Small claims court is the way in which Massachusetts citizens and businesses can resolve disputes without an attorney’s help. Known as “the people’s court,” this informal and inexpensive forum is designed to help resolve legal disputes of $2000 or less, and is run somewhat like the hit TV show of the same name. It is unnecessary to use legal terms in small claims court, and it is actually not advisable to try to “act like a lawyer” when presenting a small claims case. Rather, a clear, concise, and well-supported story is the best weapon. SCAS callers will likely know something about small claims court and its procedures before they call, but often this knowledge will be pretty vague. Our job is to clarify the ins-and-outs of the small claims system in Massachusetts and make callers feel more empowered to exercise their rights through this venue.
Before Small Claims Court
Friendly Negotiation is the first step individuals should consider taking to resolve a dispute. Sometimes all it takes is a conversation to work out a mutually agreeable solution.
Mediation is another good way to resolve disputes. Put simply, mediation is “formal negotiation,” an opportunity for both parties to sit down in the presence of a neutral moderator to attempt to settle their disagreement. It is most successful when both parties are willing to compromise to avoid the hassle of going to court and/or when the two sides have an ongoing personal (or business) relationship that might become strained should actual “litigation” take place. A few things to know about mediation:
• It is non-binding, which means that the mediator cannot force (or enforce) a decision. If an agreement is reached, it will be, by definition, an agreement that satisfies both parties.
• The mediator acts as a go-between for the two parties, often asking one party what he wants from the settlement, presenting this proposal to the other party, listening to his counteroffer, presenting this to the original party, and so on until an agreement is reached (or the parties agree that they cannot agree!)
• Mediation can be terminated at any point during the process by any party for any reason. This fact may often help one party convince the other party to agree to mediation, as they can remind the reluctant party that he can “opt out” at any point.
• Consenting to mediation does not prevent either party from filing a small claim, should mediation fail to lead to an agreement. There is no harm done to at least try mediation when a dispute arises. If it does not work, a claim can follow.
• Mediation is usually conducted at no cost to the two parties and is always done without a lawyer.
Why should parties choose mediation? It works. When people voluntarily mediate, the overwhelming majority of disputes are settled. Also, people who go through mediation are more likely to be satisfied with the result than people who go to trial, because they have more opportunity to take part in the decision. For the same reason, people who reach a mediated settlement are much more likely to pay than people who receive a judgment through trial. Mediation provides a good answer to the most common complaints about the small claims court process: excessive delay, high cost to litigants, cumbersome procedures, and inaccessibility. In addition, small claims court clerk-magistrates are often more sympathetic to cases when they know that parties have already tried mediation. The court often notifies the plaintiff about the option to mediate and submits the claim to mediation at the request of either party and with the agreement of both parties.
Arbitration is another means of resolving a dispute before going through the small claims court system. The primary difference between arbitration and mediation is that arbitration is binding, unless otherwise agreed. If the parties cannot come to a mutually satisfactory agreement after meeting with an arbitrator, then this arbitrator is bound to come to a decision, just as a judge would. This decision is final and cannot be appealed, except under very specific cases of error. It becomes a decision of the court.
Some things to keep in mind about arbitration:
• Arbitration is pursued instead of going to small claims court. An unhappy party cannot take the case to small claims court after going through arbitration.
• It usually takes place without the aid of a lawyer.
• As with small claims court, the costs of arbitration may be included in the award, unless otherwise proved. This does not include counsel fees.
• Arbitration is usually faster than small claims court (i.e. you can usually schedule an arbitration date earlier than you could schedule a small claims court date).
• Arbitration is a very common way of dealing with the Massachusetts Lemon Law (see Chapter 6 on Automobile Law for details on the Lemon Law).
Although arbitration has some disadvantages, it is worth considering in cases where parties seek a quick and equitable solution or if the disputed amount exceeds the small claims limit of $2000.
