Home Business Litigation How the Small Claims Court Works in Massachusetts

How the Small Claims Court Works in Massachusetts

muccilegal June 19, 2024

If you believe you have suffered a financial loss due to someone else’s actions, and have tried to negotiate compensation or payment directly with no success, you may be able to resolve your complaint through the civil court by filing a small claim. The small claims court will hear claims of $7,000 or less, although the final award may be higher, or the claim was for property damage due to a vehicle accident (up to $15,000 in compensation).

The pros and cons of a small claim

The main disadvantage of the small claims court is that it only handles claims involving small amounts of money, so you are forced to sue the offending party through the normal court process if your claim is for more than the statutory limit of $7,000. This can become expensive as it involves higher court costs and unless you have experience in litigation yourself, it may also involve paying attorney fees. Without the help of an attorney the chance of winning a claim for compensation which cannot be pursued through the small claims court is smaller. Suing through the normal court process may also involve much longer time to resolve the dispute.

The benefits of using the small claims court is that it is cheaper, quicker and does not necessarily mean you have to use an attorney, as long as you are reasonably literate and have the time to spare to spend on the claim.

Cases heard by the small claims court

Small claims court, in addition to the limit on claims, have limited jurisdiction over the types of claims. Small claims courts in Massachusetts typically limit the types of cases that can be heard to the following:

  • contract disputes;
  • property damage;
  • return of property;
  • torts.

Non-monetary compensation, also called equitable relief, may be included in a small claim, but cannot be the sole component. For example, let’s say that the plaintiff has suffered adverse weather damage to their home because a building contractor had not kept to the promised construction schedule. The plaintiff may then demand compensation for the damage done, plus demand that the original contract be finished as originally agreed.

Torts that involve claims against the Commonwealth or another government jurisdiction, or involve claims brought for libel or slander are also excluded by a small claims court.

The small claims court process explained

Small claims are typically the last resort after exhausting other avenues, e.g. directly asking the individual or organization for the amount you believe you are owed. You can also try issuing a demand letter and sending it to the party which owes you money before going to court.

Assuming you have no success with these attempts to obtain compensation, you should file your claim (called the Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial) with the court in the jurisdiction where you, or the defendant lives, or where the action that led to the claim took place. There are some benefits to choosing the place where the defendant lives as you may have more chance of getting your hands on the money.

Claims can be made online or at the court in person. The statutes of limitation for the specific type of claim determine how long a claim can be made after the event that led to the claim. Most time limits are between three to six years but the exact limit should be researched by the plaintiff.

Your claim will include the amount demanded as well as the reason why you think you are owed that amount. Once your claim has been received, the court will set a trial date and notify you, the plaintiff, as well as the defendant of the date, time and location of the trial. The accuracy of the address of the defendant is crucial, as the court will send the notification of the trial to the defendant’s postal address, typically by certified, first class mail. If the address is incorrect, then the court should receive the returned mail notification. If the mail is not returned, the court will assume the defendant has received it.

The defendant has several options available. Whichever option is chosen, there is an expectation that the defendant attends the trial. Failure to do so may mean a default judgment against the defendant, who would then be expected to pay the amount demanded. The defendant may elect to make the payment at once without having to attend the court hearing, file an Answer to the Claim or make a counter claim against the plaintiff. In an Answer to the Claim, the defendant sets out the reasons why the claim is rejected. These reasons will be heard at the trial. The defendant may also request a continuance (delay) by the court if it is thought that the plaintiff did not follow the correct procedure in serving the claim.

The trial will go ahead on the prescribed day and time and assumes that both plaintiff and defendant will be in attendance. If the defendant does not show up, then the court may make a default judgment as mentioned above and award the claim to the plaintiff unilaterally. If the plaintiff does not show up, then the claim will be dismissed.

Both plaintiff and defendant make their case at the trial.

Assuming that both plaintiff and defendant attend the trial, this will be heard by a clerk-magistrate. The clerk-magistrate is not as qualified or as experienced as a judge, and the small claim trial tends to be more relaxed and informal than a full trial.

At the hearing, typically the plaintiff will have the first chance of setting out the reasons for the claim, providing any evidence they have to help support their claim. The defendant then sets out the reasons why they reject the basis of the claim. If the defendant had submitted a counter claim against the plaintiff then this may be heard at the same trial. Counter claims must be filed at least 10 days before the date of the trial.

The clerk-magistrate will then make a decision about the claim. This decision may be made at the conclusion of the trial or given up to 10 days later if the clerk-magistrate decides on an advisement. Both plaintiff and defendant will then be notified by a “Notice of Judgment and Order and a Notice of Payment Hearing”. If the judge finds in favor of the plaintiff, the defendant will be ordered to make payment of a certain some of money which cannot exceed what he plaintiff claimed. The defendant may then appeal the decision, but if an appeal is not filed, the defendant is expected to complete payment. Refusal or failure to make the payment due could result in penalties against the defendant which could include jail time.

While an attorney is not strictly necessary for a small claim, some cases can be particularly complex. In a situation like this it may still be advisable to seek help from an experienced attorney.

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