How to Use Small Claims Court
|This page has been prepared to assist persons who want to sue or defend themselves in Small Claims Court in Iowa without hiring a lawyer. It outlines the basic steps involved in bringing and defending a small claims action. No attempt has been made to cover all possible problems or situations that may arise. If problems arise which are not covered in the manual, it may be necessary to consult an attorney.
To find a legal professional to meet your needs, please visit www.iowafindalawyer.com.
The small amount of money involved often makes it economically impractical for a person to hire a lawyer to represent him or her in Small Claims Court. Such a person usually has to choose between giving up or trying to represent himself or herself. This manual is intended to answer some basic questions for the person who chooses to "go it alone". It does not answer all the questions that might come up during the lawsuit. If you decide to use this manual, you should ask questions whenever you are in doubt. The personnel at the courthouse and Sheriff's Department are there to serve you and will be glad to answer questions about various procedural matters. However, they can not act as legal counsel to you.
A written statement of facts. The person making this statement must swear as to its truth before a Notary Public.
The action or right of a party to resort to a higher Court for review of a lower Court’s decision.
Appearance and Answer
The defendant’s acknowledgment, in writing, that he or she is aware of the action against him or her and his or her response to the claim being made.
An officer who has charge of the Court’s records; usually the Clerk of the District Court in each county or an assistant designated by the Clerk to handle Small Claims matters.
Cost of administering Small Claims matters including filing fees, service fees, etc.
Someone who makes a complete record of everything said at the trial.
The failure of any party to appear by the required date.
The person or party against whom a claim is made.
Forcible Entry and Detainer Action
A claim asking for the removal of a person or party from property such as eviction of a tenant for nonpayment of rent or other failures of the tenant to honor the terms of a lease.
Judge or Magistrate
The Judicial Officer who hears and renders decisions in Small Claims cases.
The final decision of the Judge or Magistrate which is officially entered in the Court records.
The person or party against whom a judgment has been rendered which has not been paid.
The plaintiff’s notice to the defendant that he or she has filed suit and of what he or she is suing for.
The person or party who makes or files a claim.
The time and place when the Judge hears the evidence presented with respect to a Small Claim lawsuit. The trial is sometimes called a hearing and generally means the same thing.
What is Small Claims Court?
Small Claims Court is a division of the District Court where you can sue to collect a debt, for breach of contract, to recover for damages suffered in an accident, or almost any civil claim against another party so long as the amount you claim is owed to you is less than $5,000 without having to go through extensive and technical proceedings. You, the plaintiff or defendant, have the choice of either representing yourself or hiring an attorney to represent you. The purpose of this Manual is to assist the party who elects to represent himself or herself.
Please read these instructions very carefully before proceeding and refer to them frequently throughout the process of your Small Claims case. The Clerk, Magistrate and Sheriff are prohibited by law from answering questions of legal substance, e.g., interpreting the meaning of a law or advising you on whether to pursue a claim. If your questions cannot be satisfactorily answered by this pamphlet, you should contact the attorney of your choice.
How Do I Begin a Small Claims Action?
The Clerk of the District Court will supply any individual, partnership, association, corporation, or entity with all of the legal forms required to complete the Small Claims procedure. The Clerk may also assist any party in completing these legal forms. A small claims case is begun by the plaintiff filing an Original Notice form with the Clerk of the District Court. The Clerk will supply the correct Original Notice form either for an action for money judgment or for an action for forcible entry and detainer. To fill out this Original Notice, the following steps should be taken:
A. On the top of the original Notice form, you must fill in the name of the county in which the suit is being filed. The action must be filed in the county where the defendant lives or where the event occurred.
B. Fill in the name of the plaintiff and plaintiff’s specific address where indicated. If the plaintiff is a business and operates under a business name, the name of the owner and operator must be stated along with the name of the business. (EXAMPLE: Joe Jones, Joe’s Auto Repair.)
If the plaintiff is a corporation or a partnership, this fact must be stated after the name, (EXAMPLES: Smith’s Garage Inc., or Smith’s Garage, a partnership).
C. Fill in the defendant’s full name and his or her current specific address where indicated. If there is more than one defendant, you must include the first and last name of each defendant and their current address. If the defendant is a business, corporation or partnership, it must be stated as in "B” above. If the defendant is under age eighteen (18), you should consider naming the parents as additional defendants.
D. Fill in what you are asking from the defendant. If it is a sum of money, state the amount and the reason the defendant owes you the money. If you are demanding that the defendant vacate real estate that you own (forcible entry and detainer), state briefly the reason for the demand.
E. Sign the Original Notice at the bottom of the page and deliver it to the Clerk along with two copies of the completed Original Notice for each defendant named.
F. You must pay a filing fee plus advance costs, if any, as determined by the Clerk. These fees must be paid to the Clerk at the time of delivering the Original Notice to the Clerk.
