Small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction that are designed to hear civil cases between private litigants. Their purpose is to prevent clogging up the formal court system with relatively petty matters through a less formal forum. Small claims courts also limit the judgments awarded. This limit is generally set at $5,000 – though it may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The rules of civil procedure and evidence are typically simplified in small claims proceedings so as to allow non-lawyers to litigate their matters without having to pay for legal aid. Formal and costly procedures such as depositions are not allowed in small claims, and generally speaking, neither is a trial by jury.
Filing Small Claims in Westchester County
Any individual over the age of 18 can file in Westchester County Small Claims Court for damages up to $5,000. If you are under 18, then a parent may file on your behalf. In order to file in Westchester County Small Claims Court, either the claimant or the defendant must reside or maintain employment in Westchester County.
In order to bring an action in Small Claims Court, the first step is to fill out a statement of claim in the proper venue. You may also file electronically if that is more convenient for you. The person who fills out the statement of claim must know the following things: the amount of the claim, the name and address of the parties involved with the case, any relevant business names, and the reason for the lawsuit. There is a court fee of $15 if the amount of the claim is $1,000 or less. If the amount of the claim is over $1,000 up to $5,000, the fee is $20. This fee must be paid either by cash, certified check, money order, or bank check, and should be made out to “Clerk of the Civil Court.”
After paying the fee and filing the paperwork, the clerk will give you a date and time for the hearing, which will usually occur at night after business hours. Senior citizens, disabled people, and people who work at night may request that their hearing be held during the day with a showing of proof of age, disability, or nighttime employment. Acceptable proof can be an official state document that shows your age (such as a license), a letter from a doctor, or a letter from your job.
Once your claim has been filed, the small claims clerk will serve the defendant with a notice of your claim, which will inform him or her of the time and location of the hearing and include a brief statement about the claim. If the notice is not returned by the post office within 21 days of the court mailing out the statement, then the defendant will be presumed to have received notice of your claim. If it is returned, then the court clerk will give you a new hearing date and instructions for how to personally serve the notice to the defendant. If, after four months, you have not been able to properly serve the defendant, then your claim will be dismissed. You may re-file at a later date, however, if you obtain new information as to the defendant’s whereabouts.
For additional information about the New York small claims process, visit the New York Court System’s website.