Small claims are handled less formally than other cases. While you can hire a lawyer if you choose, the rules of evidence and procedure in small claims cases are simplified to make it easier to represent yourself.
To be tried as a small claim in District Court, your case must meet the following conditions:
- Your claim is for $5,000 or less; and,
- Your claim is for money only, not the return of property or performance of a service; and,
- You are not planning to request any discovery such as interrogatories (written questions that the other side must answer under oath in writing, before trial).
If your case meets all three of these conditions, you may file your case in District Court as a small claim.
Should I file in my case as a Small Claim or a regular Civil case? Here are some things to consider:
|Small Claims||Regular Civil Case|
|You MAY have a lawyer represent you. You will need to pay for your own lawyer.||You MAY have a lawyer represent you. You will need to pay for your own lawyer.|
|Filing fees are cheaper.||Filing fees can be expensive.|
|Rules and procedures are simpler and informal.||Formal rules of evidence apply and the procedure is more complex. Even if you do not have a lawyer, you must follow all the court rules.|
|You cannot use “discovery” to get information about the other side.||You can use the formal “discovery” process to request the other side answer questions or provide you with certain information.|
|Trial is normally set within 60 days of when the complaint was filed.||Trial may be set much later.|
|Cases are decided quicker.||Cases can take longer to decide.|
|If you want to appeal, the case will be retried in the Circuit Court. You will have to present all your evidence and testimony again.||If you want to appeal, the case will be reviewed “on the record” in either the Circuit Court (if your original case was in District Court) or in the Court of Special Appeals (if your original case was in Circuit Court).|
Consider Mediation Before Filing Your Claims
Both parties in a dispute have the option of negotiating a settlement prior to going to court. You may try to negotiate on your own or seek the assistance of a mediator. There are many advantages to mediation. The Maryland District Court operates a mediation program. For more information, see Mediation & ADR.
How Can I File a Small Claim?
There are four basic steps to starting a small claims case:
- File a Complaint form (DC-CV-001) with the court.
- Pay the filing fee. Check the District Court’s Civil Cost Schedule (DCA-109) for fees.
- The court will issue a Writ of Summons to officially notify the other side (called “the defendant”) that a suit has been filed.
- Proof of Service (DC-CV-002) is submitted to the court that the other side has been notified, or served.
Be sure to name the correct defendant. One of the most challenging parts of filing a small claim is to make sure you sue the right person.
Suing an Individual
An individual must be at least 18 years old to be named as a defendant. If the defendant is under 18, or is older than 18 but has a legal guardian, the defendant may in fact be the debtor’s parent or guardian or anyone else who gives care or has custody of the person or estate.
Suing a Company
When you are suing a company, naming the defendant can be complicated. The defendant is not the company’s manager or even its president, but the company itself, unless someone personally guaranteed the debt for the company. For example, Barbara Jones may sign personally to guarantee payment for products bought by Barbara’s Cleaning Services, Inc. In this case, you would name both Barbara Jones and Barbara’s Cleaning Services, Inc. as defendants. Always put the full, formal business name on the Complaint form, such as “John Debtor Enterprises, Inc.” or “Debtor and Son, Ltd.” Finding the correct name may be as easy as looking on a piece of stationery, a check the defendant may have given you, or the sign on the front of the defendant’s office. Be warned, however, that any of these places may display the trade name (“Don’s Clocks” for example) as opposed to the full, formal corporate name.
To find the full, formal name of a Maryland corporation, check the State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) website, www.dat.state.md.us.
If SDAT does have a listing of the company, it will also have a listing of the person or company authorized to accept service of suit papers, called the resident agent. State law requires corporations and/or limited liability companies (LLCs) to appoint a resident agent. A resident agent is the only person (or company) that can accept service of your court papers on behalf of a corporate defendant.
The resident agent should not be listed as the defendant. Instead, list the name and address of the company responsible for the debt as the defendant. Next to or below the defendant’s name, write Serve on Resident Agent. You would then list the resident agent’s name and address.
If you can’t find a listing for a resident agent, serve your papers on an officer of the business, such as the president. Use the name and address of the business as you have it in your files when completing the paperwork.
Service of your Suit
When defendants are “served,” they are notified that a lawsuit has been filed against them and summoned to appear for trial by a Writ of Summons, which the court issues after you file your complaint. The Writ of Summons includes the case number and a trial date, time and location. One copy of the document must be delivered to the defendant, along with a copy of the Complaint form and supporting documents.
There are several different ways to deliver these documents to the defendant, and the fees required vary for each. Your choices are:
• Certified Mail
• Private Process
Military Service Affidavit
To be entitled to an affidavit judgment or to a default judgment, Federal law requires a Plaintiff to provide information as to whether any Defendant is in the military or provide specific facts for the Court to conclude that each Defendant is not in the military. This information may be available from various sources including the Department of Defense Manpower Data Center (https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/appj/scra/). Without this information, the Court may not rule in your favor without a hearing or trial.
Proof of Service
Once the defendant has been served, the court must receive Proof of Service (DC-CV-002). If the court does not receive Proof of Service within the time allotted for the defendant to file an Intention to Defend, you may not be able to present your case on the trial date.
What Happens In Court?
If the defendant files a Notice of Intention to Defend, the court will notify you. The Notice of Intention to Defend includes space for the defendant to explain why he or she should not be required to pay you the money you claim you are owed. If the defendant chooses to list a reason, the notice you receive from the court will include that reason. Take note of the defendant’s claim. You need to be prepared to explain to the judge why the defendant’s argument is not valid. The court will set a trial date.
Even if the other side does not file the Notice of Intention to Defend, you may still be required to come to court.
At trial, be prepared to present any witnesses, evidence or exhibits to prove your claim. The trial will be more informal than a regular trial, but you still need to be able to prove that the other side owes you the money you claim.
What Happens After Court?
After the court decides your case, both you and the other person will receive a copy of the judgment. The court will not collect the money owed to you. If the court ruled in your favor, and the other side does not pay you as ordered, you may need to take further steps to collect on the judgment. See Collecting on a Judgment.