A Demand Letter is the final pre-small claims step. If mediation and/or arbitration cannot resolve the dispute (or one or more parties does not agree to mediation/arbitration), then the individual who has suffered (a.k.a. the future plaintiff) should write a 30-day demand letter to the individual or business who is liable for the suffering (a.k.a. the future defendant), explaining the complaint and demanding specific compensation for the damage caused. Although these letters are only required for consumer law cases that fall under Chapter 93A (see Chapter 5 for more on Consumer Law and 93A), they are very helpful in all small claims cases. SCAS usually recommends writing a demand letter as the first step towards filing a small claim. A 30-day demand letter should be typed, if possible, and should include:
• A chronology of the events prompting the letter. This should include the dates and details of all relevant interactions, as well as an explanation of why the plaintiff feels he has been wronged (i.e. what laws have been broken/rights have been violated).
• A statement of the remedy the plaintiff requests (payment in the amount of $500 or correction of the shoddy repair work, for example).
• A clear statement that informs the reader that, if this demand is not met within thirty days (a recommended, not mandatory, period of time), he will be subject to legal proceedings in small claims court.
In short, a demand letter should be a concise statement of the plaintiff’s side of the case. A client who succeeds at organizing his thoughts into a compelling demand letter usually has a well thought-out case that would be easy to present if it goes all the way to small claims court. Individuals writing demand letters should always:
• Keep at least one copy of the letter for his own records. A demand letter is a very helpful piece of evidence in court, as it shows that the plaintiff made a “good faith effort” to resolve the situation prior to bringing it to court.
• Send a copy of this letter to the party who has caused him to suffer a monetary loss. This may be a tenant, landlord, car dealer, travel agent, next-door neighbor, mechanic, ex-roommate, etc. If the responsible party is a business, the demand letter must be addressed to the proper business name, and not to an individual. Proper business names can be obtained through the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Corporations Division. Individuals can access the public records by clicking on “Search the Corporate Database” on their website <http://www.ma.gov/sec/cor>, by calling (617) 727-9640, or by writing to “Secretary of the Commonwealth, Corporations Division, One Ashburton Place, 17th floor, Boston, MA 02108.”
• Send the letter certified mail, return receipt requested AND regular, first class mail. If the sender receives the certified mail receipt back (indicating that it was received), he should hold onto this as potential evidence in court. If not, however, he can assume that the letter was received as long as the first class mail is not returned to him.
Filing a Claim
Filing a Small Claim is the next step. If the writer of a demand letter does not have his demands met within the span of time specified in the letter (again, 30 days* is a popular time window), he may go forward and file a claim in small claims court. Plaintiffs should hold onto a copy of the demand letter and also take note of any interactions between the two parties (attempted mediation, phone conversations, etc.), as these may be relevant later on. For more detailed information, please see the section Filing a Claim.
* The only time you have to use the full 30 days is in situations were you are suing for double/treble damages beyond the $2,000 small claims limit; otherwise the # of days is up to your own discretion
Who Can Sue?
Any person of legal age may file a claim in his or her own name as plaintiff. A parent or guardian can file a suit on behalf of a minor. Automobile damages must be sued for by the registered owner (not the driver, if there is a discrepancy between the two).
Who to Sue?
It is very important that a plaintiff is suing the correct person.
• If it is a personal dispute (i.e. not against a business of any sort), the person(s) who committed the action/broke the contract/failed to act is liable.
• If he is suing a proprietorship, the single owner is liable.
• If he is suing a partnership, then partners are liable.
• For corporations, the person filing the claim must write down the name of the corporation. Clients should not list particular individuals unless they are suing them directly. A person can find the real legal name of the business by checking with the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Corporations Division.
If he is suing a person/corporation who is located out of state, he may do so if the party being sued transacts any business in Massachusetts, contracts to supply services in Massachusetts, or has an interest in using or possessing real property in Massachusetts. If the person/corporation has done something or failed to do something outside of Massachusetts, he can still be sued in Massachusetts if his action (or failure to act) causes injury that occurs within Massachusetts and if he regularly solicits business or derives substantial revenue from goods used or services rendered in Massachusetts. Otherwise, he cannot be sued in Massachusetts.
Essentially, to sue an out-of-state person/corporation, the plaintiff must be prepared to prove that (1) the defendant regularly transacts or solicits business in MA, and (2) the plaintiff’s claim arises from a business transaction involving that defendant that resulted in the plaintiff suffering damages in MA. This is called the long-arm statute of Massachusetts.
Where to Sue?
