Helpful Information About The New York Small Claims Court
My name is Paul Matthews. For various reasons, I am not taking Small Claims cases at the present time. However I bleieve that this information may prove helpful to people who are representing themselves in New York City Small Claims Court.
This webpage is intended as a guide to provide general information only, and not legal advice as to your specific small claims court case or situation.
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, if the defendant is an individual, resides works, or has an office, not where you reside. Also, you will have to come to court yourself, unless you are a corporation or other business 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 was changed due to the covid pandemic. At the present time the Small Claims Courts in NYC have re-opened, but they may still allow virtual court appearances, at least for awhile, or in special circumstances, using Microsoft Teams.
Commencing A Small Claims Lawsuit
In New York City the small claims court is part of the civil court. In the past it was possible to file small claims cases online using a website called Turbo court, however the NYC Small Claims Courts are at the moment not accepting electronic filings of small claims cases due to a huge volume of backlog cases from Covid.
It is very simple to file a new case. 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.
Filing fees depend on whether you are filing a “regular” small claims case or a Commercial small claims case, but in any event, fees are very low. The required forms are also very simple and easy to understand.
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 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 typically request adjournments on most or all of these.
I may be the only lawyer in New York City who is willing to go to court on just one case for a reasonable fee.
A motion is a formal written request to the Court for an order. The most common motion is 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, and you state a valid defense in the Order to Show Cause.
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.
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 sides state 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 of the arbitrators are OK.
In all counties there is a 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. From time to time, mediation is also available, however mediation is non-binding.
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, when there were evening sessions pre-pandemic, there were typically over a hundred cases a night, and only one judge. This means that unless the parties both agreed to have the case decided by an arbitrator, they typically had to come back a number of other times and may have had to stay late each time.
Judges are required to give “substantial justice” but they may still 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 most likely look more like a court of law, and less like what you see on “the people’s court” on TV.
You should know that a typical small claims trial is quite short, and rarely lasts more than an hour or so.
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 deposit. 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.
Your rights and ability to recover damages may be largely dependent on the words in the contract, assuming you have a written contract.
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. If the company does have a physical location in New York City, you will still have to prove your actual damages.
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.
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.
If you win your case you will get a money judgment. Money judgments are good for 20 years and earn interest. The last time I checked the rate of interest was still 9%.
It is not unusual for the person who is being sued to fail to show up in small claims court. This is particularly true with debt collection cases, where there is no real dispute about the money owed. If the defendant fails to show up, it is likely that the small claims court will hold an “inquest” which is a one sided trial. To win at inquest you still have to present evidence and proof od damages, but it is much easier to won.
Inquests may be held by the Judge or by an arbitrator. However, although the decision of an arbitrator after a trial cannot be appealed or re-opened, if there is an inquest the losing party can often get the case re-opened if he or she has a valid excuse for failing to show up.
Paul W. Matthews Esq. telephone (347) 461-0760. Mailing Address: 50 Garretson Ln, Staten Island, NY 10304
Client Meetings (By Appointment Only) 305 Broadway, New York, NY 10007 and 80 Broad Street, New York, NY 10004