SMALL CLAIMS COURT
(Please note: The information below is not intended to provide or take the place of legal advice. For legal advice about your rights, you should contact a lawyer. If you do not have a lawyer, you may contact the Middlesex County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (732) 828-0053. If you cannot afford an attorney, you may contact the Central Jersey Legal Services Corporation at (732) 249-7600 to see if you are eligible for free legal services.)
The Small Claims Section is a court in which you may sue someone (the defendant) to collect a small amount of money that you believe is owed to you. Because procedures in Small Claims are simpler than in other courts, persons usually can file and present their cases relatively quickly and inexpensively, and often without an attorney.
The information below will explain how to file a complaint, a counterclaim, and an appeal, and provide a general overview of Small Claims in
SMALL CLAIMS SECTION
Small Claims is one of the three sections of the Superior Court's Special Civil Part. The other two sections are Landlord/Tenant and regular Special Civil Part. Small Claims handles cases in which the demand is not more than $3,000. If the amount of money you are trying to recover is more than $3,000, but less than $15,000, your case should be filed in the regular Special Civil Part. Cases in which damages are more than $15,000 must be filed in the Law Division of the Superior Court.
(If you believe you are entitled to damages greater than $3,000 but still wish to sue in Small Claims, you give up your right to recover damages over $3,000. The additional money cannot be claimed later in a separate lawsuit.)
TYPICAL CLAIMS FILED
Following is a general list of claims which can be filed in Small Claims:
- Breach of a written or oral contract.
- Return of money used as a down payment.
- Property damage caused by a motor vehicle accident.
- Damage to or loss of property.
- Consumer complaints for defective merchandise or faulty workmanship.
- Payment for work performed.
- Claims based on bad checks.
- Claims for back rent.
- Return of a tenant's security deposit.
You also must obtain a transcript (a copy of the record of what happened in court) of the trial. The request for a transcript should be made to the Office of the Clerk of the Special Civil Part in the county in which the case was tried. You must deposit with the Clerk the estimated cost of the transcript (as determined by the court reporter, Clerk, or agency preparing it) or $300 for each day or part of a day of the trial. You must file three copies of the transcript with the Office of the Clerk of the Appellate Division. Questions concerning an appeal should be directed to the Office of the Clerk of the Appellate Division at (609) 292-4822, or to an attorney.
CLAIMS THAT CANNOT BE FILED
The following is a general list of claims that cannot be filed in Small Claims.
- Claims arising from professional malpractice (for example, alleged malpractice by a doctor, dentist, or lawyer.)
- Claims for support or alimony from a marital or a domestic dispute.
- Claims arising from a probate matter, such as a will.
WHERE TO FILE A CLAIM
A complaint must be filed in the Office of the Special Civil Part of the county where at least one defendant lives or where the defendant business is located. If there is more than one defendant, the complaint can be filed in the county where any one of the defendants lives or is located. If none of the defendants lives or is located in
New Jersey, the complaint must be filed in the county where the cause of the complaint occurred.
NOTE: A complaint for the return of a security deposit may be filed in the county where the landlord lives or where the landlord's rental property is located.
WHO MAY FILE A CLAIM
To sue in Small Claims, a person must be 18 years of age or older. If the person suing is under the age of 18, the complaint must be filed by the parent or guardian.
FILING A COMPLAINT
A Small Claims summons and complaint form is available from the Clerk of the Special Civil Part in the county in which the case will be filed. The summons and complaint can be filed through the mail or in person. When filing a complaint, you, as the plaintiff, must:
- Give your full name, address and telephone number.
- To ensure proper service of the complaint, give the correct name(s) and address(es) of the person(s) named in the complaint as defendant(s). It is important that the defendant be properly identified as an individual, a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a corporation.
- State the amount of money for which you are suing.
- State the reason why the defendant owes you money.
- State whether at the present time there is any other case involving both you and the other party(ies) and, if so, the name of the court.
- Specify whether you will need an interpreter and specify in which language.
- State whether you have a disability requiring special accommodations.
- Signed the completed form.
- Pay the correct filing and service fees when filing the complaint with the Office of the Clerk of the Special Civil Part.
