A fight over that astronomical cell phone bill or the grocery tab -- we've all been there. And hopefully we come to an amicable solution about how we've spent our hard-earned cash. But some money disputes end up in court, like small claims court. You know, the kind you see on that TV show "People's Court?" But "People's Court" won't prepare you for the real thing, so we asked Kirk Shelton to teach us the basics. He's acting chief of counseling and dispute resolution at L.A. County's Department of Consumer Affairs.
"Small claims is a money court. You have to be able to want to get money," says Shelton. "It's a court for the people. It's no lawyers. It's a chance for you to go in, meet the judge and tell your story. You file some paperwork. You get a court date. You have a chance -- not very long, maybe five minutes, maybe 10 minutes at the most -- to tell your side of the story. The other side gets to tell their side of the story and the judge is going to make a decision on... the merits of the case."
So what should consumers know about the small claims process?
"In court, you've got to be organized," says Shelton. "It's a short period of time. You've got to have your evidence laid out. It's not a TV drama. You don't want to bring in the drama. You've got to bring your facts into the courtroom and really explain your case. Show your evidence. Walk the judge through why you're owed this money."
Evidence can include things like receipts, checks, contracts, a lease agreement, pictures, even diagrams. But Shelton says it's not about the "razzle dazzle." You should come prepared with the facts about why you are owed money. Unfortunately, Shelton says that doesn't happen often. He recommends visiting a courtroom to see a case ahead of time for an idea of what works and what won't work in small claims court.
Shelton warns consumers that the small claims process doesn't just end with receiving a judgment. Even if you win, you're going to need to collect and that process can be frustrating.
"It's really important [that] you go in with your expectations at the right level and you know what to expect going in. Once you win your judgment, you don't walk out of the courtroom and get a check right there. The debtor has 30 days to pay you. And if they don't -- and in many cases they don't -- then you have to start going into other processes to collect. There are options available," says Shelton. "Judgments are good for 10 years, which kind of gives you an idea of how long it might take."
The most common type of case that's heard in small claims court: landlord disputes involving security deposits, trying to collect on rent, or damage to property. Shelton says small claims court isn't for people who can't monetize their damages. He says in California the amount that you're disputing has to be under $10,000, but laws vary from state to state and jurisdictions may have different procedures, so consumers should check their local court rules.
For consumers who may not have the patience of going through the small claims process, there is an alternative: mediation. Shelton says in many areas, a mediator is provided for free.
"What a mediator will do is they'll sit down with both sides and try to talk out the problem. In a lot of cases, there is some agreement on both sides and if you can just get someone in there, a neutral party, who can help really identify what the needs of both sides are, you can reach an agreement without even having to go through the court process," says Shelton.