There are five (5) places a small claim can be filed:
• where the plaintiff lives
• where the plaintiff works/has his business
• where the defendant lives
• where the defendant works/has his business
• where the property is located (in landlord-tenant cases)
The plaintiff can choose among the district courts that represent those above five options. Generally, it is a better idea to file a claim in the district that is most convenient for the defendant (i.e. where the defendant lives or works), because it makes collection easier later on. However, no claim will be rejected if the venue is found improper. The court will normally refer clients to the proper venue unless there is reason to think that the defendant will waive his right to proper venue or if filing must be immediate to be permitted under the statute of limitations.
What to Sue For?
Ordinarily, whenever one party can show that he has suffered a loss of no more than $2000 that another party should be legally held accountable for, he may file a claim in small claims court. Although the original action brought must include a claim for money damages, the court may order non-monetary, or “equitable” relief, such as specific performance, instead of, or in addition to, damages. For example, if you sued your neighbor for failing to mow your lawn despite your paying him to do so, the court could award you monetary damages or order your neighbor to mow the lawn or both. However, you cannot file a claim solely for equitable relief.
There are a few cases that cannot be brought to small claims court, however. These include: (1) slander or libel cases and (2) claims against the Commonwealth, a county, or municipality that are brought under the Massachusetts tort.
How Much to Sue For?
The monetary limit in small claims court is $2000 plus court costs, with three exceptions:
1. If a claim falls under Chapter 93A , and involves unfair or deceptive business practices, double or treble (“triple”) damages may be awarded for a total of up to $6,000 ($2,000 x triple damages).
2. In certain landlord/tenant cases, double or treble damages may be awarded (again, for a total of up to $6,000).
3. Automobile accident cases (i.e. cases involving property damage caused by a motor vehicle) are an exception and have no monetary limit. Personal injury cases caused by automobile accidents, however, must either meet the $2,000 limit or be filed in formal civil court.
Although a plaintiff may sue the same party in small claims court multiple times for different claims – as in, monetary damages arising from completely different transactions or injurious actions – and hence recovering more than $2,000 from single party, he may not “split” a claim into multiple parts. Furthermore, if the clerk-magistrate detects an “artificial division of the claim to bring it within the small claims limits,” he is obliged to transfer it immediately to the civil docket.
Plaintiffs may sue for any or all of the below, but may not sue for punitive damages (see Chapter 7 for definition). He may also include any court costs incurred, such as:
• Property damage/loss
• Doctor’s bills
• Repair of property
• Consequential damages (i.e. the cost of renting a car if such a rental was made necessary by shoddy repair work that had to be corrected).
• Lost wages
• Any other “damages” that can be “monetized” in some way
• In some cases, a plaintiff may be able to sue for mental distress or pain and suffering. Though not explicitly precluded, the client should be warned that certain districts do not permit it. It is also uncertain if any weight is given to these claims.
Keep in mind that a plaintiff can, at most, be awarded the amount he asks for on his claim form. For this reason, it is wise not to underestimate. The clerk-magistrate can decide to award the plaintiff less than this amount if he believes some of it to be frivolous, but he cannot award more than what the plaintiff asked for. If a plaintiff thinks he is eligible for double or treble damages, he should indicate this on the “description of claim” part of the claim form (but should fill the “claim amount” box with the $2,000 or less that was originally owed before the doubling or tripling of damages).
It is also worth keeping in mind that a plaintiff can only recover the fair market value for damaged or missing property. This is not the replacement value (i.e. how much the item would cost to replace at today’s prices), but rather is the amount the item was worth when it was damaged or lost (an amount that is likely the original price of the item, less depreciation).
The Claim Form is a simple document to complete; however, callers often ask for help in filling it out. For more detailed instructions on filling out the claim form, see the Filing a Claim section.
A Statement of Claim and Notice Form (the official name of the Small Claims Court claim form) can be obtained from the Small Claims Court Clerk at the district courthouse in which the claim will be filed. It can be picked up in person or requested via mail. The court encourages most people to file through mail. They will usually mail a small claims form requested over telephone at no cost to the caller.
A Directory of Small Claims Courts in Massachusetts is reproduced in the appendix. This gives the addresses and phone numbers of all district courts, as well as an index that matches town names with the appropriate district courts. Feel free to give these numbers/addresses to callers so that they can request their small claims forms.