G. Upon receipt of the Original Notice, the Clerk will assign a Small Claims Number to your lawsuit and enter the date the action was filed and the time within which the defendant must make his appearance on each copy of the Original Notice.
On the completion of these steps, your Small Claims action been filed and commenced.
How is the Defendant Informed of the Claim?
After the Original Notice has been filed, the defendant must be informed of the lawsuit before a trial is held. The manner in which the defendant is notified may vary depending upon such things as the type of relief sought by the plaintiff, the location of the defendant’s residence, whether defendant’s residence is known, etc.
If the plaintiff is seeking to recover money, then one of the following procedures will be taken:
A. The Clerk will mail a copy of the Original Notice and an Answer form to each defendant by certified mail, return receipt requested. The defendant will be required to appear within twenty (20) days following the date service is made.
B. As an alternative to mailing the Original Notice and Answer form, the plaintiff may direct the Clerk to deliver the Original Notice and an Answer form to the Sheriff for personal service on the defendant. If this method of serving the defendant is chosen, it is the plaintiff’s responsibility to pay the Sheriff’s service charges. Service fees for personal service are specified by law and must be paid on or before the trial date. The defendant will be required to appear within twenty (20) days following the date service is made.
C. If the defendant does not live in the State of Iowa but has made a contract with a resident of Iowa to be performed in whole or in part by either party in Iowa, or if the defendant committed a wrongful act in whole or in part in Iowa against a resident of Iowa and the lawsuit is over the contact or wrongful act involved, service of the Original Notice may be made by filing duplicate copies of the Original Notice with Secretary of State of the State of Iowa together with a fee of Ten Dollars ($10.00). The Clerk will collect the fees and costs and will file copies of the Original Notice with the Secretary of State for you. The Clerk will then mail a copy of the Original Notice and an Answer form to each defendant by registered or certified mail within ten (10) days after filing with the Secretary of State. The date for the defendant’s appearance under this method of service will be sixty (60) days from the date of the filing of the Original Notice with the Secretary of State.
If you are filing an action for forcible entry and detainer:
Defendant must be served personally as set forth at "B” above. The Clerk will set a date, not for defendant’s appearance, but for a hearing which will be at least five (5) days after personal service is had upon defendant. You (the plaintiff) must attend this hearing.
In any case, the plaintiff should be prepared to produce proof of service at the trial or hearing. This would be the return receipt if service is had by certified mail, (A above), by a return of service signed by the Sheriff if personal service is had (B above), or by copy of the Original Notice with a Secretary of State’s certificate of filing and an affidavit of the plaintiff or his attorney stating compliance with the requirements of "C” above (note that proof of service under "C” does not include a return receipt).
I've Been Sued - What Do I Do?
You have just received an Original Notice and an Appearance and Answer form indicating that you have been sued and are now a defendant in a Small Claims action. What should you do? Immediately make note the date by which you must appear if you wish to contest the claim; you must enter a timely appearance to avoid being in default. The Original Notice will advise you as to when and where you must appear. The date on the Original Notice is not the trial date, unless it is an action for forcible entry and detainer of real property in which case the date is for a hearing at which you attendance is required. In all other cases, when you file an Appearance and Answer on or before the appearance date, the Clerk will then assign a date for the trial.
You should read the Original Notice very carefully and try to recollect all of the facts surrounding the claims stated in the Original Notice. On the Appearance and Answer form, you may admit or deny any or all of the claims made, but you must deny all of the plaintiff’s claims which you intend to disagree with at trial. The Appearance and Answer form must be delivered to the Clerk’s office whether in person or by mail, on or before the appearance date contained in the Original Notice. If you are denying the claim, you should immediately begin to assemble the facts and documents which support your position.
If you, as the defendant, believe that the plaintiff owes you money, then you may wish to make a claim against that plaintiff in this same suit. Your claim as defendant will be called a "counterclaim” and the Clerk will provide you with the necessary form to assert this counterclaim. The plaintiff will then be advised by the Clerk of this claim. In this manner, both the claim and counterclaim can be tried at the same time.
After considering the plaintiff’s claim, you may determine that someone else who is not a party to the action owes all or a part of the amount being claimed by the plaintiff. In that event, you may file what is known as a "cross claim” to bring in additional party and the Clerk should be advised of your desire to do this.
A counterclaim or cross claim in excess of $5,000 must be filed in the form of a regular pleading. It will then either be tried separately or the entire matter will be tried regular procedure, at the Court’s discretion.
How Will I Know When to Be in Court and What Should I Do to Prepare?
If the defendant or person against who a claim is made enters an Appearance, the Clerk of Court will mail to each party written notice containing the time, date and location of the trial. This is the date when you must be personally present in Court.
