As a volunteer attorney at a legal aid clinic, I frequently give legal advice to clients who are involved in litigation in Small Claims Court. So I decided to put together a list of FAQs, as well as references to some useful sources.
In writing this article, I relied on very well-written and researched papers prepared by the Young Lawyers Division, the Northwest Justice Project, and others. I encourage you to consider them:
- King County Small Claims Courts; A Guide by Young Lawyers Division
- Information about Small Claims by King County District Court
- An Introduction to Small Claims Court by Administrative Office of the Court
- Small Claims Court in Washington State by Northwest Justice Project
What is Small Claims Court?
Small Claims Court is a department of a county district court. It provides a dispute resolution system that is relatively inexpensive and does not require legal representation by an attorney. There are no motions, discovery, objections, or juries. The case is decided by the judge, and the hearing usually takes 20 to 30 minutes.
What claims can be brought in Small Claims Court?
You can only sue for money. If your claim involves a request for specific performance, i.e. make someone do something, perform a service or return property, you would have to file in district court or superior court.
You can’t sue for more than $5,000. Lawyers call it a “jurisdictional limit” or “jurisdictional cap.” If your claim involves more than $5,000, you would either have to go to a different court or waive the excess. For example, if you are collecting on a $5,200 debt, you’d have to cap your claim at $5,000 and waive the remaining $200. “Claim splitting” is not allowed either. So you won’t be able to sue for $5,000, and then bring a separate action for the remaining $200.
Can a business sue or be sued in Small Clams Court?
There is a common misconception that only individuals can litigate cases in Small Claims Court. That is not true. Businesses, partnerships and corporations can participate as well, but lawyers are not allowed to argue cases. A business must be represented by an employee, such as a president, a partner, or a person who was involved in the underlying transaction.
If the business wants to have an attorney represent them, they would normally file a motion asking the court to move the case to the regular court (court of general jurisdiction). You can object by arguing that transferring the case would be “unfair” and “prejudicial” to you because you don’t have (and probably can’t afford) a lawyer.
Where do I file?
As a general rule, the claim must be filed in the district court of the county where the defendant resides. If you are suing over a car accident, you may sue where the accident happened; if you are suing over a bad check, bring your claim in the county where the check was presented to you or written.
If your claim is against a business, you may file where the corporation does business, where it’s office is located or where the registered agent is listed. RCW 4.66.040(6). You will need to find out the name of the office manager, corporate president, secretary, cashier, managing agent or registered agent, and then serve that person. This information is usually available through the Secretary of State.
How much does it cost?
You have to pay a “filing fee” of roughly $30. You will also need to serve the defendant. The service fee is usually $50 to $70.
How do I get a notice to the defendant?
You have two options. Either “serve” defendant in person, or by mail.
Personal Service. You can have the sheriff’s office deliver the form or hire a professional process server. I usually use ABC, but there are other options available. Just Google “process server” and enter the name of your town.
Service by Mail. You can mail the notice to defendant via Certified mail or Registered Mail. The idea is that the defendant would be required to sign a receipt, so that you can present it to the court as proof that the defendant has been served.
Are there any deadlines?
The law provides a limited time to file suit. It’s called “the Statute of Limitations.” Below is the list of the deadlines depending on the nature of the claim you are bringing:
- Assault, battery, false imprisonment, slander, libel: 2 years (RCW 4.16.100);
- Breach of written contract: 6 years (RCW 4.16.040);
- Breach of oral contract, fraud, personal injury, wrongful death, property damage: 3 years (RCW 4.16.080);
- Product liability: 3 years (RCW 7.72,060).
What laws govern Small Claims Court proceedings?You can consult applicable provisions of the RCW Chapters 12.40; 3.66; 4.16; 4.28 and the Civil Rules for Courts of Limited Jurisdiction, Rule 5 (CRLJ 5).