Iowa Small Claims Courts
In Iowa, the Small Claims Division of the District Courts hears civil actions limited to $6,500.00 or less. Small claims courts are designed to allow people to represent themselves in minor legal disputes. The rules of evidence and civil procedure are simplified in such cases.
This article summarizes Iowa's small claims court system. Additional information is available in the following links:
- Iowa Small Claims: The Iowa Judicial Branch website overviews its small claims courts. It also has court forms that parties need in their court case.
- Instructions for Self-Represented Litigants Filing Small Claims Actions: The Iowa Judicial Branch provides instructions for plaintiffs to file and defendants to respond to small claims actions.
- Small Claims, Filing a Petition: The Iowa Judicial Branch answers frequently asked questions (FAQ) about filing a small claims petition.
- Small Claims Court: The Iowa Legal Aid website offers resources and information for parties involved in a small claims case. It also provides a list of legal assistance centers.
- Iowa Court Directory: The Iowa Judicial Branch provides a listing of all district courts in Iowa.
- Code of Iowa, Title XV, Ch. 631: Iowa Code Chapter 631 governs Iowa's court rules for small claims cases.
Although small claims cases deal with relatively little money, such cases can involve complex questions of law or fact. While litigants are not required to hire an attorney, they can do so. If you are involved in a small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you for legal advice.
What is Small Claims Court?
Iowa's small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Small claims courts can only hear certain civil cases. If a party has a claim that exceeds $6,500.00, the party may still file the claim in small claims court. However, the party waives their right to recover more than $6,500.00 by doing so. The party cannot split a claim into multiple smaller claims to avoid this waiver.
Iowa small claims courts can only provide monetary relief to parties. Small courts can generally hear the following types of cases:
- Contract disputes
- The return of personal property, referred to as replevin
- Landlord-tenant disputes, including detainer and forcible entry, also known as an eviction
- Personal injury
Small claims courts follow informal rules of civil procedure and the rules of evidence. One reason the courts do this is to allow parties to the case to represent themselves instead of hiring an attorney. Another is to quickly and efficiently resolve minor civil matters.
How to File a Small Claims Case
A plaintiff must file an Original Notice form and a Small Claims Petition to initiate their small claims case. There are different small claims forms depending on the claim the plaintiff wishes to file, such as a money judgment or replevin. The Original Notice form is available for free online or at the courthouse.
The plaintiff must typically file the Original Notice electronically. In some circumstances, the court may allow the plaintiff to file the Original Notice with the clerk of court. The court will charge the plaintiff a filing fee regardless of which method they choose.
The Original Notice identifies the names and addresses of the plaintiff and the defendant. It also briefly states the basis of the plaintiff's claims against the defendant and the amount of money the plaintiff believes the defendant owes them.
The court clerk may assist the plaintiff in filing their case and the small claims court process. The clerk cannot, however, provide legal advice.
Where and When to File a Small Claims Case
The plaintiff must file their small claims lawsuit in a proper venue. Typically, the plaintiff must file their lawsuit in the county where the defendant resides or where the occurrence giving rise to the cause of action took place.
Plaintiffs filing claims in the small claims court must do so within a specific period of time after the cause of action accrues. This time limit is known as the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations will bar the case if the plaintiff does not file their claim timely. State law governs the statute of limitations.
Serving the Defendant
The plaintiff must notify the defendant of the small claims case. This is known as the service of process. It allows the defendant to admit or deny the plaintiff's claims.
When the plaintiff e-files their lawsuit, their online account will generate copies of the Original Notice and Petition, a Small Claims Answer, and an Appearance form. The plaintiff must serve all defendants with these forms. The plaintiff may serve the defendant using one of the following methods:
- County Sheriff's Office: The plaintiff may contact the sheriff where the defendant lives. The sheriff's office will charge a fee to serve the defendant.
- Certified Mail: The court will mail the forms to the defendant. The court will charge additional fees to serve the defendant via certified mail.
- Personal Service: The plaintiff may serve the defendant by physically handing them the forms.
The court clerk can inform the plaintiff about the requirements for filing proof of service with the court.
Responding to a Small Claims Case
An Answer is the defendant's response to the plaintiff's claims. If the defendant admits the plaintiff's charges, the defendant will likely pay the plaintiff's requested amount of money. The court will set a court date if the defendant denies the charges.
An Appearance is a form that indicates the defendant will participate in the case.
The court may enter a default judgment if the defendant does not respond to the plaintiff's lawsuit. If the court issues a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor, the plaintiff will win.
If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim. The defendant must serve the counterclaim on the plaintiff before the small claims court hearing.
The Small Claims Hearing
Before the parties attend the small claims hearing, they may conduct discovery. Discovery is a process where a party may request the other party to produce documents or other evidence. Additionally, parties may secure witnesses to testify at the upcoming hearing. Furthermore, a party may request a subpoena from the court to compel discovery or witnesses to testify.
At the small claims court hearing, both parties will present opening arguments. Then, the plaintiff will present their evidence and witnesses. Once the plaintiff finishes, the defendant will present their case. If either party calls a witness, the other party may cross-examine the witness.
After the hearing, the judge or magistrate will issue their judgment.
If a party disagrees with the judgment, they may appeal it. To do so, they must file the Notice of Appeal within 20 days of the judgment's date.
Enforcing a Small Claims Judgment
It is the judgment creditor's responsibility to enforce the judgment. The court's judgment is not an order to the judgment debtor to pay the judgment creditor. Instead, it is just a determination of who owes whom money. Judgment creditors and debtors can communicate how the debtor will pay the creditor.
If the judgment debtor cannot or does not pay the judgment creditor, the creditor may request the court's assistance. For example, the judgment creditor can request the court to garnish a judgment debtor's wages. If the court issues this order, the judgment debtor's employer will withhold money from the debtor's paychecks until the judgment is satisfied. The judgment creditor may also execute on the judgment debtor's property; this allows law enforcement to seize some of the debtor's property and sell it at auction to satisfy the judgment.
Contact an Attorney
While the small claims court is designed to allow non-legal professionals to resolve their legal matters quickly, these cases can involve difficult legal questions. Additionally, satisfying filing requirements and timelines are not always as straightforward as they first appear. If you are involved in a small claims case in Iowa, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney who can provide legal information and advice about your case.
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