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Montana Small Claims Courts

Montana's small claims courts decide civil disputes involving $7,000 or less. The small claims courts, part of the state's justice courts, allow parties to resolve minor disputes without hiring attorneys and conducting formal jury trials.

Parties to a small claims court case in Montana may find the following self-help resources helpful:

This article describes Montana's small claims court process and procedure. The small claims court is designed to allow non-legal professionals to resolve their disputes without an attorney. However, if all parties to the lawsuit agree, they may hire attorneys. For help with your legal dispute, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.

Small Claims Court Explained

Montana's small claims court allows parties to resolve their legal disputes quickly and at a lower cost. The court only has jurisdiction over civil cases involving money or the return of personal property. The court cannot hear cases involving real estate evictions.

The small claims court may only award a party up to $7,000. The amount does not include court costs.

Any person 18 years or older may file a small claims case. Entities like partnerships and corporations may also file small claims actions. In general, a party cannot file more than 10 small claims cases in one calendar year. However, a business filing civil small claims cases involving shoplifting may file more than 10 small claims cases in one year.

The person or entity who files a small claims case is the plaintiff. The person or entity against whom they file the lawsuit is the defendant.

Before Filing a Small Claims Case: The Demand Letter

Before someone files a small claims case, they must try to resolve their issue before taking it to court. Potential plaintiffs must send a demand letter via certified mail to the potential defendant(s), stating why they believe the defendant(s) owes them a specific amount of money or why they must return the plaintiff's personal property. The party who sends the demand letter should keep a copy for their records. They may attach the demand letter to their court filings if they file a small claims complaint.

The potential parties may discuss the dispute and agree to resolve it before going to court. For example, if Lee alleges he paid Brad $2,000 to fix a plumbing issue at Lee's house and Brad didn't do the work, they may discuss how to resolve the situation. It may involve Brad returning the $2,000, doing the work, or something else.

A potential plaintiff cannot file a complaint with the small claims court until at least 10 days after they mail the demand letter.

How To File a Small Claims Case

A plaintiff initiates a small claims case by filing a small claims complaint in a small claims court. The small claims complaint form is available online or at the courthouse.

In the complaint, the plaintiff must state the amount of money the defendant owes them or what property the defendant must return. They must also describe the basis of their allegations.

The complaint identifies the parties to the lawsuit. The plaintiff must list the defendant's correct contact information on the form, as the court will send out an order to appear at the small claims hearing to the listed address.

A plaintiff may request assistance from a justice of the peace in filing their claim. The justice may instruct a clerk of court to help the plaintiff. Either the justice of the peace or the clerk will provide an informational handout to the plaintiff regarding filing a claim. The plaintiff must attach the handout to their small claims complaint when they serve it on the defendant.

The plaintiff must file the small claims complaint in person at the courthouse and sign the complaint in front of the court clerk. The court will charge the plaintiff a $20 filing fee when they file the complaint. If the plaintiff wins their case, the court may allow them to recover their fees.

The court will set a small claims court hearing date once the plaintiff files the complaint. The hearing will occur within 40 days of the plaintiff filing their complaint.

Venue

A plaintiff must file their small claims complaint form in a court with jurisdiction over the defendant. This often means the plaintiff must file the complaint in the county where the defendant lives or works. If the plaintiff is suing a business, they can file the complaint in a county where the defendant has their principal place of business. Failing to file a case in a proper venue may lead to extra time and expense for the plaintiff, as they may have to refile the case in an appropriate county.

Notice to Defendant

The plaintiff must ensure the defendant receives a copy of the complaint and order to appear at the court date. The plaintiff may ask the court clerk about how to serve the defendant. Their options include contacting the sheriff's office, the constable, or a private process server to serve the defendant.

The defendant must receive notice of the complaint at least five days before the scheduled court date. If the plaintiff cannot serve the defendant before the deadline, they may ask the court to continue the court date.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

A defendant who receives notice of the plaintiff's complaint against them has several options. They may request to remove the case to a district court. If they do not make the removal request within 10 days of receiving notice, they waive their right to a jury trial.

The defendant may contact the opposing party to settle the case before the court date. If the parties settle, they must inform the court of the settlement. Typically, this involves filing a written settlement agreement with the court. The parties may then request that the court dismiss the plaintiff's complaint.

If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim. The small claims court may only hear the counterclaim if it relates to money owed or the return of personal property. The counterclaim must relate to the plaintiff's stated cause of action and cannot exceed $6,500. If the defendant has an unrelated claim of $7,000 or less against the plaintiff, they may file a separate small claims case.

The Small Claims Court Hearing

If the defendant does not appear at the small claims court trial date, the court may enter a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. This means the plaintiff prevails on their claim. The court may dismiss the case if the plaintiff does not appear at the court date.

The small claims court follows informal court rules. The justice of the peace presiding over the case may take a more active role than a judge in the case of a non-small claim would. For example, they may ask the parties questions during the trial to clarify issues.

At the trial, the plaintiff presents their side of the case first. Both parties may introduce evidence at the hearing. For example, they may bring relevant contracts, leases, and photographs. They may also call witnesses to testify. Once the plaintiff finishes their argument, the defendant presents theirs.

After the trial, the justice will make factual findings and enter their judgment. They may take up to 30 days to enter their judgment.

The defendant must pay a $10 fee to the court when they appear to contest the plaintiff's complaint or argue their own counterclaim.

Appeals

A party that believes the small claims court committed an error of law may appeal the judgment. An error of law means the justice of the peace incorrectly applied the law to the present case. An example question of law is whether the plaintiff met their burden of proof in the small claims case.

A party who wishes to appeal must file a Notice of Appeal with the small claims court within 10 days of the judgment's date. A Montana district court will hear the appeal.

Enforcing a Judgment

The person or entity owed money is the judgment creditor. The person or entity that owes money is the judgment debtor. The judgment creditor must collect on the judgment; the court does not act as a collector.

If the judgment debtor cannot or does not satisfy the judgment (i.e., pay the judgment creditor), the judgment creditor has several options. These options include the following:

  • Request a Writ of Execution: The judgment creditor may request a Writ of Execution from the small claims court. A Writ of Execution allows the sheriff to seize the judgment debtor's property and sell it to satisfy the judgment. The judgment creditor may obtain the necessary forms at the courthouse. The sheriff's office or a private levying officer must serve the Writ on the judgment debtor.
  • Request a Writ of Garnishment: The judgment creditor may also garnish the judgment debtor's wages. The judgment creditor may find the necessary forms at their local courthouse.
  • Levy bank accounts: The judgment creditor may levy the debtor's bank accounts to satisfy the judgment. It is similar to a Writ of Garnishment, except it takes money from a bank account rather than the debtor's wages.

Once the judgment debtor pays the judgment creditor, the parties must file a Satisfaction of Judgment form with the court.

Still Have Questions? Speak With an Attorney

In general, parties to a Montana small claims case do not hire attorneys. However, upon agreement by the parties, they may hire representation. Although small claims cases involve lesser amounts of money or personal property, they may still have complicated questions of law or fact. Consider discussing your case with a civil litigation attorney before filing a small claims case. An experienced attorney can provide helpful legal advice and information about a potential small claims case.

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