The Filing Fee for filing in small claims court in Massachusetts varies depending on how much the client is suing for. Filing a claim for under $500 costs $30 and filing a claim over that amount costs $40, which includes the entry fee and the surcharge. See the section Filing a Claim for more details.
Fee Waivers are available for clients who cannot afford any legal fees in Small Claims (waivers can apply to any fees that might be incurred, including, but not limited to, the filing fee). Always make sure clients are aware of the fee waiver option in case they qualify. If a client thinks that he may be eligible, he should contact the courthouse. For more info on fee waivers (and what is needed to qualify), see the section Filing a Claim.
The Small Claims Court Clerk is an invaluable resource for citizens involved in small claims disputes. These individuals know the small claims process inside-out, and are a great source of information and assistance. Encourage callers to use this built-in resource.
The Defendant’s Response
Once a claim has been filed, a court date will be set by the clerk. The plaintiff will receive a copy of the “Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial” form back from the clerk, indicating the date and time of the scheduled trial. Another copy of this form will be immediately mailed to the defendant at the address provided on the form by both certified mail and first-class mail. As in the case of the demand letter, the court will presume this document was received as long as the first-class mail is not returned to the court undelivered.
Once a defendant receives this Notice, he has five (5) options:
1. Settle – Now that the defendant knows that his opponent “means business”, he may want to settle the dispute out of court. If an out-of-court agreement is reached prior to the court date, the plaintiff should get this agreement written (and signed by both parties) and can then grant the defendant forebearance, which means that he will no longer be taking the defendant to court. The court should be notified, either in person or by mail, and they will enter the agreement as an order of the court. If this is done before the scheduled trial date, neither party need appear.
2. Answer – if the defendant believes that the plaintiff should not win the judgment, he may file an answer, outlining the reasons why. If possible, this written answer should be filed with the court prior to the court date. If an answer is not filed, the defendant may still come to court on the scheduled date and defend his side. However, if the defendant’s failure to submit a written answer, or to send a copy of it to the plaintiff in a timely manner, has prejudiced the presentation of the plaintiff’s case, the court shall grant a continuance at the plaintiff’s request.
3. Counterclaim – if the defendant not only believes that he is not liable for the plaintiff’s damages, but also believes that the plaintiff is liable for some of his, the defendant may file a counterclaim, arguing that the defendant has a claim against the plaintiff. The counterclaim must be mailed to the plaintiff at least 10 days before the trial date in order for it to be considered at the same trial as the original claim for no additional filing fee. The court may also permit the defendant to bring such a claim in writing at any time. No written answer to the defendant’s claim is required. If the defendant’s counterclaim, or failure to send timely notice to the plaintiff, has prejudiced the presentation of the plaintiff’s case, the court will grant a continuance at the plaintiff’s request.
4. Third Party Claim – the defendant may also file a claim against a third party who may be liable to him/her for all or part of the plaintiff’s claim if the defendant’s claim (1) is within the jurisdiction of small claims court and (2) the notice is mailed to the third party at least 10 days before the trial date. The court may also permit the defendant to bring such a claim in writing at any time. There shall be no filing fee or surcharge for such a claim. A defendant who wishes to file a third-party claim should contact the small claims court clerk for more information.
5. Default – if the defendant does not show up for the scheduled court hearing, he automatically “defaults” and hence loses the case. A judgment will be handed down in the plaintiff’s favor, and the defendant will be required to pay the judgment amount.
Before the Court Date
After the Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial is filed and a court date is scheduled, either or both parties may find that the scheduled date, time and place of the court hearing is inconvenient or undesirable. If this is the case, the inconvenienced party has a few options:
• If the matter is urgent, the party may file a motion for a speedy trial. If this motion is granted, the trial will be scheduled for the earliest possible date/time.
• If the date and/or time of the scheduled hearing is impossible or extremely inconvenient, the party may file for a continuance. If granted, the date and time of the hearing will be rescheduled for a later date.
• If the location of the hearing is impossible or extremely inconvenient, the party may file for a change in venue. If granted this will move the location of the trial to another district court.
