Taking advantage of Small Claims Court

Individuals and businesses are often faced with the decision of whether to try and collect on a small debt or write it off as a loss on the presumption their attorneys' fees and costs will eat up a chunk, if not all, of their award. An under-appreciated third option is to represent yourself in Small Claims Court.

Small Claims Courts allow plaintiffs to sue over civil matters involving up to $7,500 in Reno Justice Court and $5,000 in Sparks Justice Court. While attorneys can and do represent clients in Small Claims Court, the court cannot award attorneys' fees, so people most often represent themselves. Our judges are experienced and patient, so they know how to efficiently and courteously get to the bottom line of a dispute. In other words, attorneys are not necessary.

Prosecuting a matter in Small Claims Court has several benefits. First, it is highly efficient. Cases are handled in court in a single day, no discovery takes place and most cases are heard within two months of the suit being filed. So, the adjudication of your claim will take place quickly and efficiently.

Second, it is very cost-effective. Because attorneys' fees cannot be awarded on top of a judgment, the full amount of any award goes to the prevailing party. And, while the prevailing party can use that award to pay an attorney, self-representation eliminates that net reduction concern.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of Small Claims Court, though, is that it is less formal than a state district court. The rules of evidence are generously applied, and the parties aren't expected to behave like lawyers. In this way, it's a court of common sense. It gives individuals access to justice in a very user-friendly way.

Small Claims Courts are designed and operated to be very accessible to the public. Both Reno and Sparks Justice Courts provide manuals to help walk people through the process of filing a suit. If you use these guides, and follow the best practices suggested below, prosecuting a Small Claims Court matter can be a simple process.

First, it's very important to be prepared and organized. Effectively telling your story through your evidence and/or witnesses is the best way to convince the judge to award you damages. Don't try to play lawyer, just focus on having a logical flow which is direct and concise.

Second, be sure to have all your documents, evidence and witnesses ready and with you on your court date. Then, be sure to present them in an order that tells the story of why you're owed money by the defendant. Be sure to call witnesses to provide testimony where there is no documentation and you do not have firsthand knowledge of what happened.

Third, it's very important to be polite and patient during the hearing. Desperate people take desperate measures, and the person you are suing may say anything to try and get out of paying his or her debt.

Maintaining your composure and staying courteous will show the judge you are confident in your case and are entitled to prevail.

Fourth, trust the judge's experience. Justice Courts are run by elected justices of the peace, and they have seen it all. They handle thousands of cases annually, know how to read people and know how to get to the bottom of an issue. If you're in the right and have the evidence to back up your case, you can trust the judge to do the right thing.

Fifth, the best way to prepare for your day in Small Claims Court is to take some time and sit in on a court session before your court date. Doing so will give you a level of comfort with the process, the judge and the presentation styles that are most effective. Learn those lessons before, rather than during, your first trial.

Sixth, if you are a business with many small claims, it's helpful to send the same person to represent you each time. That person will become comfortable in the court room and will hopefully earn credibility with the judge.

Finally, you prosecute your case and the judge awards you damages, but the defendant can't afford to pay. What happens then? A Small Claims Court order is an enforceable judgment that can be recorded at the county recorder's office. It then becomes a judgment lien against any property the person owns or purchases in the future. So, even though the defendant may not be able to pay you immediately, it is possible you will collect your damages eventually.

Small Claims Court can be an effective and efficient way to obtain justice. It's a venue in which individuals can, by representing themselves, protect themselves and their businesses. It's a place where a common sense approach to legal matters is followed, so even modest matters can be resolved fairly, quickly and inexpensively. Good luck!

Matt Addison is a partner at McDonald Carano Wilson LLP, practicing primarily in commercial and complex litigation. Contact him at 775- 788-2000 or through www.mcdonaldcarano.com.


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