If you are the plaintiff and do not show up at the time and place indicated, the Court will dismiss your claim and if the defendant(s) does show up you will not be permitted to sue this same party again on this claim and will likely be assessed the Court costs. If the party you sued made a claim against you in the same lawsuit, and you do not appear, the other party will most probably be awarded a judgment for the relief requested. Therefore, you should not file a Small Claims lawsuit unless you intend to attend the trial. There is one exception. If you are the plaintiff and are suing on an account or written document for the payment of money, by preparing and filing a Verification and Affidavit form available in the Clerk’s office, you will not be required to appear personally at the trial. However, if the party you have sued does appear, there is a chance your claim will be denied by the Court. Therefore, it is always the best practice to appear in person at the trial.
If you are the defendant and fail to attend the trial, judgment will likely be entered against you in favor of the plaintiff for the relief requested and court costs.
If for a legitimate reason, you have a conflict with the trial date which can not be resolved, you should contact the Clerk’s office immediately and request another trial date or time.
To prepare for the trial, you must gather all the evidence you wish to present to the Judge to prove your claim or defense. Evidence is generally the testimony of witnesses under oath at the trial and any written materials relevant to the claim or defense of the claim. Notify any persons you want to testify on your behalf of the trial date as soon as possible. It is your responsibility to see that the witnesses appear at the trial. If the witness will not volunteer to come, you can obtain a subpoena from the Clerk’s office. The subpoena must be filled out and given to the Sheriff’s office for service on the witness. The witness must then come to the trial or face being held in contempt of the court. Witnesses may be anyone having knowledge of the facts including yourself, members or your family and your spouse.
In addition to witnesses, the Judge will want to see any written documents which tend to support your position. If the dispute is over a written contract of any kind, you should bring the contract with you and show it to the Judge. Also, if there are claims for medical expenses or property damage, the bills showing these expenses should be assembled to be shown to the Judge. If the suit is for balance owing on an account, you should bring your records of the account, receipts, and any other agreements or correspondence pertaining to the account to the trial. If the claim is from damages in an automobile collision, you should bring pictures of the damaged property and the scene of the accident.
Remember, the Judge’s knowledge about the case depends on the evidence you submit to him or her, and your say-so is less convincing than documentary evidence or the testimony of a neutral witness who has no stake in the outcome of the case. Always try to present the best, most direct evidence that you can. A well informed judge will be more likely to give a proper decision.
What Happens and What Do I Do When I Get to Court?
The trial is the time when you get the opportunity to either prove your claim against another party or defend yourself against a claim brought by someone else. In some counties, a mediation or settlement conference will be ordered to occur prior to the time that you will be able to see a judge. If your county requires this, you should expect to receive notice of this by mail from the Clerk. Mediation and settlement conferences are often good ways to settle your case in a manner that is mutually agreed upon by all parties. If you are unable to resolve your dispute in this forum, you will be able to proceed in front of a judge.
It is important to be on time for all court appearances. If you are unfamiliar with the courthouse, you may want to arrive early or make a separate trip to find out where your courtroom is. Your case will be assigned to particular Judge who will be present and conduct the trial. There may be other trials assigned for the same time. The Judge will decide in what order to hear the trials. You must wait your turn.
When your case is called, stand and tell the Judge you are present. The Judge should be addressed as either "Judge” or "Your Honor.” Even though the trial will generally be conducted informally, respect for the Court must be shown at all time.
The Judge will usually ask each party and any witnesses to be sworn. Once this is done, the Judge will generally seek to find out what the dispute is about and will ask each party his or her position on the matter. The Judge will also hear what any of the witnesses have to say and will consider any written materials the parties have to support their respective positions.
If you want the testimony at the trial to be recorded, you must ask the Judge for a Court Reporter or to have the proceedings taped. This should not be left until the last minute. Any costs of having the testimony reported or taped will be charged to the party requesting it. In most cases, there is no need to have the testimony preserved in this manner. Instead, the Judge will normally take adequate notes concerning testimony.
The Judge will normally do all the questioning if neither, or just one, party is represented by an attorney. If an attorney is present for one or both of the parties, then the attorneys may also ask questions.
After the Judge has heard all the evidence presented by the parties, he or she may decide the case while the parties are still present. However, in some cases, the Judge may "take the matter under consideration” which means he will rule at a later time. The parties will be notified of the ruling by mail.
If the plaintiff wins and is entitled to a sum of money, or the defendant has admitted the claim, the Judge may order the defendant to pay this money in installments if the defendant indicates he or she is unable to pay the entire sum at once. If the defendant wants to pay the claim in installment payments, the defendant should tell the Judge at the trial.
What Do I Do if I Lose?
If you are not satisfied with the decision and wish to pursue it further, you may appeal by (a) telling the Judge at the conclusion of the trial that you are appealing, or (b) filing a written Notice of Appeal with the Clerk of District Court within twenty (20) days after the decision or judgment is given.
