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District of Columbia Small Claims Courts

In Washington, D.C., the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch of the Superior Court of D.C. hears civil cases where the amount of money in dispute is $10,000 or less. The small claims court allows people to quickly and inexpensively resolve certain civil disputes without an attorney's help. Parties to a small claims case may hire attorneys if they want.

If you have questions about small claims court, the following information can help:

This article describes Washington's small claims court, including how to file a claim, respond to a lawsuit, and prepare for the small claims trial. For more information and legal services, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney.

Washington, D.C., Small Claims Court

The Small Claims and Conciliation Branch is a branch of D.C.'s Civil Division of the Superior Court. The small claims court may only adjudicate claims where the plaintiff seeks money from the defendant. It may not decide claims involving any other type of relief, such as the return of personal property.

The small claims court may award up to $10,000 in a single case. This limit does not include attorney's fees or court costs.

The informal nature of the small claims court allows many people to resolve their legal disputes without hiring an attorney. But, any party to a small claims case may hire an attorney.

Any adult, business, or corporation may file a small claims case. If a minor wants to file a small claims case, an adult must file it for them and act as their representative or "next friend." The plaintiff is the person or entity that files the lawsuit. The person or entity they sue is the defendant.

If you have questions about the small claims court's process, the clerk can give help and general information. They can't give legal advice. Contact a civil litigation attorney for legal help in your small claims case.

How To File a Small Claims Case

The plaintiff begins their small claims case by filing an Information Sheet and a notarized Statement of Claim form at the small claims court. They can get the forms at the clerk's office or online.

The Statement of Claim form identifies all the plaintiffs and defendants in a particular small claims case. The plaintiff must accurately list the defendant's contact information to ensure proper service of the Statement of Claim once they file the case.

On the Statement of Claim form, the plaintiff must describe their cause of action and the legal basis for their claim. They must also list their requested relief. As noted above, the plaintiff can only request money, and they can't recover over $10,000.

The plaintiff must also attach any important evidence that supports their claims to the Statement of Claim. For example, if the plaintiff alleges the defendant breached a contract, they must attach a copy.

The plaintiff must pay a filing fee to the court clerk before they file their claim. The court may award the plaintiff their filing fees and other court costs if they win their case. If the plaintiff cannot afford the filing fee, they may file a fee waiver request with the court.

Once the plaintiff files their case, the court will assign a case manager to the case.

Where and When to File

Any plaintiff who wishes to file a small claims case must do so at the small claims court located at 510 Fourth Street NW, No.119, Washington, D.C. Specifically, they must file the Statement of Claim in the clerk's office at the small claims court.

Each civil claim has a corresponding statute of limitations. The plaintiff must file their claim within the statute of limitations; otherwise, the court cannot hear the case. The statute of limitations varies based on the claim type. For example, suppose the plaintiff's claim involves an alleged personal injury. In that case, they must file it within three years of the alleged injury.

Read FindLaw's article, District of Columbia Civil Statute of Limitations Laws, for more information about when to file your case.

Serving the Defendant

The plaintiff must give a copy of the Statement of Claim and its attachments to each defendant. This process (called the service of process) is essential, as the defendant must receive notice of the lawsuit within 60 days of the date the plaintiff filed it. Failing to serve the defendant properly will delay the plaintiff's case.

Generally, the plaintiff can use one of the following methods to serve the defendants:

  • Send the forms via certified mail with a return receipt requested. When the plaintiff receives the return receipt with the defendant's signature, they must file it with the court.
  • They may pay the sheriff's office or a private process server and service fee and have them serve the defendant.

The court clerk can provide specific information about how to serve the defendants and how to file proof of service with the court.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

Defendants in a small claims case in Washington, D.C., generally do not need to file a formal answer or response to the plaintiff's case. Instead, they can appear at the scheduled small claims court trial and present their defenses and arguments to the court.

If the defendant has civil claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim or set-off against them. Ask the court clerk how to file the documents and the service of process if you have questions.

Before the Small Claims Trial

If the parties settle their case before trial, they must file a "praecipe" form with the small claims court. The court will dismiss the case once the parties file the praecipe. The parties may file a settlement agreement with the court if they wish.

Either party may request a jury trial instead of a bench trial. If a party requests a jury trial and the court grants it, the court will transfer the case to the Civil Actions Branch.

Parties may bring evidence and witnesses to their scheduled trial. If a witness indicates they will not willingly appear at the trial, a party may request that the court issue a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order that compels a witness to attend the hearing and testify. You can also issue a subpoena to a witness or party to request that they produce specific documents or other evidence.

The parties must attend their scheduled court date. If a party can't attend the scheduled hearing, they must ask the court for a continuance. First, they must contact the other parties and ask if they will continue the hearing later. If they agree, the parties must file a praecipe form with the court asking for a continuance.

Failing to appear for the small claims court trial will negatively impact your case. For example, if the defendant does not appear, the court will likely enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor. If so, the plaintiff will win their case, and the defendant must pay some or all the plaintiff's claims. The court will likely dismiss the case if the plaintiff doesn't appear for the trial.

The Small Claims Court Trial

The court may refer the parties to mediation on their scheduled court date. Mediation involves a neutral third party (the mediator) who works with the parties to help them settle. If you don't resolve your case through mediation, the small claims court will either have a trial or ask if you want to try arbitration.

The small claims trial is relatively informal. The judge presiding over the case has vast discretion over the court procedures. The formal court rules, procedures, and rules of evidence that govern court proceedings in a higher court do not apply to the small claims court trial.

The plaintiff has the burden of proof at trial, meaning they must convince the judge that the defendant owes them money. But, a defendant has the burden of proof for any counterclaim or set-off they filed.

The plaintiff will present their case at the small claims court trial. This may include introducing evidence and calling witnesses to testify. If one party calls a witness to testify, the other party can cross-examine the witness. Once the plaintiff rests their case, the defendant will present theirs.

The judge will decide the small claims court case. The court will mail each party a copy of the small claims court's judgment.

Appeals

A party that disagrees with the small claims court's judgment may apply for an allowance to appeal. The party applying must show that the case has a question of law that the small claims court did not decide and that the court of appeals could decide.

Filing and pursuing an appeal involves complicated rules of procedure. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney for help if you plan to file an appeal.

Satisfying the Judgment

The small claims court's judgment is not an order to pay, and the court will not collect the money for the prevailing party. The prevailing party that receives a money judgment is the judgment creditor. The person or entity that owes money is the judgment debtor.

The parties may discuss how the debtor will pay the creditor. The parties must inform the clerk's office once the debtor fully satisfies the judgment.

If the debtor does not pay the creditor, the creditor may request help from the court. They must wait 10 days after the judgment's issuance to request such help.

Common methods to enforce a judgment include the following:

  • Filing a writ of garnishment to garnish the debtor's wages or bank accounts.
  • Filing a writ of execution allows the sheriff's office to seize some of the debtor's property and sell it at auction. The creditor may then use the proceeds to satisfy the judgment.

The court clerk can provide more information about these and other methods of satisfying the judgment. Or, contact a civil litigation attorney for help.

Contact an Attorney

Although small claims cases often involve relatively minor amounts of money, the case may still present difficult legal questions or factual issues. If you plan to file a small claims case, contact a civil litigation attorney for legal advice. Their help preparing your case and representing you at the trial may make the difference between winning and losing the case.

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