When I was a child, the People’s Court was probably my favorite TV show. I idolized Judge Wapner. To me, he was the most fair, and had the most brilliant legal mind in the world second only to my other idol, Perry Mason. It’s no wonder I ended up going to law school.
Here in Arizona, we have our own version of the people’s court called Small Claims, and it’s a division within the Arizona Justice Courts. Lawyers are generally not allowed to represent their clients in small claims court, and the judgments are final for the most part. In other words, if the judge makes a mistake, there is no appeal and the mistake stands with few exceptions.
Small claims court can be a cost-effective option for individuals and businesses trying to collect from another business or a customer who has failed to pay a bill of up to $3500. If, after the plaintiff files a complaint and serves the defendant, the defendant files an answer with the court, a short hearing is scheduled. Though the process is simple, there are few things you should discuss with a licensed attorney before making a decision to go forward in small claims court:
– Who should I sue? When suing an individual in Arizona for example, you are likely required to also sue his or her spouse at the same time if you ever hope to collect your judgment.
– How much can I get? Don’t forget to ask for your filing fee and service of process costs to be reimbursed. If you don’t ask, you might not automatically get it.
– Am I stating my claim clearly and completely? The small claims forms don’t give the parties a lot of room to write out their claims. Whether this is by design is unknown, but it is helpful to keep your statements concise and save the details for the hearing.
– When do I give up on asking nicely and sue a person? Deadlines to collect a debt are generally 3-6 years depending on the type of debt and whether there is a signed contract. The clock starts ticking at default. Consult with an attorney to make sure you are within your time limits to sue. Conversely, if you have been sued, make sure that you are not waiving a statute of limitations defense you didn’t know you had.
If the plaintiff is successful in small claims court, the next step is collecting the judgment. Nobody on the People’s Court ever had to worry about that, because the show’s producers paid the judgments. However, we are not so lucky in real life. Effective January 1, 2016, Small Claims court judgments obtained in Arizona may be directly filed with the county recorder to act as a lien on the Defendant’s real property. Whether you are planning to sue someone in small claims court or have been sued, make sure you contact an attorney promptly to go over these and other issues. In sum, Doug Llewelyn had it right when he said, “don’t take the law into your own hands; you take ’em to court!”
Tami M. Hugo is an Arizona Attorney with Davis Miles McGuire Gardner, a full service law firm with offices in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Utah.