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South Dakota Small Claims Courts

South Dakota's small claims courts decide civil cases involving monetary disputes or damages that do not exceed $12,000. The small claims courts follow simplified procedural rules compared to the district courts. This allows many litigants to pursue or defend against claims without hiring an attorney. However, parties may hire attorneys if they so desire.

The following links provide additional information and self-help resources for parties involved in small claims cases:

  • Small Claims Overview: The South Dakota Unified Judicial System provides a brief guide to the small claims court. It also provides the court forms you need to file or respond to a small claims case.
  • Small Claims Resources: South Dakota Legal Self-Help offers resources you may find useful if you plan to file a small claims case.
  • Small Claims Brochure: South Dakota published a brochure that describes the small claims procedure and how to file a small claims action.
  • Going Solo - A Guide to Representing Yourself in the South Dakota Courts: The South Dakota Unified Judicial System provides a handbook explaining how to represent yourself in the South Dakota court system.
  • SDCL Statute 15-39: This link from the South Dakota Legislature provides the rules and procedures for its small claims courts.

This article describes South Dakota's small claims court system. For more information, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.

South Dakota Small Claims Court Explained

South Dakota's Magistrate Courts hear small claims cases. The Magistrate Court is a lower court, and the Circuit Court's presiding judge oversees it. A Magistrate Judge or a Lay or Clerk-Magistrate presides over small claims cases.

Magistrate Courts have limited jurisdiction. This means they can only hear certain types of claims. Generally, small claims involve different types of monetary disputes, such as:

North Dakota's Magistrate Courts cannot hear the following types of cases, among others:

The Magistrate Court's small claims process is relatively informal. The state designed its small claims process and court rules to allow non-legal professionals to represent themselves throughout the process. Any party may hire an attorney to represent them if they wish.

Anyone 18 or older may file a small claims case in North Dakota. A minor who wants to file a small claims case must have their parent or guardian file it. Businesses and organizations may also file small claims cases.

How To Begin a Small Claims Case

A plaintiff (the person or entity filing the lawsuit) begins their small claims case by filing the following documents in an appropriate Magistrate Court:

The Case Filing Statement identifies the parties to the lawsuit. It also must state each party's current address and contact information.

The Statement of Claim identifies the following information:

  • The parties' names
  • A description of the dispute
  • The legal basis for the plaintiff's claims
  • The amount of money the plaintiff alleges the defendant owes them

The Affidavit of Defendant's Military Status is a sworn statement from the plaintiff indicating whether or not the defendant is an active-duty military member.

The plaintiff may attach any supporting documents they have to their filing. For example, in a lawsuit alleging property damage, they may attach an insurance quote, a repair bill, or pictures of the damage.

The court will charge the plaintiff a filing fee when they file their documents. The fee varies based on the amount of money they claim and how many defendants they sue. The state offers a fee calculator on its website.

Where and When To File

The plaintiff must file their case in a Magistrate Court with jurisdiction over the defendant. In practice, the plaintiff often files their case in the county where the defendant resides. Depending on their case, they may file it in the county where their cause of action arose.

If the plaintiff files their case in a Magistrate Court that does not have jurisdiction, the court may not hear their case. This will result in delays and extra expense for the plaintiff.

Every civil claim has a statute of limitations, a period in which someone must file their claim. South Dakota law sets the statute of limitations for each claim, and the time limits vary based on the claim type. If a plaintiff does not file their claim within its statute of limitations, the court cannot adjudicate it. Read FindLaw's article about South Dakota's Statute of Limitations for more specific information.

Serving the Defendant

The clerk of court will send the defendant a copy of the Statement of Claim and other documents via certified mail. The court will likely charge a service fee.

If the defendant does not return a receipt indicating they received notice of the lawsuit, the plaintiff must take one of the following actions to serve the defendant:

  • They may contact the sheriff's office and pay a service fee to them. The sheriff's office will then serve the defendant with notice of the lawsuit.
  • They may contact a private process server to serve the defendant in person.

The court clerk can provide more information about how to serve the defendant, but they can't provide any legal advice.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

A defendant who receives proper notice has several options.