In all of these cases, the clerk should be contacted for more specific instructions.
The Basics of Small Claims Court
Before a small claims court participant enters the courtroom on trial-day, it is helpful for him/her to know the “basics” of how the court operates and how the actual hearing will proceed. Here are a few key terms:
• Clerk-Magistrate – In the early 1980s, Massachusetts began employing “clerk-magistrates” to preside over small claims court hearings instead of judges. Clerk-magistrates act in the same capacity as judges; however, clerk-magistrates do not necessarily have the same legal training as judges. It is not necessary to use legal terms with clerk-magistrates. The clerk-magistrate should be called Mr./Ms. Clerk and not “Your Honor.” Sometimes judges may hear small claims matters if the court approves, but only if the defendant first acknowledges in writing that he is waiving his right to appeal for a subsequent trial by a judge or before a jury since he is being heard by a judge in his initial trial.
• Plaintiff – the party who institutes the claim (i.e. the party who thinks it has been wronged). Plaintiffs may not appeal in small claims court! When an individual files a claim, he waives his right of appeal, and thus must live with any decision handed down by the clerk-magistrate.
• Defendant – the party being sued (i.e. the party allegedly responsible for wronging the plaintiff). Defendants can appeal. The only exception is that a defendant who brought a counterclaim in the original trial cannot appeal the counterclaim portion of a decision, if he loses. The defendant (who is the “suer” for the counterclaim portion) is considered to have waived his right to appeal in the same fashion as the plaintiff.
Once a small claims case is “called to trial” (i.e. the parties are told that their trial is to begin), the hearing will proceed as follows (Keep in mind that this entire process can take as little as five to ten minutes!):
1. Both parties will be invited to cross “the bar” (the small fence separating the clerk-magistrate and the plaintiff/defendant table from the “public seating” in the courtroom) and have a seat at either side of the table. The table will face the clerk-magistrate, who will be seated at an elevated dais at the front of the room.
2. The clerk-magistrate will ask one side to briefly present his side of the case. The plaintiff usually goes first. As in all levels of our legal system, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, which means that he must convince the clerk-magistrate that the defendant has caused him/her to suffer monetary damages and should be held liable for them. The plaintiff’s evidence and/or witnesses should be presented at this time. The plaintiff will usually conclude his presentation by reminding the clerk-magistrate of the amount in damages he is seeking (plus court costs!)
3. The clerk-magistrate will ask the other side (usually the defendant) to present his side of the case. The defendant’s job is merely to explain either why he should not be held liable for the plaintiff’s damages, and/or why the plaintiff’s claim is not legitimate (i.e. no law has been broken/no right has been violated). Again, the defendant’s evidence and/or witnesses can be presented at this time.
4. The clerk-magistrate may then ask the plaintiff if he has anything further to add, now that the defendant has presented his side.
5. Each party may then be asked a series of questions by the clerk-magistrate (if he feels as though further clarification is necessary to completely understand the case).
6. When all presentations/questions have concluded, the clerk-magistrate may immediately render a decision (rare), or may reserve decision, which means that he will come to a decision later, and mail this decision to each party within 10 days of the hearing (more common).
7. Both parties will be thanked, and may exit the courtroom. The trial is over.
A few other things to keep in mind about courtroom demeanor:
• All parties should dress respectfully. Suits are unnecessary, but looking neat and tidy will indicate to the clerk-magistrate that the party takes the proceeding seriously.
• All statements should be addressed to the clerk-magistrate. Parties should not speak directly to each other unless instructed to do so by the clerk-magistrate.
• Plaintiffs/defendants should never interrupt either the clerk-magistrate or the other party. Speak only when instructed to do so.
Preparing for Small Claims Court
As clerk-magistrates will themselves admit, the way in which a case is presented can be just as important as its legal validity! For this reason, it is crucial for plaintiffs and defendants alike to prepare for their day in small claims court by putting together an organized, clear, well-supported, and brief summary of their side of the case to present to the clerk-magistrate.
Organization is perhaps the most important part of a small claims presentation. If the story being told is hard to follow, the clerk-magistrate may not see the validity of a party’s claim.
