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Washington Small Claims Courts

Each district court in Washington state has a small claims department that processes small claims cases. If a natural person files a small claims case, the amount in dispute cannot exceed $10,000. If a business or corporation files a small claims suit, the amount in dispute cannot exceed $5,000.

The small claims court trial is informal compared to cases in the superior court. This allows many people and entities to pursue or defend against a claim without hiring attorneys. In fact, parties can only hire attorneys to represent them if the judge expressly allows it.

The following links provide additional information and self-help resources you may find useful as you pursue or defend against a small claims case:

This article provides an in-depth look at the state of Washington's small claims courts. Specifically, it discusses which claims the court can decide, how to file a claim, and how to prepare for trial. For more information, contact your local court clerk.

Washington Small Claims Court Explained

Washington designed its small claims courts to allow an avenue for people and businesses to resolve minor civil disputes quickly and inexpensively. Parties generally cannot hire attorneys to represent them in the small claims case. However, upon a showing of good cause, litigants can ask for the judge's consent to allow an attorney's representation.

Anyone with a small claims case (the plaintiff) must file it in a district court that has jurisdiction over the defendant (the person or entity the plaintiff sues). Any adult may file a small claims case, and most businesses, partnerships, and corporations also may file small claims cases.

What Types of Claims Can the Small Claims Court Hear?

Generally, the small claims court may only hear disputes where the plaintiff claims money. A person may recover up to $10,000 in a small claims case. A business or entity may recover up to $5,000. If the person or entity's claim exceeds the jurisdictional amount, they may file it in the superior court.

A plaintiff cannot file every type of case in the small claims court. The small claims court has limited jurisdiction, meaning it can only adjudicate certain types of cases. For example, the small claims court may hear the following types of disputes:

The small claims court cannot hear the following types of disputes:

  • Contract disputes where the plaintiff seeks a judgment requiring the defendant to do something (e.g., finish building the plaintiff's deck)
  • Criminal matters
  • Disputes involving title to real property
  • Libel and slander
  • Disputes where the plaintiff seeks anything other than money from the defendant

If the plaintiff's claim does not fall under the small claims court's jurisdiction, they may file it in a different state court. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney if you have a claim that you cannot file in the small claims court.

How To File a Small Claims Case

The plaintiff must file a notice of small claim form in an appropriate small claims court to begin their case. The notice is a sworn statement from the plaintiff and identifies the following:

  • The names and contact information of the parties to the lawsuit
  • A description of the dispute and the legal basis for the plaintiff's claim
  • The amount of money the plaintiff claims

The notice form is available online or at the district court. Contact the court clerk if you have questions about how to file the form. The court clerk cannot provide legal advice. But, they can provide information about how to fill out and file forms and other procedural steps.

The plaintiff must pay the district court clerk a filing fee when they file the notice. The fee varies between $35 and $50, depending on whether the county offers alternative dispute resolution services. The plaintiff can typically pay the fee with cash, a money order, or a cashier's check. If the plaintiff wins their case, the court may include the filing fees and other court costs in the judgment.

Once the plaintiff files their notice, the small claims court will set a small claims court date.

Where and When To File

Generally, the plaintiff must file their case in the county where the defendant lives. This ensures the small claims court has jurisdiction over the defendant. If the plaintiff sues multiple defendants, they generally must file the case in a county where one of the defendants lives. If the plaintiff cannot determine where the defendant lives, they may file it in the county where the defendant works.

In some cases, the plaintiff may file a small claims case in the county where their cause of action arose. For example, suppose the plaintiff alleges the defendant breached a contract. In that case, the plaintiff may file the case in the county where the defendant performed (or should have performed) the contract.

If the plaintiff files their small claims case in a court that does not have jurisdiction over the defendant, the court generally cannot hear the case. This may require the plaintiff to re-file their case, adding extra time and expense to their case. Therefore, a plaintiff needs to file their case in the correct county.

A plaintiff must also file their civil claim within the claim's statute of limitations. The statute of limitations is a time limit within which the plaintiff must file their claim. Failing to file a claim within the statute of limitations will bar the court from hearing the case. Read FindLaw's article on Washington's Civil Statute of Limitation Laws for more information.

Serving the Defendant

The plaintiff is responsible for ensuring all defendants receive notice of the small claims action filed against them. However, the plaintiff cannot serve the defendant themselves. Instead, an adult who is not a party to the small claims case must serve the defendant(s).

The plaintiff may arrange for service using the following methods:

  • They may send the required court forms to the defendant via certified mail with a return receipt requested. Once the plaintiff receives the return receipt, they must file it with the court.
  • They may contact the sheriff's office and ask them to serve the defendant personally. The sheriff will charge a service fee.
  • They may contact a private process server and pay them to serve the defendant.
  • They may ask an adult who is not a party to the case to serve the defendant.

