Florida has a procedure for suing someone that is called small or summary claims. This process only works for amounts of $5000 or less. Anything more will be handled by county court up to $15000 and above that the claim will go to circuit court. Each step up becomes more involved and more expensive.

The goal of small claims is to allow the average person to sue someone without needing a lawyer. The procedures are simpler, the paperwork kept to a minimum and the courts are supposed to be more forgiving with the rules. However, a lawyer can be hired if you want to spend the money.

The first step is to fill out a small claims filing sheet which can be obtained from the clerk at the courthouse or on-line. This requires your name and address, the name and address of the person you are suing, a brief statement of your claim and why you are entitled to money and then you attach any documents that are the foundation of your suit. For example, if a man signed a note saying he’d pay you back a loan, you attach the note. If someone broke a contract you attach the contract. The purpose is to show the written agreement that was entered into when the problem started. If there is no such agreement in writing you explain the deal in the lawsuit itself.

You have to serve the lawsuit on the other side. This means officially deliver it to them by a method that is approved by law. In small claims there are three ways: by certified mail, by the sheriff’s office or by private process server properly appointed by the courts. Each costs a little more. The sheriff is the easiest since it can be handled by the small claims office and is more reliable than certified mail.

On filing the suit you will be given a hearing date. This is for the first appearance in court. This is NOT where evidence and witness are called, this procedure is only to see who really has a good claim or a good defense. It weeds out the cases that do not need a trial.

In Marion County you will show up on that date at 1:00 PM and watch a half-hour video of the small claims process. At 1:30 the judge will come in and call names of cases. Many of you will be there at the same time so it takes a while, bring a good book since you may have a long wait. If you do not come up to the front when your name is called your case will be thrown out. When you do come up the judge will also ask the defendant to approach. The defendant is the person you are suing, you are called the plaintiff. If the defendant does not show up you win and get a judgment saying that the money is owed. If the defendant does show up then he is asked if he agrees to the claim. If he says yes, you, again, get the judgment. If he says no you are asked to mediate the case.

Mediation is when you and the other side go into a room with a person who is trained to help settle cases. This person does NOT decide who is right or wrong but simply tries to work out a solution. You discuss what you will take and the other side discusses what they will pay and you see if you can agree. If you can, it is written down and signed and gets approved by the court.  If you can’t then you go back to the judge and he sets your case for trial on another day.

When your case is set for trial you receive a notice stating the date and time. It also tells you that you have to give the other side a list of witnesses that you might call and a list of exhibits or things like letters, agreements, pictures, or other documents that you will want to show the judge. If you do not list a witness or exhibit and give it to the defendant then you may not be able to use it at trial.

When the trial comes you present your case to the judge in his chambers. You have to have witnesses personally appear to say their piece to the court. Letters will not work. You have to be prepared to state your arguments in a logical order, using whatever exhibits help to prove the point. You get to ask questions of the other side and they can ask questions of you. Practice what you want to say and think about what is important. Remember that the judge knows nothing about your case so you have to tell him everything. Be polite, never interrupt, listen carefully, don’t raise your voice.  The judge may rule right then and there or might send you a ruling a few days later.

If you win you get what is called a judgment. This does not mean that you will be paid. Collecting a judgment will be the subject of another article. It is tricky and often difficult.

Remember, this is just a summary of the process of small claims. If you have a problem and need more information, call or e-mail Your Florida Attorney for an appointment, right here in Ocala, and I’ll be glad to talk with you. That’s mcooper@michaeljcooper.com, 352-732-4500.