Creating an outline is one way of making sure that a story is told logically, and may also be an incredibly helpful “cheat sheet” on trial-day, when nerves may kick in. A good order of presentation for a plaintiff might be:
I. Brief overview of the case (e.g. “The defendant hit my car after failing to stop
at a stop sign. My car now requires $1,500 worth of repairs).
II. What happened (chronological order) (e.g. “I purchased a new computer on May 1st from Charlie’s Computers. On May 15th, the monitor stopped working without warning. So on May 22nd, I brought it back for a refund…)
III. What steps have been taken in order to try to solve the problem (e.g. demand letter, plaintiff/defendant conversations, mediation).
IV. What the law says (be brief!) (e.g. “According to Massachusetts Law, tenants are guaranteed several “habitability rights”, one of which is a rodent & cockroach-free living environment. My landlord has failed remove the rats infesting my apartment – a clear violation of my habitability rights).
V. Suggested Judgment (e.g. “I believe I am entitled to $705 because the faulty carpet cleaner cost $5 to purchase, and its use irreversibly damaged my $700 carpet).
Presenting Evidence is another way of making a claim more persuasive to a clerk-magistrate. If a party can present hard evidence to back up an assertion, then this assertion automatically becomes more believable. A word of caution, though: evidence is only as useful as the way in which it is presented! Throwing a pile of evidence at a clerk-magistrate will be of little help. But incorporating evidence when relevant can be enormously helpful. Again, an outline can help here. If a plaintiff/defendant creates an outline of his case, he can place, in the margin, little notes reminding him to pull out a receipt or present a photograph when these pieces of evidence serve to back up a point he is making. If applicable, parties should bring the following items as evidence (or copies thereof):
• Receipts • Warranty Policies • Photographs
• Contracts • Leases • Damaged items
• Witness Statements • Demand Letters • Chronological Logs
• Police Reports • Correspondence • Credit Card Statements
• Insurance Policies • Written Estimates • Inspection Forms
Calling Witnesses is another way of helping to validate statements made in small claims court. Although witnesses are not required in small claims court (and, in fact, are frowned upon if the clerk-magistrate finds them to be frivolous or unable to enhance understanding of the case), they can be very helpful when cases are of a “he-said, she-said” nature. Choose witnesses carefully, however; if there is any chance that a witness will hurt your case, erring on the side of not calling the witness is advisable.
If a witness refuses to appear at a small claims trial, the court can subpoena the person. In order to subpoena someone, the litigant must go to the sheriff’s office and fill out a subpoena form, which will then be delivered to the witness’s home by a sheriff, constable, or other detached party. There is a service fee for the subpoena procedure, which is determined by the county. Evidence can also be subpoenaed in similar fashion.
Practice, Practice, Practice is the key to a successful small claims presentation. Practicing in front of a mirror is great! It is incredible to see the difference between a presenter who is telling his story for the first time and a presenter who has rehearsed his “shpiel” even once! Feeling comfortable with your story’s details and your evidence presentation is extremely helpful at trial.
After the Judgment
Once the clerk-magistrate has reached a decision, both parties will be sent the Notice of Judgment and Order as well as a Notice of Payment Hearing, via first class mail. In some cases, the defendant will be deemed not liable for the damages, and he will not have to pay the plaintiff anything. In other cases, the defendant will be held liable for all/part of the damages sustained by the plaintiff. If so, the defendant is required by law to pay the plaintiff the amount of money indicated on the mailed judgment form. In practice, however, collecting this money is often difficult for plaintiffs.
The defendant is afforded several options within the thirty-day period. First, the defendant in a case that went to trial may claim an appeal within ten days of receipt of the Notice of Judgment, in which case the payment hearing would be canceled. Second, the defendant can simply pay the successful party and satisfy the judgment. Third, the defendant can appear at the payment hearing and the burden would then fall upon him or her to show why payment should not be made in full. To use this option, however, the defendant would have to fill out a financial statement and provide a copy to the plaintiff in advance of the payment hearing. See Chapter 4 for more on Collections and how to proceed once a judgment is rendered.
A Default Judgment occurs when the defendant in a small claims case does not appear in court on the scheduled hearing date. In these cases, the plaintiff automatically wins (and is usually granted the full amount of money he requested on the claim form).
