Delaware Small Claims Courts
Small legal disputes can be handled in small claims court. The small claims courts in Delaware are governed by the Delaware Code Annotated, Title 10, Sections 9201-9640. The small claims court, otherwise known as the Justice of the Peace Court, has jurisdiction over specific civil claims.
The Justice of the Peace Court handles claims involving money debts, property damages, or returning personal property. The damages the plaintiff may seek in the Justice of the Peace Court is limited to $25,000.00.
This article provides a summary of Delaware small claims court rules and procedures. The following links provide more information you may find of use while preparing for a small claims case:
- How to File and Defend a Civil Claim in the Justice of the Peace Court: Delaware has prepared a guide for plaintiffs and defendants involved in small claims cases.
- How to Start a Civil Action in the Justice of the Peace Court: The Delaware Courts Judicial Branch has a comprehensive guide to filing a small claims case and answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ).
- Justice of the Peace Courts: The Delaware Courts Judicial Branch provides information about Justice of the Peace Courts, including self-help, e-filing, and dispute resolution.
- How to File and Defend a Summary Possession Action in the Justice of the Peace Court: The Judicial Branch created a guide to summary possession actions in small claims court. Summary possession actions involve an action to possess a rental unit. This webpage offers forms and answers to FAQs regarding summary possession actions.
- Hours & Locations by Court: This link has the contact information for all Delaware courts.
Small Claims Courts Explained
The Delaware Justice of the Peace Court handles civil claims up to $25,000.00. Small claims courts are designed to allow plaintiffs to represent themselves to quickly and efficiently resolve their civil cases. Small claims cases follow simplified court rules.
A plaintiff is the person or entity filing a lawsuit. The defendant is the person or entity against whom the plaintiff files a lawsuit. The plaintiffs and defendants involved in a case are known as parties.
If the plaintiff's claim exceeds $25,000.00, they can file the case in small claims court. However, if they choose to do so, they waive their right to collect more than $25,000.00. Delaware's Court of Common Pleas is available for claims up to $75,000.00. If a plaintiff's claim exceeds $75,000.00, the plaintiff must file in Superior Court. Cases filed in the Justice of the Peace Court typically resolve faster than claims in the Court of Common Pleas or state courts.
Parties to a Delaware small claims case may hire an attorney. Although small claims cases are designed for parties to represent themselves, they may involve complex questions of law or fact. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney if you are involved in a small claims case.
What Are Small Claims Actions?
Delaware Justice of the Peace Courts typically handle the following four types of cases:
- Debt actions: These actions are claims for money. For example, if a plaintiff claims the defendant did not pay them for services rendered, they can file a debt action.
- Trespass actions: These actions involve the acts of a person who caused damage to another person's property. For example, damage to a vehicle may qualify for a trespass action. However, Justice of the Peace Courts do not have jurisdiction over personal injury cases or cases in which the plaintiff alleges pain and suffering.
- Replevin actions: Plaintiffs may file a replevin action to recover personal property from a person or entity. For example, if the plaintiff's neighbor borrowed the plaintiff's tools and did not return them, the plaintiff could sue the neighbor.
- Landlord-Tenant actions: There may be many disputes between landlords and tenants. For example, a landlord may file an action for unpaid rent against their tenant. Alternatively, tenants may file an action against their landlord if the landlord wrongfully kept them out of the property. For summary possession actions, there are special requirements for filing. A plaintiff filing a claim regarding a security deposit should file the claim as a debt action.
A civil litigation attorney can help a plaintiff determine what type of case they should file.
Filing a Small Claims Case
A plaintiff must file a complaint to initiate their small claims case. The complaint form is available online or at the Justice of the Peace Court. The Judicial Branch also offers interactive forms that automatically fill in a complaint based on the plaintiff's cause of action. The complaint identifies the plaintiff's and defendant's names and addresses. The plaintiff must also specify the relief they seek, such as monetary damages or personal property return.
The plaintiff's complaint form depends on the type of action they wish to file. The Judicial Branch offers the following sample complaints of the four types of actions:
The clerk of the court may provide a plaintiff assistance in filing their complaint. The clerk cannot, however, provide legal advice to the plaintiff.
The court will charge a plaintiff a filing fee when the plaintiff files their case. If a plaintiff cannot afford the filing fee, they may request a fee waiver. The form to apply for a fee waiver is online or at the clerk's office.
