Small Claims Litigation, Is It Worth It? By: Nicole McNamara Quattrocchi
A small claims action is an action for less than $15,000 excluding costs and attorney’s fees.
In the current legal climate, people often want to sue due to hurt feelings or what may be “right” or “just.” We, at the Quattro Firm, often receive phone calls from people who are angry and want to sue people who have harmed them and then when we explain the costs of litigation, these same people are often surprised and confused.
A small claims court action in Palm Beach County will cost you between $55 and $300 just to file the claim. The amount of your claim will determine what the costs are to file your case, for example, a case worth $100 or less will cost $55 to file. While you may be able to file something called an “Application for Indigent Status” to claim that you are without enough income to pay fees of Court, if you own anything that’s determined to have value or have a decent income, the application is likely to be denied.
Small claims actions often proceed quickly. The deadlines to respond are much faster than one would find in circuit court. The objective is to speed the case along to avoid congestion on the court’s docket.
There are no juries in small claims actions and generally little to no discovery will be permitted. Discovery is the process where each party can learn more about the other’s case through written tools like requests to produce and requests for admissions as well as through other tools like inspections and depositions. Discovery is common and necessary in a circuit court action, but as most pro se litigants would not be familiar with the rules of discovery, it is generally not permitted in a small claims action unless an attorney represents the party from whom the discovery is being requested.
The next step to thinking about filing a small claims action is to determine what kind of proof or evidence one has of his claim. The rules of civil procedure are more relaxed in small claims court, but if one is under the impression that this is the venue for a strictly “he said-she said” action, then prepare to be disappointed.
While small claims court is designed to favor pro se litigants, attorneys will often been seen in this venue. One reason for this is that any landlord-tenant issue regardless of the amount of the claim will be litigated in small claims court. This will include evictions, cases regarding property damage, security deposits and the like.
Attorneys are also often in small claims actions because people would be smart to have one. While this venue is more relaxed, it doesn’t mean that it’s a free for all for anyone who may have a gripe. There is still a proper procedure for filing of motions, review of evidence and trial protocol. Without an attorney, a pro se litigant is often lost. Despite many pro se litigants’ statements to the contrary, neither the judge of the case, nor his judicial assistant, nor the clerk can give you legal advice. While a pro se litigant may be able to gain some help with the process of how to file and where, the clerk cannot advise how to strategically succeed in the case.
Hiring an attorney for a small claims matter is not as easy as one may think. Most civil litigators who practice in this forum do not take any contingency work. Contingency work is a case where the lawyer would not take any money up front but would take a percentage of what is recovered. This is usually not cost-effective for an attorney in a small claims matter. If an attorney is hired for a case where the client has a claim filed for $1,000 and the attorney is entitled to 40%, and the attorney spends 20 hours working on the case and would normally bill $200 per hour, the math simply doesn’t make sense. For lawyers who work on retainer, meaning the lawyer is paid an upfront cost and bills by the hour, the client can often spend more on fees than the claim itself is worth. While, a claim for fees is always a possibility, it may not be granted. Attorney’s fees often fall to the discretion of the judge.
Claims can always attempt to be settled out of court. These are the moments in any type of case where it is useful to have an attorney. Parties often harbor animosity and hurt feelings, which can hurt negotiations. Your attorney may advocate for you and engage in negotiations without your individual feelings of ill will. Hiring a lawyer to negotiate your claim is wise.
Trials in small claims matters are more common than their circuit court counterparts. Generally, a pro se litigant is looking specifically to have “his day in court,” to demonstrate how right he is and how wrong the other party is. Results can go either way and fall to the discretion of the individual judge.
Before considering any type of legal action involving litigation, one should ask if it’s worth it. While feelings of anger, resentment and hurt may increase one’s desire for “justice,” one should sit down and take a deep breath before filing an action in any court. In the end, will it be worth it to endure the stress of litigation and the costs of litigation, to potentially recover nothing and pay out for costs and fees? In litigation, there are no guarantees even if your case is documented and seems clear.
In the context of small claims, one should determine what his/her ideal outcome is before filing. Then consider that one may end up with the exact opposite result. In terms of advocacy, it’s always recommended to have an attorney to assist in litigation, regardless of the type of case. This is a cost that should be considered when deciding whether or not to proceed with the claim.