If you wish to appeal, you must pay an appeal fee to the Clerk of District Court within twenty (20) days after the judgment or decision is reached. If this fee is not paid on time, you lose your right to appeal.
If you are the losing party, taking an appeal does not prevent the other party from trying to collect on any judgment entered in it’s favor unless you file an Appeal Bond with the Clerk of District Court.
Within twenty (20) days after the appeal fee is paid, you may file with the Clerk of District Court a written transcript of the trial if the evidence was taken down by a Court Reporter. The Court Reporter, upon request, will prepare this transcript at your expense. If the transcript is prepared from a tape recording or similar device, you must notify the Judge to preserve the tape and file it with the Clerk of District Court. If the trial was not taken down by a Reporter or electronically recorded, the only record of the trial will be the written notes made by the Judge during the trial. Those notes are referred to as the "Minutes of Testimony” and you must make sure these "Minutes” are placed in the Court file in District Court. It is the responsibility of the appealing party to see that this is done, although typically the Judge will automatically do this.
The only evidence considered on appeal is the record of the original hearing, unless the reviewing District Court Judge feels that the record is inadequate in which event the District Court Judge will request and consider new evidence on the inadequately covered issues. The District Court Judge can uphold, change, or reverse the Small Claims Judge’s decision.
If I Win, How Do I Get My Money?
If you have made a claim for money and the Judge rules in your favor, or if you obtain a default judgment, then a judgment for a specific amount plus Court costs and interest will be entered. However, this does not automatically get you the money. If the other party does not voluntarily pay the amount of the judgment to you, you must then take steps to enforce or collect on the judgment. If the defendant has been ordered to make installment payments and has failed to do so or has stopped making payments, you must file an Affidavit of Default showing the unpaid balance. Until this form is filed with the Clerk’s office, you will not be permitted to take steps (c), (d) or (e) below. However, if you are not involved with installment payments or have filed the Affidavit of Default, then you should pursue the following steps:
A. Call or contact the party against who the judgment is entered and discuss voluntary payment. If the suitable arrangement for payment is not agreed on, then consider the following steps.
B. Wait and do nothing. All judgments attach as a lien against any real estate located in the county where the judgment is obtained, including a home, owned by the person owing the judgment. The lien is good for ten (10) years and if the property is sold within that time, normally the lien must be satisfied which means you will be paid your money.
C. If you would rather not wait, request the Clerk’s office to issue an "execution” which then permits you to ask the Sheriff to do several things:
1. To make a personal demand on the judgment debtor for payment of the judgment;
2. To levy upon certain property owned by the judgment debtor; or
3. Both of the above.
The cost of the execution and any Sheriff’s fee will have to be paid by you initially but will be added to the Court costs to be collected from the judgment debtor. After execution is issued, in order to have the Sheriff carry out your wishes, you must supply the information to the Sheriff as to what property the Sheriff should seize to satisfy the judgment by filling out a "Dictation to Sheriff”. The easiest kinds of property to execute on are personal bank accounts and wages of the person owing the judgment. This is done by garnishment. If you know the name and address of the judgment debtor’s bank and his or her employer, request in the Dictation to Sheriff that any bank accounts in this bank or wages being held by this employer be garnished. This normally means if any such funds exist, you will get them. You may garnish bank accounts and wages as many times as it takes to satisfy your judgment. However, both Federal and State laws limit the amount of wages which can be garnished, depending on the judgment debtor’s income. The Clerk or Sheriff should be able to help you determine the amount that can be reached this way once you know the judgment debtor’s income.
D. If garnishment of personal bank accounts or wages is unsatisfactory, you can direct the Sheriff by the "Dictation” to attach and sell any non-exempt or unencumbered (free of existing debt) property located in the county belonging to the judgment debtor. However, because of the problems that can arise in attempting such procedure, it may be best to consult with an attorney before proceeding with this step.
E. If you do not know what assets (bank accounts, wages, property located in the county) the person owing on the judgment (judgment debtor) has, you can require the debtor to tell you under oath. This procedure is known as a "Judgment Debtor Examination.” To do this, you must first obtain an execution from the Clerk’s office and then fill out the Dictation to Sheriff from directing the Sheriff to make a demand on the Judgment debtor payment. If this demand is returned by the sheriff "unsatisfied”, that is, the judgment is not paid, then you can ask the Clerk’s office to notify the judgment debtor by written notice, that he or she must come to the Courthouse and answer questions under oath from you concerning his or her assets, including employment information.
Obviously, if you have reason to believe any money judgment you might receive in Small Claims Court will not be collectable because of the other party’s inability to pay any judgment, you probably should not even file your claim.
To find a legal professional to meet your needs, please visit www.iowafindalawyer.com.