Where and When to File a Small Claims Case
A plaintiff must typically file their small claims case in court in the county where the defendant resides. For summary possession cases, the plaintiff must file their lawsuit in the county where the property is located.
A plaintiff must file their claim within specific time periods set by state law. These time periods are known as statutes of limitation. The statute of limitations may bar a plaintiff's cause of action, depending on the type of case and when they file the lawsuit.
Serving the Defendant
After the plaintiff files their complaint, they must serve the defendant with notice of the case. This notification is known as the service of process. The court will attempt to serve the defendant for the plaintiff. The plaintiff may, however, inform the court they wish to hire a special process server.
If the court cannot serve the defendant, it will file a Notice of Failure to Serve Complaint form with the court. This form will state the reason it could not serve the defendant.
Please note that special service of process procedures apply to lawsuits against corporations, out-of-state defendants, insurance companies, and the state of Delaware.
Responding to a Small Claims Case
Depending on the plaintiff's cause of action, the defendant must follow different procedures to respond to a small claims case. Generally, the defendant must respond to the plaintiff's complaint within 15 days of service. The defendant must file the Defendant's Answer to Complaint (Civil Form No. 7) to properly answer the complaint.
If a defendant does not timely file an answer, the court may enter a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. If the court enters a default judgment in favor of a party, that party wins the case.
Once the defendant files their answer, the court will notify all parties of the trial date.
If the defendant believes the plaintiff owes them money, the defendant may file a counterclaim. Generally, the defendant must file a counterclaim within five days of the scheduled hearing date.
The counterclaim must include a written statement explaining why the defendant believes the plaintiff owes them money. It must state the amount of money claimed and how the defendant calculated it. The defendant must file an affidavit with the court explaining how and when they served the counterclaim on the plaintiff.
Small Claims Hearing
The court may enter a nonsuit judgment if the plaintiff does not appear at the scheduled trial. A party that fails to appear at trial will likely lose their case. If a party cannot make it to the scheduled trial, they may contact the court and request a continuance of the trial.
Before the hearing, the parties may secure evidence to present at the trial. This may include securing documents or witnesses to testify. Parties may request subpoenas from the court to compel a party to produce certain documents or to compel a witness to testify at trial.
At the hearing, the parties will present their opening statements. The plaintiff will then present their case, which may include calling witnesses. The defendant may cross-examine any of the plaintiff's witnesses. When the plaintiff finishes presenting their case, the defendant will present their case. The plaintiff may cross-examine any witnesses called by the defendant. Both parties will typically make closing arguments to the court.
Civil rules and court proceedings are relaxed in small claims cases. Unlike a civil case in district court, a judge may involve themselves in a small claims case. The judge may ask witnesses questions, or they may ask the parties to clarify something.
Because small claims cases do not have jury trials, the judge will decide who wins the case. The judge may determine the case's outcome immediately, or they may issue a written judgment after the hearing concludes.
Parties may appeal the court's decision. In landlord-tenant summary possession disputes, a party must file an appeal within five days of the judgment's date. For other disputes, a party must file their appeal within 15 days of the judgment's date. The Court of Common Pleas will hear the appeal.
Enforcing a Judgment
The party that prevails in a case is responsible for enforcing the judgment. The court's judgment is not an order to the losing party to pay the prevailing party. Instead, it is a determination of who owes who money. The party owed money is the creditor. The party that owes money is the debtor.
The court leaves it to the creditor and debtor to figure out payment. Generally, the parties can agree to any payment method they wish. However, the creditor may request the court's help when the debtor cannot or does not pay.
The court clerk can provide specific information about the court's assistance. Generally speaking, the court may assist the creditor in the following ways:
- Garnishment: If the creditor requests to garnish the debtor's wages, the court will order an amount of money to be withheld from the debtor's wages until the judgment is satisfied.
- Attachment of property and constable sale: A creditor may request law enforcement to levy the debtor's personal property and sell it at auction to satisfy the judgment.
- Lien on Real Property: A creditor may request a lien on the debtor's real property. The creditor may then attempt to foreclose on the lien to satisfy the judgment.
Contact an Attorney for Help
Small claims cases can involve complicated legal questions. Additionally, filing a claim and serving other parties can be difficult for non-legal professionals. An experienced attorney can assist you in filing or responding to a case, and they can provide representation at the small claims court hearing. If you are involved in a small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.
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