A Dismissal occurs when a plaintiff does not show up on the day of a hearing. The case is automatically dropped and the defendant may be let off the hook.
Relief from Judgment may be requested by the defendant or the plaintiff within one year of the date of judgment. This is not an appeal and is typically used when a defendant wants to remove a default judgment or when a plaintiff wants to vacate a dismissal for failure to appear for trial. The court requires a hearing in which the party requesting relief from judgment attempts to show cause for a new trial, at which the other party oppose the relief from judgment request. While the court may permit a motion for relief from judgment to be filed, whether it will be granted is completely up to the clerk-magistrate’s discretion. Technically, a “meritorious excuse” is not, in and of itself, sufficient reason to require the removal of a default. The court, in vacating an order of dismissal or a default judgment, may, in appropriate circumstances, award reasonable expenses such as lost wages to the other party if the party was present on the day the case was dismissed or the defendant defaulted. Getting a relief from judgment does not guarantee a win in small claims court, but does give the defendant or plaintiff another opportunity to be heard.
An Appeal may be filed if the defendant in a small claims case believes that the decision made by the clerk-magistrate is incorrect due to an error in fact or law. However, if a defendant elected to have his case tried initially by a judge, there is no possibility of appeal. In Massachusetts, the defendant, if he wishes to appeal, must file an appeal within 10 days of receiving judgment. After that time, the right to appeal is gone. To file an appeal, a defendant must pay a $25 fee (this may be waived in cases of indigence) AND post a bond, usually in the amount of $100, though there are some exceptions. The appellant (the defendant who is appealing) must also file an affidavit, a notarized statement that specifies issues of fact or law in the case that require a trial by judge or jury of six and that states that such trial is intended in good faith. An appellant should contact the court at which the case was decided for the specific filing procedures. Plaintiffs cannot appeal in Small Claims Court.
An Appeals Hearing is held before either a jury of six (6) or a judge (not a clerk-magistrate). Once the defendant has appealed the case, both parties have the right to a jury trial, so the case will be heard by a judge only if both parties waive this right (i.e. neither party requests a jury trial). The defendant is entitled to a jury trial only for disputed questions of fact and should be prepared to inform the jury session judge about which issues of fact are disputed by him and the plaintiff. The District Court jury sessions (to which appeals are directed) are not governed by the informal and flexible rules of small claims court. For this reason, a client involved in an appeal may wish to hire an attorney. For more information about appeals, please see the section Appeals.
Once the judge makes a decision, the party to whom money is owed is called the “judgment creditor,” and the party that must pay the damages is the “judgment debtor.” The judgment debtor is instructed to pay the judgment creditor the amount of money indicated by the Notice of Judgment and Order to Pay sent by the clerk-magistrate.
Collecting a Judgment is sometimes the most difficult aspect of a small claims case, and potential plaintiffs should be warned that there are instances in which a plaintiff who was victorious in small claims court was never able to actually collect the money he was owed. In fact, this happens quite frequently. If a potential plaintiff feels that their defendant would avoid payment, he may want to rethink the decision to file a small claim. It may cost him both money (e.g. filing fees) and aggravation, and yet not bring him any compensation. However, this decision is the plaintiff’s alone. We can inform plaintiffs of the difficulties of collection, but we cannot prevent them from filing their claim. Collections, and how to deal with difficult judgment debtors, is discussed in further detail in the next chapter.
Also included as addendums to this chapter are:
“Statement of Claim and Notice” – the actual claim form that must be filled out by the plaintiff in order to “sue” the defendant in small claims court.
“Directory of Courts” – the first page of the directory lists all of the towns in Massachusetts and the number of the small claims court corresponding to each town. The pages that follow have the contact information for each court, numbered according to the first page listing. These are the numbers clients should call to file a claim or ask questions of the small claims clerk.
New Limit and FeesATTN: The small claims limit has been raised to $7000 and filing fees are now: $40 for claims up to $500 $50 for claims up to $2000 $100 for claims up to $5000 $150 for claims up to $7000
DisclaimerWe are not lawyers, or even law students; rather, we are college undergraduates who have read up on small claims law in Massachusetts. The information we are able to provide you is simply that – information – and should not be considered “legal advice”, which you can only receive from a lawyer.