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Ohio Small Claims Courts

In Ohio, every county and municipal court has a small claims division. The small claims division adjudicates small claims cases, which are civil disputes where the amount in controversy does not exceed $6,000. The small claims courts provide non-legal professionals with a quick and inexpensive way to resolve minor civil disputes without hiring attorneys.

The following links provide additional information about the small claims division:

This article describes Ohio's small claims division. Contact your local court clerk's office if you have questions about the small claims court's rules or procedures. For legal advice, contact a civil litigation attorney near you.

Ohio Small Claims Courts Explained

As noted above, each county court and municipal court in Ohio has a small claims court. Ohio designed its small claims courts to handle minor civil cases where the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) seeks an amount of money less than or equal to $6,000.

If a plaintiff's claim exceeds $6,000, they can file it in the county or municipal court's civil division. Either the plaintiff or defendant (the person or entity the plaintiff is suing) can request the small claims court to transfer the case to the civil division or the Common Pleas Court.

Adults, businesses, and corporations may file claims in the small claims court. If a minor has a small claims case, their parent or guardian must file it for them.

If a business or corporation has a small claims case, they may want to consider contacting an attorney before filing their case. Suppose a member of a limited liability company (LLC) files a small claims lawsuit on behalf of the LLC.

Although the member can present evidence at the small claims trial, they technically cannot advocate for the LLC, as doing so could violate rules regarding the unauthorized practice of law. A civil litigation attorney can provide legal advice regarding what the member can and cannot do in a small claims case.

If you have questions about the small claims process, the court clerk can provide procedural advice and assistance in filling and filing forms. However, the court clerk cannot provide legal advice.

What Claims Can the Small Claims Court Hear?

Ohio's small claims courts have limited limited jurisdiction. This means that state law limits the types of claims the small claims court can decide. In general, the small claims court can only decide cases where the plaintiff seeks money. It cannot order someone to do anything other than pay money to the plaintiff.

The small claims court can hear the following types of cases, among others:

The small claims court cannot hear the following types of cases, among others:

  • Criminal cases
  • Cases where the plaintiff demands the defendant return personal property to them
  • Divorces
  • Libel or slander
  • Claims against the government
  • Any other type of case where the plaintiff's claimed relief is something other than money

If you have questions about whether your case belongs in the small claims court, contact a civil litigation attorney for legal advice.

How To File a Small Claims Case

A plaintiff begins their small claims case by filing a complaint in an appropriate small claims court. The plaintiff can obtain the small claims complaint form online or at their local courthouse.

The small claims complaint sets out the following information:

  • The plaintiffs and defendants in the case
  • The amount of the claim
  • A description of the events giving rise to the claim
  • The claim's legal basis

It is essential that the plaintiff correctly identify the defendant. If they sue a person, they must list the defendant's full name, address, and telephone number.

If the plaintiff sues a business or corporation, they must list the entity's legal name. If the entity is not incorporated, the plaintiff may have to file suit against the owner. For example, if the plaintiff has a claim against Bob's Bodyshop, they may have to file against the owner, Bob Smith, d.b.a. Bob's Bodyshop. Contact the Ohio Secretary of State to determine whether a business is incorporated.

The court will charge the plaintiff a filing fee when they file their small claims complaint. The court may award the fee and other court costs if the plaintiff wins their case. You may file an Affidavit of Indigency if you cannot afford the fee. The court will then decide whether or not to waive the fee.

Once you file the claim, the court will assign a case number and set a small claims hearing on its docket.

Where and When To File Your Small Claims Case

The plaintiff must file their claim in a small claims court with jurisdiction over the claim or the defendant. Often this means they must file in one of the following counties:

  • Where the defendant lives (if the defendant is a person)
  • Where the defendant has their principal place of business (if the defendant is a business or corporation)
  • Where the cause of action arose (e.g., if the claim involves money damages from a car accident, the county where the car accident occurred)

If the plaintiff files their claim in a court that does not have jurisdiction over the defendant, the court cannot hear the case unless the defendant waives jurisdiction. The plaintiff will have to refile their case, resulting in additional costs and time spent filing the lawsuit.

The plaintiff must file their claim within a specific period called the statute of limitations. Each civil claim has a statute of limitations. The time limit varies based on the plaintiff's specific claim. The court cannot hear a claim once its statute of limitations runs out. Read FindLaw's article on Ohio's Civil Statute of Limitation Laws for more specific information.

Serving the Defendant

Once the plaintiff pays the fee and files their complaint, they must ensure the defendant receives notice of the small claims case. The plaintiff must follow specific service of process procedures to serve notice on the defendant.

The plaintiff can pay a service fee to the court clerk, and the court will send notice of the lawsuit to the defendant via certified mail. The court may charge extra fees if you need them to serve additional defendants.

The plaintiff may have to use another service method if the court does not receive a return receipt. Other options may include the following:

  • Contacting the sheriff's office and paying them a service fee to serve the defendant(s)
  • Paying a private process server to serve the defendant(s)

If the plaintiff does not serve the defendants, the court will not hear their case. Therefore, it is essential that the plaintiff properly serve the defendants.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

A defendant who receives notice of a small claims case filed against them must respond to the complaint. The nature of their response will depend on the county in which the plaintiff filed their case. The documents the defendant receives will specify how they must respond to the small claims case.

