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Massachusetts Small Claims Courts

Every District Court, Housing Court, and Boston Municipal Court in Massachusetts hear small claims cases. In a small claims action, the amount in controversy generally cannot exceed $7,000.

Small claims courts allow non-legal professionals to quickly and inexpensively resolve minor civil cases. Parties to a small claims case in Massachusetts have access to self-help resources and often do not need to hire an attorney to pursue their claim to resolution.

Parties involved in a small claims case in Massachusetts may find the following resources helpful:

This article summarizes Massachusetts' small claims court procedures and rules, how to respond to a small claims case, and how to enforce a judgment.

Massachusetts Small Claims Courts Explained

In Massachusetts small claims cases, the money in dispute typically cannot exceed $7,000. The exception to the jurisdictional limit is when an automobile accident causes personal property damage. In such a situation, the amount in dispute cannot exceed $15,000.

The jurisdictional limits do not include statutory damages, court costs, interest, or attorney's fees. In some cases, like consumer protection or landlord-tenant disputes, the potential award may exceed $7,000. However, the plaintiff's base claim cannot exceed $7,000 in such cases.

Massachusetts' small courts have limited jurisdiction. This means they may only hear certain types of cases. The small claims courts can hear the following types of civil claims:

  • Contract disputes
  • Torts (except slander and libel and claims against the Commonwealth, a county, or a municipality)
  • Property damage
  • Return of property

Parties may include a claim for equitable relief along with a claim for money. A plaintiff, however, cannot base a small claims case solely upon equitable relief. Equitable relief is non-monetary relief, like specific performance.

For example, suppose Chris hired Garrett to fix his roof. Garrett failed to fix the roof, and a rainstorm caused $1,000 worth of damage to Chris' property. Chris alleges that the storm damaged his property because Garrett did not fix the roof. Chris could likely file a small claims case against Garrett for the property damage and request a court order that Garrett fix the roof as they previously agreed.

Pre-Filing Considerations

Before you sue someone in small claims court, you may try to resolve your dispute without the court system's help. For example, you may consider contacting the person or entity you believe owes you money and try to negotiate a deal. Alternatively, you may try to mediate or arbitrate the issue.

If those don't work, you can try sending a demand letter. As its name implies, a demand letter demands the recipient take action and/or respond to the letter. Small claims cases do not require demand letters, but you can use them in a resultant small claims case to show you tried your best to resolve the case. A demand letter may include the following information:

  • The relevant dates and events that you base your claim upon
  • An explanation of why you believe the person or entity owes you money
  • The legal basis for a potential claim
  • The requested relief (e.g., $1,000 due to alleged property damage)

A demand letter may also indicate that, if the recipient does not respond within a certain amount of time (e.g., 30 days), the sender will file a lawsuit against them.

Filing a Small Claims Case

A person or entity initiates a small claims case in Massachusetts by filing a Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial form. The person who files the form is the plaintiff. The person or entity against whom they file the lawsuit is the defendant. In general, any person who is 18 or older may file a small claims case. If the plaintiff is a minor, their parent or guardian must file the claim.

The Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial form is available online. You can also obtain one from the Small Claims Court Clerk at any District Court.

The Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial

In their Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial, the plaintiff must state how much money they believe the defendant owes them. They must also provide a brief statement explaining why they believe the defendant owes them that amount.

The plaintiff may file the Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial form online or in person. The court will charge the plaintiff a filing fee regardless of the chosen method. The filing fee amount depends on the claimed amount in dispute and ranges between $40 to $150. If the plaintiff cannot afford the fee, they may file an Affidavit of Indigency to request a fee waiver.

Plaintiffs can recover, at most, the amount of money they claim. The court may award less money than the plaintiff's claimed amount, but it cannot award more.

Time Limits To File a Small Claims Case

A plaintiff must file their small claims case within a specific time period known as the statute of limitations. Failing to file the case within the statute of limitations will permanently foreclose a plaintiff from bringing their claim. The statute of limitations typically begins to run when the cause of action arises. For example, if the plaintiff alleges a breach of contract, the statute of limitations began running when the alleged breach occurred.

The statute of limitations varies based on the specific cause of action. Some statutes of limitation involving common claims include the following:

  • Contract disputes: six years
  • Consumer protection claims: four years
  • Claims regarding home improvements: three to six years

Check your state laws to determine the time limit within which you must file your claim. Alternatively, contact a civil litigation attorney near you for more information.

