NYC Small Claims Court Guide By Attorney Who Has Tried over 100 Cases
My name is Paul Matthews. I have represented people in the past in n New York City Small Claims Court in addition to my family law and appellate practice. Although the Small Claims Court is designed to be user friendly so that you can sue without using a lawyer. for many years the most you could recover was $5000, but the Court’s jurisdiction in New York City has recently been increased from $5000 to $10,000, which means that you should consider having a small claims attorney assist you.
However, I am no longer taking small cliaims cases myself.
Out of state corporations, including LLC’s are not allowed to file lawsuits in the New York small claims courts.
You must file your small claims court case in the county where the defendant resides, works, or has an office, not where you reside. Also, you will have to come to court yourself, unless you are a corporation with an employee who has full knowledge of the facts, or there is some other very unusual situation.
If you are suing a company, that company has to have a physical location such as an office, store, factory, etc., located within the State of New York. You must sue them in the county where this physical location is located. If is is an online business with no physical location, you cannot sue them in New York State Small Claims Court.
Although in the past none of the NYC Small Claims Courts have allowed an appearance by telephone or allow witnesses to testify by telephone, this changed due to the covid pandemic and some cases are being tried via Microsoft Teams. I believe that by now, all cases are geing heard in person and you will no longer be able to appear by video or phone. You may wish to check with the court though. .
Can You Go Pro se in NYC Small Claims Court?
Over the last 15 years or so I have seen many many litigants go “pro se” and try to represent themselves in various courts, but I have only seen one or two out of hundreds, possibly thousands, who had the natural ability to be effective acting as their own lawyer.
When I myself first started trying cases over 20 years ago, it took me around 3 years, and over a hundred trials and hearings, before I had even started to “get good” at trying a case. This is why it makes sense to be assisted by an experienced small claims attorney. Unfortunately, there are very few attorneys in NYC who will take a small claism case for a reasonable fee. You may be lucky to find one, if you look hard enough. It is also sometimes possible to hire an attorney to go over your case for an hour or two and give you advice, for a reasonable fee.
Commencing A Small Claims Lawsuit
In New York City the small claims court is part of the civil court. During the covid emergency many small claims courthouses are closed to the public. It may be possible to file small claims cases online using a website called Turbo court. They charge a small fee for their service. The forms required to file are very simple and straightforward. Whether you file your case by walking into the courthouse or online, it is essential that you provide the correct name and address of the defendant you are suing.
One of the big differences between the small claims court and other New York courts is that discovery is almost never allowed in the small claims court. It is possible to get court ordered subpoenas from the court clerk for witnesses or documents.
Amount You Can Sue For In The NYC Small Claims Court
The maximum you can sue for in New York City small claims court has been raised from $5000 to $10,000. It is important to understand that you cannot recover for pain and suffering, aggravation, and the like in small claims court. I do not practice in the town and village courts in upstate New York, but I believe these courts have a lower amount (Perhaps $3000 or even $1000) you can sue for.
You can only recover money damages, which means money actually spent by you or a loss or damage to property which can be quantified into actual dollars.
You must also prove every penny of your damages to the court, unless the defendant agrees as to the amount. You also cannot get around the $10,000.00 limit by breaking your $20,000.00 case into several separate suits. This is called “splitting your claim” and is not allowed.
Counterclaims And Third Party Actions
A counterclaim is when the defendant (person being sued) “retaliates” by filing his own suit against the plaintiff. The counterclaim can be either related to the main claim or unrelated.
A counterclaim can also be brought for up to $10,000.00. A third party claim is when the defendant believes that even if the plaintiff can prove that the defendant owes him money, the real culprit is a third party. In this situation, the defendant can bring the third party into the action by filing a third party case. The two cases will then be heard (and tried) together.
Procedures Once You Get To Court
Once you are in court all NY City Small Claims Courts follow a similar procedure. The evening or day session starts with a calendar call. Before the calendar call instructions are given. In Queens County Small Claims Court the instructions are repeated in spanish. Motion calendar cases are usually called first.
A handful of lawyers are usually present and in some courthouses the first row is reserved for them. Most of these lawyers represent companies like Verizon or other businesses that are constantly being sued, or they work for automobile insurance companies. These lawyers typically have 3 or 4 cases a night, and will request adjournments on most or all of these.
A motion is a formal written request to the Court for an order. The most common motions are a motion to re-open a default judgment. These motions are filed using an order to show cause, a judgment can usually be re-opened if you have a good reason why you did not show up in court,
The second most common motion is a motion to dismiss the case because the defendant is claiming a legal defense to the case, such as the statute of limitations.
Almost all motions are made by lawyers or law firms. Motions are heard by the judge and are usually decided the first time your case is heard after oral argument by both sides.
Each county has slightly different procedures. In Brooklyn County Small Claims Court, because they don’t have a room big enough to accommodate everyone, there are two separate calendar calls in two different rooms. One calendar call is for brand new cases while the other calendar call is for adjourned cases. Fortunately, the calendar calls are held at different times, but you still have to be in the right room at the right time.
