NY Small Claims Court- you can afford an attorney!
My name is Paul Matthews. I enjoy representing people in NY small claims court in addition to my matrimonial and family law practice. Although the Small Claims Court is designed to be user friendly so that you can sue without using a lawyer, the Court’s jurisdiction now goes up to $10,000.00, which means that you should consider having a small claims attorney assist you.
At the present time, due to the Covid 19 health situation, I am not going to court, but I am still helping people with their small claims cases by providing Skype consultations which can help you with strategy, tactics, and required evidence. I charge only $100 per hour for these consultation sessions.
The truth of the matter is that Small Claims Court trials typically do not involve anywhere near the formality of other “real” trials, and the arbitrators who end up trying most of the cases usually apply the rules of evidence, if they apply them at all, very laxly. Some of the arbitrators conduct trials so informally that the trial often devolves into a “free for all” where a lawyer is very limited in what he or she can do.
However an attorney can be invaluable in helping you come up with an effective trial strategy, is familiar with the typical legal defenses that may be applied by the Court, and can advise you as to the use of documents and the proof of money damages.
Also it doesn’t make sense to hire an attorney for smaller cases of around $1000.00 or so. Although my normal rate for court appearances in Small Claims Court is $300 for night court and $500 in day court, more than half the time you have to come back at least one time, and sometimes you have to come back several times before your case is heard.
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. Also, to my knowledge, none of the NYC Small Claims Courts allow an appearance by telephone or allow witnesses to testify by telephone.
Experienced lawyer for small claims trials and arbitrations
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. I have tried hundreds of cases in the Manhattan small claims court, Brooklyn small claims court, and Queens small claims court and am totally familiar with the practices and procedures followed in these Courts.
I can assist you by providing you with a list of cross examination questions, as well as an outline of the main areas and evidence that you should focus on.
Affordable quality representation
The decision of whether to go with an Arbitrator or ask for a Judge is probably the most important tactical decision you will make regarding your Small Claims case. This is something we would have to discuss as there are pros and cons of each.
Amount you can sue for
The maximum you can sue for in New York small claims court has been raised to $10,000.00. It is important to understand that you cannot recover for pain and suffering, aggravation, and the like in small claims court. 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 4 separate suits. This is called “splitting your claim” and is not allowed.
Counterclaims and third party claims
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 small claims court
Once you are in Court all NY City Small Claims Courts follow a similar procedure. The evening starts with a calendar call. Before the calendar call instructions are given. In Queens Small Claims Court the instructions are repeated in Spanish. Motion calendar cases are usually called first.
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 and a motion to dismiss the case because the defendant is claiming a legal defense to the case, such as the statute of limitations. Motions are heard by the Judge and are usually decided the same night after oral argument by both sides.
In Brooklyn 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 each 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”.
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, perhaps even as late as 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 tends to be somewhat unpredictable.
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”.
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 in order to appeal.
In addition to these costs, it is almost impossible for a non-lawyer to navigate all of the arcane rules of appellate practice. Plus, appeals 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.
Call me today at (347) 461-0760 about your NY Small Claims Case.
✅ Can I have a lawyer for small claims court?
In New York, you are allowed to have a lawyer. However, if your case is heard by an arbitrator, it is likely that the rules of evidence will barely be applied, and the arbitrator may not even follow the rules of procedure. Instead the trial may likely resemble a free for all, where an attorney may not be able to use all of his skill and training. It might make sense to consult with an attorney before you go to court to have him help you with strategies
✅ How much can I sue for in small claims court?
In New York, small claims court goes up to $10,000. However you can't take a $20,000 case and split it up into two separate lawsuits when it is really all one incident or contract.
✅ Is it better to have a judge or an arbitrator hear my case?
It depends. Usually if either side asks for a judge the case will be have to be adjourned one or more times. Depending on how busy the court is, you might have to come back 3, 4, or even more times before your case will be heard by a judge. While it is true that you can't appeal an arbitrator's decision, appeals are typically very expensive because you will almost certainly have to hire a lawyer and there are various other costs. The total cost could be in the range of $4000 to $5000 or even more. For a $10,000 case it might be worth it if you have a really good issue.