Venue

The plaintiff must file the Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial in a proper venue, often in the county where the defendant lives or works. If you sue a business, you typically must file in the county where their place of business is located. Other appropriate venues may include the following counties:

  • Where the plaintiff lives or works
  • Where the defendant lives or works
  • Where the cause of action occurred
  • In landlord-tenant cases, where the property is

In general, plaintiffs should plan on filing the lawsuit in the county most convenient to the defendant, often where they live. 

Serving the Defendant

Once the plaintiff successfully files their claim, the court will place the case on its docket and set a court date. The court will inform the plaintiff of the trial's time, date, and location.

The court will also mail this information to the defendant based on information provided on the plaintiff's Statement of Claim. Therefore, it is crucial that the plaintiff correctly identify the defendant's address on the Statement of Claim. The court sends the information to the defendant via first-class mail and certified mail. If the Post Office does not return the first-class mail to the court, the court presumes the defendant received the Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

A defendant may take several actions when they receive notice of a small claims case. They may contact the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney, if applicable, to try and resolve the issue before the trial. If the parties settle their case, they should notify the court.

If the defendant does not want to settle, they may file an Answer to the Statement of Claim. The Answer may present the defendant's side of the case and explain why the plaintiff is wrong. The defendant should file their written Answer before their court date. A defendant does not have to file an Answer.

Regardless of whether the defendant files an Answer, they should plan on appearing at the small claims court trial. Failing to appear for the trial may lead to a default judgment. A default judgment in the plaintiff's favor means the plaintiff wins the case, and the defendant likely must pay the plaintiff's requested amount of money.

If the defendant knows they cannot appear at the scheduled trial, they can request a continuance from the court. They may also request a continuance if the plaintiff did not properly serve the Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial upon them.

Counterclaim

If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim. A defendant must file their counterclaim at least 10 days before the scheduled trial. If the defendant timely files their counterclaim, the court may consider it in the same trial as the plaintiff's claims. Failing to file the counterclaim timely may result in the court continuing the trial to allow the plaintiff to prepare for the counterclaim.

Small Claims Court Trials

Parties should appear to the court on their small claims court trial date. The court may dismiss the case if the plaintiff does not appear at the trial. If the defendant does not appear, the court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor so long as the plaintiff can present sufficient evidence that they have a viable claim.

A clerk-magistrate presides over the trial. A clerk-magistrate acts as the judge, but they often do not have the same legal training as a judge. Small claims courts follow relaxed rules of evidence compared to civil court trials.

When the court calls their case, both parties may present their side of the case. The plaintiff usually goes first, followed by the defendant. The plaintiff has the burden of proof in a small claims case, which means they must prove to the judge that the defendant caused some monetary damage to them.

Parties may present evidence to the court. For example, they may produce photographs, receipts, witnesses, or other forms of evidence. The clerk-magistrate may take a more active role than a trial court judge would, such as asking the parties questions to clarify an issue further.

Once the trial concludes, the clerk-magistrate will issue their decision. They may do so immediately or take the case under advisement. If they take it under advisement, they will notify the parties when they can expect a decision, usually within 10 days.

Post-Trial

The court will issue a Notice of Judgment and Order and a Notice of Payment Hearing to the parties after the trial. If the court finds the defendant liable, the court will instruct them to pay the plaintiff some amount of money. It is the plaintiff's responsibility to collect the money from the defendant.

A defendant may choose to appeal the decision, or they may pay the plaintiff the amount specified. If the defendant does not pay the plaintiff, they may have to appear at the payment hearing to explain why they cannot do so.

The person to whom money is owed is the creditor. The person who owes money is the debtor. A court may hold a non-paying debtor in contempt. The debtor could face jail time if they refuse to pay pursuant to the order.

Appeals

Plaintiffs who do not prevail on their small claims case cannot appeal the judgment. Defendants, however, may appeal an adverse judgment from the small claims trial. If the defendant wants to appeal the decision, they typically must do so within 10 days of the judgment.

The court will schedule an appeal hearing if the defendant appeals a decision. When the defendant appeals a decision, either party is entitled to a jury trial. A judge may hear the appeal if both parties agree to waive the right to a jury trial. Formal rules of evidence apply to an appeal hearing.

Questions About Small Claims Court? Contact an Attorney

Although parties do not need to hire an attorney to pursue their small claims case, the law allows them to do so. While small claims cases involve relatively small amounts of money, they still may involve complex issues of law or fact. Consider speaking to a civil litigation attorney if you intend to file a small claims case. They can provide helpful legal advice about your case, such as the following:

  • Information about the small claims court process and how to prepare for a trial
  • Whether you have a viable claim or defense in a small claims case
  • Legal information about the strengths or weaknesses of your case

If you believe you have a case suitable for small claims court or received a Statement of Claim, do not hesitate to contact a civil litigation attorney.

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