Preparing for Small Claims Court

My divorced-family childhood was riddled with my parents’ threats of “I’m going to take you to court!” and a brutal, pervasive child custody battle over my brother and myself, which involved screaming matches no one wants to remember. Throw in cutting bitterness over child support and alimony, and there you have it. I grew up queasy at the sound of the word “court”.

I was never into courtroom dramas. They always seemed boring or made me anxious. Plus, the possibility of public humiliation frightened me, and I had little confidence in my ability to clearly and convincingly argue my point. If there had been a required class on debating in my high school, I’m sure I would have tried to get out of it.

In January this year, I found myself screwed over by my former landlady. I’d only been her tenant for a month. This wasn’t the first time a landlord or landlady had cheated me, but this time I’d had enough. If I had known in the past what I know now about Small Claims Court, I probably would have taken the other people who’d cheated me to court, too. It turned out to be not so scary after all.

I moved into a trailer last year, thinking it was a good deal. We’ll call the landlady “L”. The area surrounding the trailer was gorgeous and peaceful. I was led to believe there was central heating inside, and that everything else worked. L had not told me about any rental contract I had to sign, and I figured that since she’d meticulously checked my references, there wouldn’t be any. Call me naÃ?¯ve. I paid her a security deposit of $600.

The property manager gave me the rental contract the day I moved in and started paying rent. There were a lot of rules in the contract I hadn’t heard about, and some of them were not acceptable for my lifestyle. They forbade me to have overnight guests, but I had a serious boyfriend. I decided to wait to sign the contract, but I never ended up signing it.

It only took a few days and extremely cold nights to realize I couldn’t live there. The insulation was terrible, the heater was only a small space heater, and within 24 hours the cold I had been getting over got worse and turned into the flu. I was freezing and miserable. Plus, there were several drawers that didn’t work, a gas leak, and roof leaks.

A month after I moved out, I called L to remind her to give me my rental deposit back. She claimed I had signed a contract that stated I had to live in the trailer for a minimum of eight months to get it back. I tried to tell her I never signed it, but she kept interrupting me and hung up on me. She even unplugged her phone so she wouldn’t have to talk to me.

I was incredibly angry. I felt like she was taking advantage of me because I was younger than her, and I had wanted the trailer at first. I didn’t have much money, so I really wanted my $600 back.

So, I filed a claim against her in small claims court, even though the prospect scared me. A lot.

Here are some things I did to prepare for court that will help you, too:

Find and organize all your paperwork. Even if you don’t have everything, find what you do have, and hold onto it. Get ahold of any records that might help you argue your case. For instance, I had thrown away the receipt I got my deposit, but I got my bank statement saying I had withdrawn $600 in cash that day. Make a timeline of correspondence between the other party and yourself, keeping track of the names of the people you spoke to, and keep any written correspondence, as well. I kept a nasty letter L had sent to me, and it ended up being very helpful. In part of it, she claimed that I had to pay her $550 newspaper advertising fees so she could re-rent the trailer, so I called the newspaper and requested a flyer with advertising rates to show that advertising in the classifieds doesn’t cost $550 per month. Think of all the proof you can get, and find it. I kept all my information together on a clipboard, ready to bring to court with me.

Don’t talk to the opposing party anymore. All you have to do is tell them you are suing them. After that, any communication with them is likely to just upset you, or rile you up. They might also try to trick you. (L told me she had postponed our court date, but when I called the courthouse, I found out it wasn’t true.) If they offer to pay you, make sure you get cash, or that the check clears, before you cancel your small claims suit.

Go to your county’s small claims court, and file a suit. The court will charge you a fee of about $20 to file, give you forms to fill out, and charge you an additional fee if you want them to serve the papers to the defendant. The defendant must be served somehow. You have to decide whether to have papers mailed to the defendant, or get them served by a police officer, which is more expensive. I had them mailed, and it cost about $8. If you win your case, you can ask the judge to make the other party pay you back for these fees. Strangely, I had to go to the County Assessor’s Office to get L’s last name and address, since she had never given me either of them. All I had to do was give the Assessor’s Office the address of the property she owned (where I used to live).

Don’t hire a lawyer. They don’t even allow them in Small Claims. If you need advice, there’s usually a hotline number written on your claim form from the court, so you can get advice from a law student or volunteer. Call early, because they probably make appointments weeks in advance. Calling them helped me a lot, because I got valuable information about what actions would make my case strongest. Don’t try to get advice from the clerks at the courthouse. Legally, they’re not supposed to give any.

Visit the courtroom during small claims hours to get a feel for what it’s like in there. You’ll see what the procedures are, and maybe feel less anxiety about your own case, once you’ve seen other people’s problems, which are usually worse.

Look up the laws and guidelines related to your case. I looked in a Nolo Press book and discovered that it’s illegal for landlords to withhold a deposit (or part of the deposit) for any reason other than repair, cleaning, or failure to pay rent. I photocopied the page and put it in my clipboard, just in case.

Bring relevant witnesses with you to the stand. I brought my boyfriend, who had helped me move in and out of the trailer, and was there when I saw L’s rental contract for the first time. He didn’t end up having to do anything, but I saw plenty of other cases witnesses were very useful, especially doctors in injury-based claims.

Be on time. I think that goes without saying.

Don’t worry. The judge is a human being, like everyone else. If he or she is gruff with you, it’s probably just because he/she wants to get through the suits quickly. The judge at my case started out by saying, “Who’s got the shortest case?” and the whole courtroom laughed.

So, there you have it. Suing has a bad reputation in this country, but don’t let that stop you from exercising your rights! I won my case, and it boosted my belief in the justice system. It also boosted my self-confidence. Remember, the court is there for a reason, and judges want to make the best decisions, whenever they can, to right serious wrongs that were done in the past.

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