Some counties may require the defendant to file a written answer. Others may require the defendant to appear in court. If you have questions, contact the clerk's office.

Regardless of whether or not the defendant must file a written response, the defendant must attend the scheduled hearing date.

If the defendant does not dispute the plaintiff's claims, they may contact the plaintiff (or their attorney, if they have one) to discuss resolving the dispute. They may also file a response to the claim indicating they do not contest the claim and then pay the plaintiff's claimed amount of money.

If the defendant denies the plaintiff's claims, they may file a written statement indicating their defenses and arguments.

If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim. If the counterclaim is for $6,000 or less, the defendant may file it in the small claims court. If the counterclaim exceeds $6,000, they may file it in the county or municipal court's civil division.

A defendant may file a cross-claim if the plaintiff sued multiple defendants and they have a claim against one of them. A defendant filing a counterclaim or cross-claim must file it at least seven days before the scheduled trial date.

The court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor if the defendant does not respond. If the court enters a default judgment, the plaintiff wins the case. This means the defendant must pay the plaintiff's requested amount of money. This reiterates that the defendant must respond to the complaint, whether they agree or disagree with it.

Preparing for the Small Claims Hearing

All parties must attend the scheduled small claims court hearing. The court may dismiss the plaintiff's case if they do not appear at the hearing. The court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor if the defendant does not appear.

Many Ohio courts offer free mediation to litigants. Mediation involves a neutral third party called a mediator who attempts to help the parties resolve their dispute before their court appearance. If mediation interests you, contact the court clerk to see if the court offers mediation services.

Parties may settle their case at any time before their court date. If the parties settle, they should inform the court clerk in writing. Ask the clerk whether you need to file a settlement agreement or other forms.

If the parties do not settle their case, they should prepare for their scheduled court date. This may include gathering evidence to introduce at the hearing and securing witnesses to testify. A party may issue a subpoena to ensure a witness appears at the hearing. A subpoena is a court order compelling someone to appear at the hearing or produce specific documents ahead of the hearing.

Consider contacting the court clerk to discuss any local rules concerning the introduction of evidence at the small claims court trial. For example, the court may require you to bring multiple copies of any evidence you intend to introduce. 

Other courts may require witnesses to appear in court to testify rather than submit an affidavit of their testimony. It is your responsibility to introduce evidence at the trial properly.

The Small Claims Hearing

The plaintiff will present their arguments and evidence on the hearing date first. Once they rest their case, the defendant will present their defenses and evidence. If the defendant filed a counterclaim, they will also present their arguments regarding it.

A judge or magistrate judge will president over the small claims hearing. Unlike a hearing or trial in the civil division, the judge may take a more active role in the small claims court hearing. For example, they may ask the parties questions during the hearing.

The judge will issue their decision after the hearing concludes. They may issue their decision immediately after the hearing or issue it later.

Appealing the Judgment

If you disagree with the judgment, you have several potential options. The options available depend on Ohio law and local court rules. Ask the court clerk for more information if you wish to challenge the judgment.

One common option is to ask the court to reconsider your case. The clerk can provide more information about requesting the court reconsider the case.

If a magistrate judge presided over your case, you can file written objections to the magistrate's decision. A judge will review the objections according to local rules. The judge may modify the magistrate's decision based on the objections.

You may file an appeal if a judge issues the small claims court judgment. A District Court of Appeals will review the judgment for legal errors.

Satisfying the Judgment

The judgment creditor is the person or entity that prevails in a small claims case and is owed money. The non-prevailing party that owes the creditor money is the judgment debtor.

The small claims court will not collect the money from the debtor for the creditor. Instead, the creditor must collect the money themselves.

The parties may discuss how the debtor will satisfy the judgment. For example, they could discuss payment plans or various payment terms. Once the debtor pays the creditor, the parties must inform the court that the debtor satisfied the judgment.

Suppose the debtor does not satisfy the judgment. In that case, the creditor may request the court's assistance in satisfying the judgment. Ohio law permits creditors the following methods to satisfy a judgment, among others:

  • They may request a court order to garnish the debtor's wages or bank accounts. If the court orders a wage garnishment, the debtor's employer will withhold money from the debtor's personal earnings and give the withheld money to the court. If the court orders a bank account garnishment, the bank will give money from the debtor's bank account to the court. The court will then distribute the money to the creditor to satisfy the judgment. The court cannot garnish Social Security earnings from a bank account.
  • The creditor may obtain a lien on the debtor's real estate. If the debtor sells the property, the creditor may use some of the sale's proceeds to satisfy the judgment.
  • The creditor may seek an attachment, which allows the sheriff to seize and sell non-exempt property from the debtor. The creditor may use the sale's proceeds to satisfy the judgment.

Ohio law and local rules may allow the creditor to use other methods to satisfy a judgment. Contact a civil litigation attorney for more information about satisfying a judgment.

Contact an Attorney

Although Ohio designed its small claims court to allow parties to represent themselves, they may hire attorneys if they wish. Contact a civil litigation attorney near you if you plan to file a small claims case or if someone has sued you in small claims court.

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