The plaintiff must ensure the defendant receives a copy of the notice at least 10 days before the trial date. The plaintiff must also file a proof of service (a certificate of service) with the court at least 10 days before the scheduled trial. Failing to serve the defendant will result in delays in the case.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

A defendant who receives notice of the plaintiff's claim against them has several options. First, they may contact the plaintiff and try to resolve their dispute before the hearing date. If they settle their case, they must inform the court clerk immediately. The court will then cancel the hearing and dismiss the case.

If the defendant denies the plaintiff's claims, they can begin preparing for their small claims court date. They do not need to file a formal answer to the plaintiff's claim.

If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim. They must file it with the court clerk before the hearing. If they wait until the hearing to bring their counterclaim, the judge may not allow them to argue it. Contact the court clerk for more detailed information if you have a counterclaim.

Before the Hearing

The parties to a small claims case must appear at their scheduled hearing. The court will likely dismiss the plaintiff's case if they do not attend the hearing. The court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor if the defendant does not attend. If the court enters a default judgment in one party's favor, the other party will lose the case.

Before the hearing, parties may want to contact the court clerk and ask about the court's rules for introducing evidence. For example, they may need to bring several copies of any evidence they want to introduce. Parties may also want to observe a small claims trial to learn how the court operates.

Either party may secure witnesses to testify at the trial. If a potential witness indicates they do not intend to appear for the trial, a party may subpoena them. A subpoena is a court order compelling someone to appear at a court proceeding or produce documents.

The court may require the parties to participate in a mediation. In mediation, a neutral third party tries to help the parties reach an agreeable resolution to their case.

The Small Claims Hearing

The small claims hearing is an informal court proceeding. A judge will preside over the hearing, and they can take a more active approach than they would in a district court case. For example, they can ask the parties questions, consult witnesses, and make orders they deem just or right for the case.

On the hearing date, the plaintiff will present their case first. This may include an opening argument, introducing evidence, and calling witnesses to testify. When the plaintiff rests their case, the defendant will present their case, including any defenses, arguments, or evidence they may have.

The plaintiff has the burden of proof, which means they must convince the judge that the defendant is liable for the money owed. If the defendant filed a counterclaim, the defendant has the burden of proof regarding it.

The judge will listen to the parties and issue their decision once the hearing concludes. A judgment that orders one party to pay another party money is a money judgment. The court will send a copy of the judgment to each party.

Appeals

Generally, either party may appeal the small claims court's judgment. However, neither party can appeal in the following situations:

  • If the plaintiff's claim was for $250 or less
  • If a party requested the court's jurisdiction for a claim or counterclaim of $1,000 or less

A party that wishes to appeal the judgment must file a notice of appeal with the district court within 30 days of the court's judgment. They must also serve the notice to all other parties to the case. The district court will charge a filing fee of $230. The appealing party must also post a cash bond of double the judgment's amount. The superior court will hear the appeal.

Appeals to the superior court involve formal court rules, procedures, and rules of evidence. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney if you intend to appeal your case.

Satisfying the Judgment

Suppose the court issues a money judgment in the plaintiff's favor. In that case, the plaintiff is the judgment creditor, and the defendant is the judgment debtor.

The judgment debtor must pay the creditor within 30 days of the judgment's issuance. If they do not satisfy the judgment within 30 days, the judgment creditor has several options to enforce the judgment.

The judgment creditor may request the court institute a payment plan for the debtor. The court may increase the judgment's amount to account for extra expenses related to enforcing the judgment.

After 30 days of nonpayment, the judgment creditor may request that the court garnish the debtor's wages or bank accounts. If the court orders a garnishment, it will order either the debtor's employer or bank to withhold and give money to the court. The court will hold the money for the creditor and distribute it once the amount satisfies the judgment.

A judgment creditor may also request a court order allowing the sheriff's office to execute on the debtor's property. This allows the sheriff to seize some of the debtor's property and sell it at auction. The creditor may use the proceeds from the sale to satisfy the judgment.

Once the judgment debtor pays the judgment creditor, the creditor must file a satisfaction of judgment form with the court. The debtor may also file the form if the creditor fails to file it.

Contact an Attorney

Parties to a small claims case in Washington generally cannot hire attorneys to represent them at the small claims court hearing. However, an attorney can provide preliminary legal advice for your case, such as a litigation strategy or possible defenses. They can also help you in preparing to file an appeal. Contact a civil litigation attorney today for help with your small claims case.

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