If you are filing a complaint because of a motor vehicle accident, a trial date will not be set unless the defendant notifies the Clerk of the Special Civil Part in writing within 20 (or 35) days from the date the complaint was served that the case will be defended in court. [Defendants living or located outside
New Jersey have 35 days to respond to a complaint.] If the defendant responds in writing within 20 (or 35) days, a trial date will be scheduled. All parties will be notified by the court.
If the defendant does not respond within the 20 (or 35) days, the plaintiff may have a "judgment by default" entered. Through a judgment by default, the court decides the amount of money, if any, to be awarded to a plaintiff because the defendant did not come to court or respond to the complaint on time.
If the complaint is for money damages caused by a motor vehicle accident and the judgment requires a defendant to pay more than $500, the defendant must pay within 60 days. If the defendant does not pay within the 60 days, the plaintiff may request through the Clerk of the Special Civil Part that the Division of Motor Vehicles stop the defendant's driving privileges until the judgment is paid.
The cost for filing a complaint in Small Claims is:
- $12.00 for one defendant.
- $2.00 for each additional defendant.
- $3.00 for each defendant served by certified and regular mail. [A fee for mileage may be charged instead of the $3.00 mailing fee if the complaint is served personally by a court officer. Staff of the Special Civil Part can inform you of the mileage fee, if any.]
If you are poor, you may apply to the court to qualify as an indigent and your filing fees may be waived by the judge.
FILING A COUNTERCLAIM
If you have been named as a defendant in a case and you believe the plaintiff (the person who filed the complaint) owes you money, you may file a counterclaim. To file a counterclaim, follow the same procedure (outlined above) for filing a complaint, but be sure to do it before the date listed for trial in the summons.
PREPARATION FOR TRIAL
If you are the plaintiff, you must prove your case. Arrange to have any witnesses and records you need to prove your case at the trial. A written statement, even if made under oath, is not admissible in court. Only actual testimony in court of what the witness(es) heard or saw will be allowed. Prepare your questions in advance.
Bring to court records of any transactions that may help you prove your case. Such records may include:
- Canceled checks, money orders, sales receipts.
- Bills, contracts, estimates, leases.
- Other documents proving your claim.
If you are able to settle the case with the defendant before the trial date, call the Special Civil Part Clerk's Office immediately.
If you are the defendant, you should prepare your side of the case as the plaintiff prepared his or her case. Bring all necessary witnesses and documents to court with you on the scheduled trial date.
If the plaintiff does not appear, the judge may dismiss the case. If the defendant does not appear, a default judgment may be entered and the defendant may have to pay all or a portion of the money claimed to be owed.
If you are able to settle the case with the plaintiff before the trial date, call the Special Civil Part Clerk's Office immediately to confirm that the case was marked settled.
THE DAY OF TRIAL
The plaintiff and the defendant must come to court at the time and date stated on the summons, unless otherwise notified by the court.
On the day scheduled for trial, the court may help you settle your case through mediation by a trained mediator. The mediator will try to help the plaintiff and the defendant reach a satisfactory agreement. The mediator is not a judge. If a settlement cannot be reached, your case likely will be heard by a judge on the same day.
If you win your case, consult the Judgment Collection brochure on how to collect your judgment (brochure is available at the Special Civil Part Clerk's Office).
RIGHT TO APPEAL
If you, as a plaintiff or a defendant, disagree with the court's decision, you may appeal the case to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court within 45 days from the date of judgment. You must file a Notice of Appeal, a copy of the Request for Transcript, and a Case Information Statement within 45 days with the Clerk of the Appellate Division located at the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, PO Box 006, Trenton, NJ
08625, and deliver copies to:
- All parties to the case who appeared in court.
- The Clerk of the Special Civil Part from which the appeal is taken.
- The judge who decided the case.
You must pay a filing fee of $175 with the Notice of Appeal and deposit $300 with the Clerk of the Appellate Division within 30 days of the Notice of Appeal. This deposit may be used to pay settlement or court costs if the appeal is lost. If the appeal is successful, the deposit will be refunded.