,000.
- If the actual damages are $7,000 or less, but there are additional claims for statutory damages or attorney’s fees that would exceed the $7,000 limit, a potential award exceeding $7,000 may be possible.
- If you bring your claim under the Consumer Protection Law for $7,000 or less, but are awarded double or triple damages, a potential award exceeding $7,000 may be possible.
Small Claims sessions are conducted in every Massachusetts District Court, the Boston Municipal Court, and the Boston Housing Court. Each District Court is informally identified by the name of the city or town where it is located. The Plaintiff (the person bringing the suit) has the option to file suit in the District court where either the Plaintiff or Defendant (the person or business being sued) lives or has her/his place of business or employment. In landlord-tenant disputes, the Plaintiff could sue in the district where the property is located.
This list is not exhaustive, but rather is intended to give an example of claims that would likely belong in Small Claims Court.
- Back-owed rent;
- Bills owed for medical treatment or bills generally;
- Return of a security deposit;
- Broken or damaged property;
- Professional malpractice (of a lawyer, doctor, or other professional);
- Product liability (injury from a defective product); and
- Claims valued up to $7,000
Examples of Claims Not Appropriate for Small Claims Court:
- Damage to reputation;
- Slander or libel (defaming character);
- Specific performance of non-monetary contract obligations;
- Claims for non-monetary damages; and
- Claims valued at more than $7,000.
If you have an issue involving a small claim, you should consider a few things before filing in court:
- You can sue or be sued in Small Claims Court
- You do not need a lawyer. If the other party has a lawyer, you are not necessarily at a disadvantage because you are representing yourself. The participation by lawyers representing parties may be limited in a manner consistent with the simple and informal adjudication of the controversy. It is the Clerk's duty to ensure all parties a fair hearing
- You waive your rights to a jury trial in this court
- You present your own evidence and speak in layperson's terms
- Only in very specific instances will the person suing be able to appeal to a higher court if the Clerk does not find in their favor. Defendants, however, always have the right to appeal.
Small Claims Court Pros and Cons
- No Attorney Required: You can speak on your own behalf in Small Claims Court and you do not need an attorney to bring a small claims case in Massachusetts, though you are permitted to retain an attorney if you wish. You may also consider working with an attorney to prepare for the hearing, even if you choose not to have the attorney present at the hearing.
- Cost Savings: Bringing a claim in Small Claims Court is generally much less costly than filing in the District or Superior Court.
- Less-Formalized Hearing: While the laws governing small claims are the same as those for major lawsuits, the court uses simplified procedures for the legal proceeding and the matters are often heard by a clerk-magistrate rather than a judge. This allows average people to present their case without being limited by formalities, such as the strict, formal rules of evidence. Small Claims Court is intended to be accessible and available for everyone.
- Quicker Results: Small Claims Courts will generally schedule a hearing on your matter soon after you file a complaint. Another benefit is that the decision will be returned more quickly by the clerk-magistrate than in a formal legal proceeding.
- Hard to Collect: Even if you win in the Small Claims Court, it may be difficult to collect a judgment from the defendant, especially if the losing party is not financially able to do so. If the Defendant fails to pay you, you must inform the Clerk who will issue a Notice to Show Cause to you. You then must arrange to have the notice delivered to the Defendant by a county Deputy Sheriff or municipal Constable. The Notice to Show Cause will indicate the date and time of hearing where the Court will take appropriate action to recover payment. Alternatively, you may ask the Clerk for an Execution form. This form allows the county Deputy Sheriff or municipal Constable to seize and sell the Defendant's property to recover the amount owed. Within one year of the Court's decision, a party can apply for relief from the judgment or order. This means that the Court may decide to reverse the decision because of an error or other reasons that the Court finds sufficient.
- Hearings Can Be Difficult: Even with a more relaxed setting, Small Claims Court can be intimidating. The claimant, acting on his or her own behalf without the benefit of an experienced attorney, should consider the risks associated with self-representation, including his/her ability to articulate a position on the claim. Proceeding without an attorney may be detrimental to the party’s case if that person has difficulty articulating their thoughts and claim in a coherent way.
- Time Off to Attend the Hearing: Small Claims Court operates during normal business hours, so the claimant should be aware of the need to take time off from work or school to attend.
- Post Office Notice Required: If the Post Office is unable to notify (“serve”) a defendant, the Small Claims Court will not allow a judgment to be entered. No claim can move forward without proof that the other party was notified of the action against him or her.
Filing your claim
To file suit, you must fill out a Statement of Claim and Notice form. Get this from the Small Claims Clerk in your district. Your claim may be filed in person or by mail. However, when the papers are sent by mail to the clerk, the action is not commenced until the papers are actually received.