If the defendant does not dispute the plaintiff's claims, they can agree to pay the claimed amount. They may try to reach an amicable resolution of the dispute. If the parties settle the case, the plaintiff should inform the court clerk and ask the court to dismiss the case.

If the defendant disputes the plaintiff's claims, they must file a Denial with the court. The notice they received should specify the deadline to file their Denial. If the defendant does not file a Denial in time, the court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor. This means the plaintiff wins the case, and the defendant must pay the requested amount.

If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim. The counterclaim must relate to the plaintiff's claims in their Statement of Claim. The defendant must file their counterclaim within the same period they must file their Denial.

If the counterclaim exceeds $12,000, the defendant may file it in the Circuit Court. They may also request the court remove the plaintiff's claim to a Circuit Court, even if they don't have a counterclaim.

Before the Small Claims Trial

The parties may gather evidence they will introduce at the small claims trial. For example, they may secure a copy of the contract at issue in a contract dispute. In a property damage case, they may ensure they have all relevant photographs and property damage estimates.

The parties may also bring witnesses to the trial. If a witness refuses to come to trial, a party may issue a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order that compels someone to appear at the trial. Contact the court clerk if you need to issue a subpoena.

All parties must attend the trial. The court will dismiss their case if the plaintiff does not attend. If a defendant does not appear, the court will enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor.

If a party knows they cannot attend the scheduled trial, they can ask the court to continue it to a later date. Contact the court clerk if you need to continue the trial.

There are no jury trials in small claims cases. A Magistrate Judge or Lay or Clerk Magistrate will preside over your case.

The Small Claims Trial

On their trial date, the plaintiff will present their arguments and side of the case first. They can introduce evidence and call witnesses to testify, among other things. Once the plaintiff concludes presenting their case, the defendant presents theirs.

The Magistrate or Lay or Clerk-Magistrate may ask the parties and any witnesses clarifying questions. Once the trial concludes, the court will issue its decision. The court may announce its decision then or issue its judgment in writing after the trial.

The court may award the prevailing party their filing fees and attorney's fees in the judgment.

There is no right to appeal a small claims court's judgment in South Dakota.

Enforcing the Judgment

Suppose the plaintiff prevails in their small claims case, and the court issues a money judgment in their favor. It is the plaintiff's responsibility to collect the money from the defendant. Although the court's judgment acts as a lien against the defendant, it is not an order to pay.

The parties may discuss how the non-prevailing party (judgment debtor) will pay the prevailing party (judgment creditor). A judgment debtor typically has 30 days to satisfy the judgment. Once the debtor satisfies the judgment, the creditor must file a Satisfaction of Judgment form with the court clerk.

Suppose a judgment debtor cannot or does not satisfy the judgment. In that case, the judgment creditor has several options, including the following:

  • Once the 30-day period passes, a judgment creditor may file an Execution form with the court. The clerk must sign the form and return it to the creditor. The creditor must then bring it to the sheriff's office and pay a fee. The sheriff can then seize non-exempt property from the debtor and sell it at auction. The judgment creditor uses the proceeds from the auction to satisfy the judgment.
  • The judgment creditor may also request to garnish the debtor's wages or bank accounts. The process involves filing an affidavit with the court indicating the debtor owes the creditor money and the debtor has no other property in the state the creditor can use to satisfy the judgment. If the court allows garnishment of the debtor's wages, the debtor's employer will withhold money from the debtor's wages. The judgment creditor will receive said wages until the withheld money satisfies the judgment.

Satisfying a judgment is often complicated. The court clerk can provide further information about collection methods. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney as another option to help satisfy a judgment.

Contact an Attorney

South Dakota's Magistrate Court allows parties to resolve minor civil actions quickly and inexpensively. Despite this, small claims actions may involve complex questions of law or fact. If you have questions about the small claims court, contact a civil litigation attorney near you. An experienced attorney can provide helpful advice and legal services regarding the following:

  • A defense and litigation strategy for your small claims case
  • How to request a continuance if you cannot attend the scheduled small claims trial on the Magistrate Court's docket
  • The procedure for requesting a cancellation of a judgment against you

Hiring an attorney could mean the difference between winning and losing your case. Speak with an attorney near you today for legal advice and the best outcome possible.

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