The "People's Court" is one of those law programs, like "Perry Mason" and "L.A. Law," that has left an indelible mark on a vast viewership. The judges who have presided over "The People's Court" and other, similar court shows, became TV icons.
Remember how "The People's Court" announcer ended each telecast by urging viewers with problems to "take 'em to court"? That line made lawyers bristle because it fostered legal inefficiency. Suing should be the last resort, but there are times when suing seems to be the only way to solve the problem. If you find yourself in that situation, small claims court may be the best place to go. There are some important things you should know if you sue, or must defend, in small claims court.
Many small claims courts are much like the People's Court, but New Mexico's small claims courts have some differences. The People's Court is modeled on California's small claims courts, which prohibit litigants from being represented by attorneys. New Mexico's small claims courts – called magistrate and metropolitan courts – have no such prohibition. So if you decide to sue your neighbor or renter or anyone else in metro or magistrate court, don't be surprised if he or she shows up with an attorney. A corporation must be represented by an attorney. If you don't have one, you may be at a disadvantage. Still, pro se litigation (representing oneself) in small claims court is not necessarily a lost cause, and may even be advantageous in certain situations.
New Mexico's small claims courts will hear cases involving a variety of rights. They can enforce written and oral contracts and property rights. Small claims courts can award money damages for wrongful acts done by persons and corporations. If the money damages sought exceed $10,000, though, small claims courts lack jurisdiction and the case must be filed in district court. Small claims courts may, under certain circumstances, award damages meant to punish an especially flagrant defendant, but these courts don't usually do so. The courts can award interest and court costs, but will not issue injunctions. Small claims courts have jurisdiction over cases that arise in the county in which the courts sit, and over cases in which the defendants reside in those counties.
There are several factors to consider when deciding whether to file in small claims court. The amount in controversy is one. If the amount in controversy is so low that it would not be cost efficient to hire an attorney, pro se litigation in small claims court may be the best way to go. Even if you hire an attorney, consider the filing fee. Small claims courts charge about $70 to file a suit – district courts charge more than $100.
Lawsuits are subject to time limits, called statutes of limitations, which vary. For example, certain types of suits must be filed within two years of the incident that caused the harm.
Unlike district courts, small claims courts are used to pro se litigants and are more willing to aid them with procedural questions and problems. Small claims courts have simple pleading forms. Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court has even prepared a free civil procedure brochure. But it is important to remember that court personnel will not give you legal advice. If you need legal advice and you find legal research too daunting, you probably need to consult a lawyer.
The first step in starting a lawsuit in small claims court is filing a complaint with the court. The complaint contains a short and plain statement of the case and you can use the court's form. You must have the defendant's correct name and address. You'll pay the filing fee when you file the complaint, and the court will issue a summons. If you want a jury, you'll pay another $75.
The next decision you must make is how to serve the defendant. You can serve the defendant by mail. If you choose this option, you must send a copy of the complaint, summons, answer form, two copies of a notice and acknowledgement, and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Certified mail, return receipt requested, is best.
If, however, the defendant refuses service by mail, you must serve the defendant personally. You cannot do it yourself. To have the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department do it, you'll have to pay $30.00. If you serve the defendant personally, you must send along a copy of the summons with the original. You must also attach a return of service form. You don't need to send the notice and acknowledgement. By the way, if the defendant refuses service by mail, the court may declare him liable for the costs of personal service.
If you are the defendant in a small claims court lawsuit, you must answer within 20 days. Put any set-offs (claims by the defendant that would cancel some of the amount the defendant may owe the plaintiff) and other counterclaims into your answer. If you believe the small claims court lacks jurisdiction, state that and ask the court to dismiss the case. You must file your answer with the court and send a copy to the plaintiff. If you want a jury and the plaintiff has not demanded one, you may demand one and pay the $75.
If the defendant fails to answer within 20 days, the court may award the plaintiff a default judgment. Then, the plaintiff must show the court the damages owed by the defendant.
A period of discovery runs between the time the defendant answers and the trial. During that time, some depositions may be taken and interrogatories (questionnaires) may be sent and answered. This period is also a good time to enter settlement negotiations.
If you reach a settlement, the plaintiff must dismiss the case. If you don't reach a settlement, you will go to trial. Rules of evidence and trial practice are arduous, but if you are pro se, the judge will probably cut you some slack, although nothing requires him to do so. Still, you must line up your witnesses, present your evidence, and know what the judge and jury (if you have one) need to hear in order for you to make your case.
If you prevail in small claims court and win a judgment, don't expect the defendant to immediately do whatever the court ordered. Enforcing a judgment is often more difficult than winning one. The problems you are likely to encounter are not unique to small claims court. This article won't set out the steps you'll need to take to enforce the judgment – that would fill another whole article.