Maryland Small Claims Courts
Small claims court can allow you to settle certain legal issues as quickly and easily as possible. Maryland Code Sect. 4-405 establishes that the District Court of Maryland processes small claim actions involving disputes up to $5,000.00. The small claims courts can only hear certain civil actions. The advantage of small claims court over filing a civil case in District Court is that small claims cases are typically resolved quickly and inexpensively.
The steps in a small claims case are relatively few. First, the plaintiff files their Complaint and pays filing fees. Next, they must serve a Writ of Summons on the defendant. The court will hold a small claims court trial, assuming the defendant disputes the plaintiff's allegations.
Litigants in a small claims case may find the following resources helpful:
- Small Claims Information: The Maryland Judicial Branch offers information and court forms for parties involved in small claims cases.
- District Court Directory: This link provides a directory of all the district courts in Maryland.
- Court Self-Help: The Maryland Judicial Branch offers self-help resources for parties involved in small claims cases.
- Small Claims Tip Sheet: The Maryland Judiciary provides a short informational packet regarding small claims, including links to the People's Law Library and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) resources.
- The People's Law Library of Maryland - Small Claims: The People's Law Library of Maryland website contains general information and answers frequently asked questions (FAQs) about small claims cases.
This article summarizes Maryland's small claims court system and procedures.
Maryland Small Claims Courts Explained
Maryland's small claims courts are a division of Maryland's District Court system. As noted above, they can only hear cases where the amount in dispute does not exceed $5,000.00. The $5,000.00 excludes court costs, interest, and attorney's fees.
If a claim exceeds $5,000.00, the plaintiff may file it in the District Court. If the claim exceeds $25,000.00, the plaintiff may file the claim in the Circuit Court.
Moreover, small claims courts can only decide certain civil cases. These cases can only result in monetary judgments. Therefore, the small claims court cannot hear replevin cases that deal with the return of property, for example. Moreover, you cannot request that the defendant perform a service. The small claims court can hear the following types of cases:
Small claims cases in Maryland are relatively informal. For example, they do not use the formal rules of evidence. Additionally, there is no discovery allowed in small claims court. For example, a party may not request answers to written interrogatories. The informal nature of small claims cases allows many litigants to represent themselves.
Although you do not need an attorney to pursue or defend against a small claims case, you can hire one.
How to File a Small Claims Case
Any adult or entity can file a small claims case in Maryland. If the plaintiff is younger than 18, a person who is 18 or older must file the claim on their behalf.
The person or entity that files a lawsuit is the plaintiff in the small claims case. The person or entity being sued in the small claims case is the defendant.
A plaintiff commences their small claims case by filing a Complaint in a proper venue. The Complaint identifies the names and addresses of the parties to the lawsuit. It also briefly states the plaintiff's claim against the defendant. The plaintiff must pay a small filing fee at the clerk's office.
Once the plaintiff files their claim, the court will issue a Writ of Summons. The Writ of Summons notifies the defendant that the plaintiff is suing them. The plaintiff is responsible for properly serving the Complaint and Writ of Summons on the defendant.
Serving the Defendant
The service of process notifies a defendant that the plaintiff is suing them. It is essential that the plaintiff properly serve all the defendants in a lawsuit. The court will not hear the case if the plaintiff does not properly serve the defendants.
The plaintiff must indicate on their Complaint which service method they will use. The plaintiff can serve the defendant(s) using one of the following methods:
- Certified mail: If the plaintiff chooses to serve the defendant via certified mail, the court clerk will mail the Writ of Summons to the defendant. Once the defendant signs for the mail, the post office will bring the return receipt to the courthouse as proof of service. The court will charge a small fee to serve the defendant via certified mail.
- Sheriff's office: If the plaintiff chooses to have the sheriff serve the defendant, the court clerk will send the Writ of Summons to the sheriff's office. The plaintiff must pay a fee, which the clerk will also send to the sheriff. The sheriff will attempt to serve the Writ of Summons on the defendant at the address provided on the Complaint. Once the sheriff serves the defendant, the sheriff will provide an Affidavit of Service to the courthouse. In Baltimore County, this type of service is called “Service by the Constable."
- Private process server: The plaintiff may ask an adult who is not involved in the lawsuit to serve the defendant personally. Alternatively, the plaintiff may contact a private process server company that will serve the defendant. If the plaintiff chooses this method, the court will mail the Writ of Summons to the plaintiff. The plaintiff must then deliver the Writ of Summons to the chosen adult or the process server. The person who ultimately serves the defendant must file an Affidavit of Service with the court.
If the plaintiff sues a business in small claims court, the plaintiff must serve the documents on the business' resident agent. The defendant must also use the business' official name rather than its trade name. If the business is registered in Maryland, this information is available on the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation website. On the Complaint form, the plaintiff must indicate that the documents should be served on the business' resident agent and include their address.
The court clerk may offer general assistance and answer questions about filing and serving a small claims court case. The clerk cannot, however, provide legal advice.
Where and When to File a Small Claims Case
All civil actions have a statute of limitations, which is a time limit in which the plaintiff must file the claim. State law governs the statute of limitations for different types of actions. The statute of limitations typically begins to run once the events or actions giving rise to the lawsuit occur.
Generally, the plaintiff must file their small claims case in the District Court in the following counties:
- Where the defendant lives
- Where the defendant works or is employed
- Where the plaintiff lives, but only if the defendant is a corporation whose principal place of business is somewhere other than Maryland
- Where the events giving rise to the action occurred, but only if the small claims case involves a tort
If you have questions about your claim's statute of limitations or where to file, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney.
Responding to a Small Claims Case
If you are a defendant in a small claims case, you must respond to the plaintiff's Complaint. If you fail to respond to the Complaint in a timely manner, the court may enter a default judgment against you. The plaintiff will win the case if the court enters a default judgment against you.
If the defendant disputes the plaintiff's allegations, they must file a Notice of Intention to Defend. This notice informs the court that the defendant disputes the allegations and intends to appear at the trial and present their defenses. The Notice of Intention to Defend should be attached to the Complaint.
The defendant may request the court to postpone the trial. If the court denies the postponement, the defendant should prepare to appear at the trial date or risk a default judgment.
A defendant may file a counterclaim against the plaintiff if they believe the plaintiff owes them money. If the counterclaim exceeds the $5,000.00 jurisdictional limit, the court may transfer the case to a superior court.
The Small Claims Trial
The court will schedule a hearing on its docket and notify the parties of the trial date. Before the trial, parties to the case may secure evidence and witnesses to testify at the trial. If a witness indicates they will not appear at the hearing, a party may request a subpoena from the court. A subpoena is a court order compelling a witness to appear and testify at trial.
The plaintiff and defendant will present their cases to the court at the trial. The judge will decide your small claims case; no jury trials exist in small claims court. The court rules at a small claims trial are informal compared to a regular court case, and the judge may take a more active role in the trial.
The judgment in a small claims case is not an order to pay money. Instead, it is the court's determination of who owes whom money. It is the judgment creditor's responsibility to collect the money from the judgment debtor. The judgment creditor and debtor may communicate regarding how payment will be made.
The judgment creditor may have to take further legal action to collect the judgment. This legal action may include garnishing the judgment debtor's wages or executing on their property or bank account.
Contact an Attorney
Small claims cases typically center around minor civil disputes. However, even small claims cases can involve complicated questions of law or fact. An experienced civil litigation attorney can provide helpful legal advice and strategy regarding your claim or defense. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you if you are involved in a small claims case.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.