Indiana Small Claims Courts
The Indiana Small Claims Division of the Superior Court has limited jurisdiction. Most Indiana small claims courts can hear civil cases where the amount in dispute is $10,000.00 or less. The Marion County Small Claims Court is governed by Indiana Code Sections 33 and 34.
Indiana's small claims courts allow individuals and entities to quickly and efficiently resolve their legal disputes. Small claims courts follow simplified rules of evidence and procedure. Parties to a small claims case may hire an attorney but are not required to do so. The clerk staff at the clerk's office can assist litigants in filing a small claims case, but they cannot provide legal advice.
This article briefly summarizes Indiana's small claims court rules and procedures. The following links provide more specific information about the small claims court:
- Self-Service Legal Center: The Indiana Supreme Court provides a self-help website for litigants in Indiana small claims cases.
- Indiana Small Claims Manual: The Indiana Judicial Branch summarizes the small claims case process and rules. It also contains court forms and pleadings necessary for parties to a small claims case.
- Indiana County Courts: This link provides a directory of Indiana's circuit courts, county courts, and county clerks.
- Indiana Rules of Court - Small Claims: The Indiana Judiciary provides all the rules for small court claims.
Although the small claims court is designed to allow parties to represent themselves, such cases can involve complex legal questions. If you are involved in a small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation lawyer near you.
Small Claims Courts Explained
The small claims court allows parties to resolve minor civil disputes quickly and inexpensively. Indiana Small claims courts have limited jurisdiction. They may only resolve certain civil suits, and the claims cannot exceed $10,000.00. A plaintiff may file a small court claim that exceeds $10,000.00, but they waive the ability to collect any money above $10,000.00.
Individuals and business entities may file claims in small claims court. The person or entity filing the lawsuit is the plaintiff. The person or entity the plaintiff is suing is the defendant. Plaintiffs and defendants in a small claims case are known as parties to the case.
Indiana small claims courts can hear the following types of cases:
- Personal injury
- Personal property damage
- Real property damage
- Landlord-tenant disputes and evictions
- Monetary disputes
- Return of personal property
Because of the small claims court's limited jurisdiction, there are some claims that the court cannot hear. For example, you cannot file a claim to seize real estate property or take a foreclosure action. Those cases must be filed in the Superior Court or Circuit Court.
Small claims cases follow informal and simplified rules of evidence and procedure. Small claims rules are simplified to allow parties to represent themselves.
If the prevailing party hired an attorney, they typically cannot recover attorney's fees from the losing party. The prevailing party can usually recover court costs pursuant to the judgment.
How to File a Small Claims Case
The plaintiff initiates a small claims case by filing a notice of claim in a court that has jurisdiction. The notice of claim identifies the names and addresses of the plaintiff and defendants. It also states the basis of the plaintiff's claim, as well as the amount of money they claim or the nature of the property they want returned.
The court forms are available online or at the county courthouse. The plaintiff can file the notice of claim in person or electronically (e-file). The plaintiff must pay the court a filing fee. If the plaintiff cannot afford the filing fee, they may request a waiver.
Once the plaintiff files their case, the court will assign a case number and set an initial hearing or trial date.
Where to File a Small Claims Case
A plaintiff must file their small claims case in the proper venue. Indiana court rules allow plaintiffs to file in the following counties:
- Where the transaction or occurrence giving rise to the cause of action took place
- Where the obligation or debt giving rise to the cause of action occurred
- Where the obligation giving rise to the cause of action was to take place
- Where the defendant lives
- Where the defendant is employed at the time the small claims case is filed
The plaintiff may file the case in any county that is a proper venue.
When to File a Small Claims Case
Every cause of action has a statute of limitations. The statute of limitations bars plaintiffs from filing a claim after a specific amount of time. State law sets the statute of limitations for claims. For example, a plaintiff must file their personal injury claim within two years of the date of injury. Plaintiffs can consult Indiana state laws for additional information about the statute of limitations for their claim.
