Any individual, business, partnership, or corporation (with a couple of exceptions) may bring a small claims suit for recovery of money only where the amount claimed does not exceed $5,000. Attorneys and paralegals are excluded from appearing or participating with the plaintiff or defendant in a small claims suit unless the judge grants advance permission.
When you file a small claims in the Everett, Evergreen or South Divisions you will participate in a mediation hearing at the courthouse prior to scheduling a trial date. Volunteers of America Dispute Resolution Center provide trained mediators who assist in the settlement of a wide variety of disputes. To learn more about preparing for your mediation hearing please visit the Dispute Resolution Center at http://www.voaww.org/Get-Help/Dispute-Resolution-Services/MediationFacilitation/Small-Claims-Court-Mediations.
To start a small claims case, the plaintiff must file the case either in the District Court division where the party being sued (the defendant) resides or, in the case of a traffic accident, in the District Court division where the accident occurred. Questions regarding which District Court division to file in may be answered by referring to Rule 3 of the Snohomish County Local civil rule for Courts of Limited Jurisdiction. Other questions regarding proper jurisdiction may be answered by referring to RCW 3.66.020 and RCW 3.66.040. Questions regarding statutes of limitation for Small Claim suits may be answered with reference to RCW Chapter 4.16.
A Notice of Small Claim form is provided by the court. The clerk will assist with this procedure, but the clerk is not allowed to give legal advice or to attempt to predict how a judge might rule in any given situation.
At the time of filing, the plaintiff must pay a filing fee of $39.00 (in Snohomish County). The plaintiff is then given a mediation date and a copy of the claim form to be served upon the defendant. It is the responsibility of the plaintiff to accurately identify the defendant (either as an individual, a corporation, or as an individual or a corporation doing business under another name), provide a proper address (for the defendant) and, if possible, provide the defendant’s telephone number.
The defendant may file a counterclaim against the plaintiff for any money he believes the plaintiff owes him, but this must be done immediately upon receipt of the claim of the plaintiff. The filing fee for a counterclaim is $39.00.
It is the responsibility of the plaintiff to see that the claim form is served upon the defendant no less than ten (10) days prior to the trial date. The plaintiff may also have additional fees payable to a process server to have the Notice of Small Claim served on the defendant. If the plaintiff wins the case, the plaintiff is entitled to recover the costs of filing and service fees.
Service of the claim can be accomplished by any of the following methods:
- A professional process server (see telephone Yellow Pages).
- Any person of legal age (18) who is not connected with the case, either as a witness or as a party.
- By mailing copies of the Notice of Small Claim to the defendant by registered or certified mail with a return receipt requested.
The plaintiff cannot personally serve the copies of the Notice of Small Claim.
Proof of service must be filed with the court. If service was by mail, the postal receipt bearing the defendant's signature must be filed with the court. For all other service an Affidavit of Service must be signed by the server and filed with the court. The court can provide an Affidavit of Service form.
It is recommended that either the plaintiff or the defendant contact the other party prior to the trial to try to settle their differences. Volunteers of America in Everett offers voluntary dispute resolution services provided by trained mediators who assist in the settlement of a wide variety of disputes. These services are provide at no cost or on a sliding scale.
If the claim is settled prior to the trial date, the court must be notified in writing so the case may be dismissed.
The trial in the Small Claims court is between the plaintiff and the defendant. No attorneys are allowed to represent either party except in certain cases where advance permission is obtained from the judge. Both parties must prepare their case and bring those witnesses or other evidence (such as documents, records, photographs, or drawings) to court to support their claim or defense. Witnesses must have personal knowledge of the facts they are asked to testify about. Documents, records, photographs and/or drawings must be identified and explained by a person with personal knowledge of them.
If the any of the parties are unfamiliar with small claims court procedure, it is be a good idea to sit through a small claims court session before the hearing to learn firsthand how small claims cases are heard.
If the defendant fails to appear for trial, the plaintiff will be granted a default judgment for the amount of the claim, plus costs, provided the plaintiff can show proof of service. If the plaintiff fails to appear in court, the case is dismissed; however, the court will generally permit the plaintiff to start over if good cause for the non-appearance is shown.
When you arrive at the court, report to the courtroom in which your case has been assigned. When your case is called in the courtroom, come forward to the counsel table and the judge will swear in all the parties and witnesses.
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 your knowledge.
Be polite--do not interrupt--not just to the judge but also to your opponent. Whatever happens, keep your temper. Good manners and even tempers help the fair, efficient conduct of the trial, and make a good impression.
After both sides have been heard, the judge will normally announce the decision in court, and may sign and hand the parties a judgment. A judge may also take a matter under advisement and enter a written decision.
If the court enters a judgment against the defendant, or if the defendant has filed a counterclaim and is granted judgment against the plaintiff, it is the duty of the losing party to pay without delay. After payment is received the court must be notified in writing that the judgment has been satisfied.
A money judgment in the plaintiff’s favor does not necessarily mean the money will be paid. The small claims court does not collect the judgment for the plaintiff. If no appeal is made and the judgment is not paid within 30 days, the plaintiff may submit a written request to the District Court for the judgment to be entered in the civil docket of the court. The clerk will assign and notify the plaintiff of the new case number.
At that time, the plaintiff may proceed with a method of collection such as garnishment of wages or bank accounts, or an execution may be entered on personal property of the judgment debtor. The plaintiff may wish to consult an attorney or collection agency. The plaintiff may request the amount of the judgment be increased by the amount of the costs incurred in collecting the judgment.
In the alternative, upon payment of a $20.00 fee to the District Court the plaintiff can request a transcript of the judgment which the plaintiff can file in Superior Court for a fee of $20.00. When this is done it creates a Superior Court judgment which can then be used to place real estate property liens on all local real estate in the name of the judgment debtor. Placing such liens requires providing documents to the County Auditor's Office. Information regarding recording at the Auditor's Office can be found at http://www1.co.snohomish.wa.us/Departments/Auditor/Divisions/Recording/
No appeal is allowed from a judgment where the amount claimed was less than $250.00 No appeal is permitted by the plaintiff where the amount claimed was less than $1,000.00. If an appeal is taken to Superior Court, the appealing party is required to follow the procedures set out in RCW 12.36. An appeal must be filed within 30 days of entry of judgment. Detailed instructions for filing a small claims appeal are available from the District Court.
Court personnel are not permitted to give legal advice as to any aspect of the case. It is against the law for them to do so. They will provide the Notice of Small Claim and certain other basic forms, and they will file these and set a date for a trial. They cannot complete the forms for the plaintiff and they cannot answer legal questions or give advice as to the conduct of the case.
While an attorney is not permitted to represent either party at the trial, an attorney may provide either party with assistance in preparing a case and/or in collecting any judgment which may be obtained.
Most of the information above was taken directly from a publication produced by the state Office of the Administrator of the Courts and modified to reflect the circumstances of Snohomish County. The state brochure is available in its entirety at http://www.courts.wa.gov/