I have found that some of the court officers in Brooklyn small claims court can be somewhat rude to litigants, and I have seen some arbitrators do strange things. Brooklyn Small Claims Court does have a nice Greek diner across the street where you can get a great burger or a great danish while waiting for the Court to open.
After the motion calendar, the “regular” cases are called. In Manhattan Small Claims Court there is usually a “second call” in case someone is late. At the calendar call both side states whether they are ready to be heard by an arbitrator, if they wish the case to be decided by a judge, or if they wish to ask for an adjournment of the case for another night. This is called an “application”.
I have found that the arbitrators in Manhattan Small Claims Court are the most professional of all that I have encountered in the NYC Small Claims Court.
The Queens Small Claims Court is conveniently located in Jamaica, Queens, near the subway and also has easy parking near the courthouse. The main court room is large and well appointed,, and the court staff is excellent. Most or the arbitrators are OK.
In all counties there is always great push by the Court to get the parties to agree to some kind of settlement. If that is not possible, the Court will try very hard to have the trial done by an arbitrator, and not by a judge,
Both parties must consent before an arbitrator can hear the case. An arbitrator’s decision is final and there is no appeal. However, in all of the 4 major boroughs of NYC, there are typically over a hundred cases a night, and only one judge. This means that unless the parties both agree to have the case decided by an arbitrator, they will typically have to come back a number of other times and may have to stay late each time.
Also, when the case is finally tried by the judge there is the possibility that the trial may conclude very late, possibly even close to midnight. This is why, in the end, most cases end up being tried by the arbitrator and not by the judge.
Judges are required to give “substantial justice” but they may feel constrained to follow the letter of the law. In my experience although the judges in small claims court will usually follow the rules of procedure (i.e. plaintiff goes first, then is cross examined by the defendant, then defendant goes, then is cross examined by the plaintiff, then parties sum up), the application of the rules of evidence still tends to be somewhat unpredictable.
However, if you see a Judge, the proceeding will look more like a court of law, and less like what you see on “the people’s court” on TV.
Arbitrators, on the other hand, are not constrained by any rules, neither of evidence nor of procedure, and a trial before an arbitrator can range from an orderly matter, not that different from a trial before a judge, to a virtual “free for all”.
Not knowing if the rules of evidence are going to be applied at all, or to what extent, makes the small claims court a challenging place for lawyers to practice in.
Most Common Types Of Small Claims Cases
Disputes between landlords and tenants
The most common example of a dispute you see in the small claims court involves a landlord who refuses to return all or part of a tenant’s security deposits. In order to have the best chance of winning the tenant should have proof of the amount of the security deposit and also should have photographs of the apartment taken around the time that the tenant moved out to show the lack of damage. The best proof of the amount of deposit would either be a cancelled check or a receipt from the landlord.
Disputes between roommates
Roommates frequently fight over splitting the rent or the utilities, splitting other household expenses, and sometimes one of them moves out because the living situation has become intolerable. It may be necessary for the plaintiff to produce the roommate agreement or written contract, as well as receipts for amounts spent.
Disputes with contractors
Breach of contract cases against home repair contractors are very common. Contractors who do home repairs are subject to various laws and regulations, and must have a written contract and must be licensed through the City of New York in order to do the work and to keep moneys given to them for home repair services.
Disputes over unpaid wages
If you are an on the books employee, and not an independent contractor, and your employer refuses to pay you for the day or days you worked, you can potentially recover three times the amount, subject to the Small Claims $10,000 maximum. You can tell if you are an employee if social security taxes are being deducted from your checks.
Automobile accident cases
The small claims court is not allowed to order compensation for pain and suffering, although they can order a defendant to pay medical bills which are not covered by insurance.
However cases involving property damage to automobiles (“fender benders”) are also quite common. You will need to get any police report or accident report, and if you are suing you will need to get photos of the damage to the car, as well as either a paid bill for the cost of repair or two signed estimates.
Disputes over goods and services
Many cases involve defective goods or services that were promised but not provided. Unfortunately, if you buy goods or services online and the defendant does not have a physical location within the state of New York, you cannot sue in small claims court.
Decision of arbitrator or judge
In order to avoid ugly scenes, the judge or the arbitrator will almost always “reserve decision” which means that you won’t know the outcome until you receive the decision in the mail. This is usually within a day or two.
If the decision is by a judge you have a right to appeal, but appeals are very rare as they are typically very expensive. You will have to pay around $5 a page for the transcript of the trial and will have to pay filing fees and other expenses such as the cost of legal research and printing costs in order to appeal.
In addition to these costs, you are going to need a lawyer , as it is almost impossible for a non-lawyer to navigate all of the arcane rules of the appeal process. Plus, appeals are expensive and can take a year or even more to be decided. However due to the increase of the small claims courts’ jurisdiction to $10,000.00 it is likely that there will be more appeals.
If you win your case you will get a money judgment. Money judgements are good for 20 years and earn interest. The last time I checked the rate of interest was still 9%.