- You may sue any person, business, partnership, or corporation. But you must use the precise legal name and correct address of the party you are suing. Try contacting the clerk at the city or town hall where the person or business is located and requesting business certificate information. You can also find the legal name of a corporation from the Secretary of State Corporations Division.
- You can only sue for money in Small Claims Court. The amount of your claim should include both the actual damage done and any additional costs incurred due to the damage, such as taxi fares, postage, photocopying, and court costs.
- At the time of the filing, you must pay a small court entry fee. This fee and any other court fees will be assessed against the Defendant if you win your case. The fee varies depending on the amount of your claim.
- Small claims of $500 and under= $40
- Small claims of $501 to $2,000 = $50
- Small claims of $2,001 to $5,000 = $100
- Small claims of $5,001 to $7,000= $150 (The filing fee for claims of property damage of more than $7,000 arising from an automobile accident is also $150).
Next, the Clerk will give you a copy of your completed Statement of Claim and Notice form, which will show the date and time of trial. You will also receive a Docket Number, or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case when you contact the Clerk. The Clerk also sends a copy of the Statement of Claim and Notice form to the Defendant.
Going to court
A week before the hearing:
- Call the Clerk to ensure that the Defendant has received the Statement of Claim and Notice. The Clerk will inform you if the case was postponed, or if the Defendant has filed an answer. An answer is a signed written statement submitted to the court setting out in clear and simple language the reason(s) why the Plaintiff should not win. Obtain a copy and use the Defendant's answer to prepare your case more effectively.
- Refresh your memory by preparing a chronological summary of events and relevant facts, including your evidence, such as contracts, letters, canceled checks, receipts, leases, estimates, and the actual damaged goods or photographs. Bring certified copies of the applicable Attorney General's regulations if you are citing a specific violation.
- If you are suing under the Consumer Protection Act, notify the Clerk of that fact and be sure to bring a copy of your 30 day demand letter.
- You may also wish to schedule witnesses prior to your court date who can verify your claims or confirm your statements. If a witness refuses to participate, the clerk can help subpoena him or her.
- Arrive at the Court House at least an hour before your case is heard. The Plaintiff, Defendant, and any witnesses will be sworn in when the case is called.
- The Clerk will hear each side of the case. The Plaintiff presents first. Speak directly to the Clerk and keep it brief, well-organized and emotionally controlled. Then, the Defendant, or person being sued, presents his or her version of the case.
- After the presentations, the Plaintiff and the Defendant may ask questions of each other. The Clerk may act as moderator, asking questions and encouraging discussion to develop all the facts in the case.
- If the Defendant does not show up, and you appear for trial, you automatically win. The court will issue a Judgment and Order requiring payment of a stated amount which will remain valid for 20 years. Keep in mind, the court will require some type of proof that your claim is valid prior to entry of judgment. If the Defendant appears for the trial and you don't appear, or if neither of you appears, the case will be dismissed.
Decision of the Court
- The Clerk may make an immediate decision, or may require more time for deliberation, which would leave the case Under Advisement and you would be notified by mail of the final decision.
- If the Clerk finds in favor of the Defendant, then the case will be over and you will receive no payments. You will not be required to pay the court costs for the Defendant. If the decision is for the Plaintiff, then the court will issue a Notice of Judgment and Order that orders the Defendant to pay you the damages and court entry fee. The Clerk may award you less than your original claim.
- The Defendant has the right to appeal the decision within 10 days. The Defendant must pay an appeal fee and post $100 in cash or certified check or bond, unless the Court waives this requirement.
- If the Clerk decides that a party has set up a frivolous or misleading claim or answer, then the Clerk may award additional costs to the other party of up to $100.
Options for the Defendant
Settle: The parties may come to an agreement to settle out of court even after the suit has started. Notify the Court of settlement. Both parties should sign the written agreement, entitled Agreement for Judgment, and have it filed with the Court's records, so that it may be enforced by law. Keep a copy for your records.
Counterclaim: A Counterclaim is a Defendant's optional suit in reverse against a Plaintiff. It must be filed with the Clerk at least two days prior to the hearing and there is usually a nominal fee. If you have a valid claim against a party suing you, notify the Clerk that you wish to file a counterclaim. In the answer, or in the course of the proceedings, the Defendant may set forth in writing any claim which he has against the Plaintiff. No written answer to the Defendant's claim is required and both the Plaintiff's and the Defendant's claims are deemed one case. If the Plaintiff wants more time to prepare for the counterclaim, he or she may ask the court for a continuance.
Continuances: Where the Defendant has been given notice, trial will not be continued to another date unless by agreement of the parties with the approval of the court, or unless there is a showing of good cause. Any motion for continuance must be in writing unless the court permits an oral application.