Serving a Defendant
Once the plaintiff files their small claims case, they must notify the defendant of the case. This is known as the service of process. It allows the defendant to respond to the plaintiff's claims. A plaintiff may serve the defendant using the following methods:
- Personal service: The plaintiff may personally serve the notice of claim on the defendant. This means the plaintiff physically delivers notice of claim to the defendant.
- Certified mail: The plaintiff may serve the defendant using certified mail with a return receipt requested. A plaintiff should include a Return of Service of Summons form in the certified mail. The defendant will complete the Return of Service of Summons form.
- Sheriff's Office: The plaintiff may contact the county sheriff and request that the sheriff serve the notice of claim on the defendant. The sheriff's office will likely charge a fee to serve the defendant. If the plaintiff wins their case, the court will likely include this fee in the judgment.
The court clerk can advise the plaintiff about how to prove they served the defendant with the notice of claim. To do so, they may file an affidavit of service. Failing to serve the defendant properly may significantly impact the plaintiff's case.
Responding to a Small Claims Case
A defendant must respond to the plaintiff's claim(s). Once the plaintiff serves the defendant, the defendant may file an Appearance in the case.
The defendant should appear at the scheduled small court trial and admit or dispute the plaintiff's claims. The plaintiff may request a default judgment if the defendant does not appear at the scheduled hearing. If the court grants a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor, the plaintiff wins the case.
If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they can file a counterclaim. The defendant must file the counterclaim in the same court. The plaintiff must receive notice of the counterclaim at least seven days before the small claims court trial date.
Preparing For the Small Claims Court Hearing
Before the small claims court hearing, parties may conduct discovery. This process allows the parties to send written interrogatories to the other party and request documents from them. Additionally, parties may secure witnesses to testify at the trial. A party may request a subpoena from the court to compel the production of documents or compel an unwilling witness to appear at the hearing.
The Small Claims Court Hearing
Both parties will make an opening statement at the small claims court hearing. The opening statement outlines the party's claim and why they believe they should prevail.
The plaintiff will then present their case. This can include introducing evidence and calling witnesses to testify. If a party calls a witness to testify, the other party may cross-examine the witness. The defendant will present their case after the plaintiff finishes presenting theirs.
The judge will decide the case once the trial concludes. The judge's decision is called a judgment. The judgment is recorded as a court record and acts as a lien on the losing party's real property.
If a party disagrees with the judgment, they may appeal it. To do so, the party may file an appeal with the Indiana Court of Appeals. The party must file the appeal within 30 days of the judgment date.
Enforcing the Judgment
A judgment is not an order requiring the judgment debtor to pay the judgment creditor. Instead, it is a legal determination that the judgment debtor owes the judgment creditor money.
It is the judgment creditor's responsibility to enforce the judgment. The judgment creditor and judgment debtor can communicate to determine how the debtor should make payment. However, if the judgment debtor cannot or does not satisfy the judgment, the judgment creditor can request the court's assistance. A judgment creditor may ask the court clerk or the court staff how the court can assist them in collecting a judgment.
The judgment creditor may file a Motion for Proceedings Supplemental to try to enforce the judgment. This requires the debtor to appear in court to determine what assets they can use to satisfy the judgment. This may allow a judgment creditor to attach and sell the judgment debtor's property to satisfy the judgment.
Another option for the judgment creditor is garnishment. The judgment debtor's employer will withhold money from the debtor's wages until the judgment is satisfied. The judgment creditor cannot garnish a debtor's Social Security payments.
Once the judgment debtor pays the judgment in full, the judgment creditor must file a Release of Judgment. This form notifies the court that the creditor received their money, and there is no further action to take against the judgment debtor.
Contact an Attorney
Small claims cases can involve complex questions of law and fact. Additionally, parties must meet relatively complicated filing requirements and deadlines. An experienced attorney can provide significant legal help to parties in a small claims case. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you if you are involved in a small claims case.
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