Small Claims vs. District Court – Where Should You File?

FILING SUIT IN SMALL CLAIMS VS. DISTRICT COURT – MASSACHUSETTS

  • As part of the business law legal services offered by The Jacobs Law, LLC, we pursue collections of outstanding customer accounts & amounts due pursuant to contract. I am often asked by clients and prospective clients to explain the pros & cons of filing suit in Small Claims Court vs. District Court. Like most legal issues, the answer depends on the circumstances of the parties, the goals of the client, and the specific facts at issue in the dispute. This guide helps explain some of the factors one should consider when choosing whether to file suit in Small Claims Court or District Court.

Requirements for filing a claim in Small Claims Court

It is first important to know the limits and criteria for filing in Small Claims Court. This information will help you make a more informed decision.

To file in Small Claims Court in Massachusetts you must know the following:

(1) Your damages must be equal to or less than $7,000.00. BUT, there are 2 key exceptions:

(1)(a) your suit is for property damage sustained in an automobile accident, or

(1)(b)  Your damages are pursuant to a statute (which can require or give discretion to a judge to award attorney’s fees in some circumstances) such as consumer protection cases (MGL ch.93A) or certain landlord/tenant cases.  In such statutory-based damages cases, the base amount of damages claimed may not exceed $7,000 even though the potential award (such as where MGL ch.93A allows the court to triple the damages and award attorney’s fees) may exceed $7,000.00.

(1)(b)(i) in other words, as long as your claimed base damages are equal or less than $7,000.00 (let’s say $5,000.00) then your claim is otherwise eligible for Small Claims Court—even if you’re asking the court to triple your damages to $15,000.00 because you allege the defendant violated MGL ch.93A.

(1)(b)(ii) Small Claims Court is designed for simpler types of civil litigation (collections, credit card defaults, landlord-tenant issues, property damage claims, promissory notes, breach of contract, etc.) – complex business litigation or cases that involve significant amounts of money and/or discovery, for example, would be discouraged from pursuing the caw in a Small Claims Court.

Pros & Cons of Filing in Small Claims Court

PROS:

(1) Easy Complaint Process:  Filing the ‘complaint’ is quick and easy. You fill out (handwritten or typed) a “Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial”. The Small Claims Court clerk will have the forms you need and you can obtain it in person, by mail, or (sometimes) over the phone. It has multiple carbon copies to it so most courts will not accept a printed-out version from the internet. Check with the local Small Claims Court clerk first.

(2) Low Filing Fees: The fees to file a case in Small Claims Court are relatively inexpensive. Filing fees are $40 for claims up to $500, $50 for claims up to $2,000, $100 for claims up to $5,000, and $150 for claims up to $7,000.  Claims for over $7,000 in motor vehicle damage arising from a car accident are also $150.

(3) Low Cost to Serve Court Documents: Service of process is still required in Small Claims Court, but it is performed by the Court through the mail and is free.

(3)(a) Some recent changes to the law have gone into place requiring plaintiffs to show the defendant’s address is current. Generally, this is only an issue when you have large credit card companies or debt collectors filing actions in Small Claims Court on debts that may have been incurred years prior. Either way, the court typically will accept a printout from a background search company confirming the address is current or even the residential listings of a site like superpages.com could help.

(3)(b) If you have an issue with the address or the defendant has the letter from the court “returned to sender” (which often happens with unscrupulous defendants who have experience in the ‘system’) you can still use a Constable or Sheriff to serve the “Statement of Small Claims” on the defendant or at his last and usual home address for about $50.  Therefore, your total costs to get a Small Claims Court case filed range between $90 – $200.

(4) Relative Speed of the Small Claims Court Process: Small Claims Courts are relatively fast and easy.  Some Small Claims Courts are so backed up that your first hearing may not be scheduled for six (6) months. However, often those same court systems’ District Courts are equally as backed up.

(5) Informal Atmosphere & Procedural Rules: The atmosphere in Small Claims Court is extremely informal and the rules of the court are significantly relaxed. In Small Claims Court, the parties generally speak to the judge or clerk magistrate as if they were telling a story to someone—albeit with much more respect than you would show to just ‘anyone’. You are permitted to ask the opponent questions or produce witnesses for testimony, and submit documents to the Court without having to deal with technical rules of evidence.

(5)(a) You should remember to bring copies of any documents you expect to show the Court because you will need a copy for yourself and the opposing party—otherwise you waste time while the other party looks at, while the judge looks at it, and while you wait to get it back if you need it to refer to while you tell the judge your story or question a witness.

(5)(b) A sub-‘PRO’ here is that most Small Claims Court judges and clerk magistrates do actually listen to you. In fact, it is almost as if the concept of ‘getting your day in court’ and voicing your concerns are the ‘end’ and not just the ‘means to an end’. In other words, often just having a judge hear you out fully and venting your issues is half the battle to reach a resolution. Small Claims Court judges and clerk magistrates are generally excellent at this – they are good listeners (generally speaking). Getting it all out in the open in a court setting helps the parties resolve disputes.

(6) Attorneys are not required: Unlike the District Court, parties often appear at Small Claims Court hearings pro se (which means for themselves, without legal representation). Generally, a business entity registered with the state, such as a corporation or a limited liability company (LLC) must have legal counsel to represent the entity—even if you are the sole owner/shareholder and regardless of whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant. However, in small claims court only, a corporation or an LLC, may represent itself without licensed legal counsel. Some judges or clerk magistrates may be unaware of this exception, and so you may need to refer to the following cases: Varney Enterprises Inc. v. WMF Inc., 402 Mass. 79 (1988) and Lee v. Mt. Ivy Press, LP., 63 Mass.App.Ct. 538 (2005). If you are a business entity, filing in small claims court may, therefore, be a more cost efficient option.

(6)(b) Hiring an attorney will cost the business more money, possibly more than the amount in dispute, and this litigation cost could influence the business’ decision to resolve the matter by settlement. However, if the business entity chooses to hire an attorney, your case could be removed to District Court where the rules are more formal and much more complicated for a pro se litigant.

(7) Counterclaims: Counterclaims are made by the defendant against the plaintiff. In many cases, the defendant does have valid claims against a plaintiff, but since the plaintiff filed suit first, the defendant’s claims are called ‘counterclaims’. These are relatively rare in Small Claims Court in part because they are not ‘compulsory’. In District Court, for example, if a defendant fails to make counterclaims that are related to the same facts and circumstances, then the defendant may never be able to make those claims. However, the same is not true for Small Claims Court. If you fail to make counterclaims in Small Claims Court, you can always make those claims at a later date—as long as you file them before the statute of limitations (i.e. the deadline to file suit for that particular claim which is set by statute). That being said, counterclaims are possible and allowed in Small Claims Court, but given the simplistic nature of Small Claims Court and the fact that they are not compulsory, counterclaims are rarely made.

CONS:

(1) No Formal Discovery: There is no formal discovery process in small claims.  Some discovery is allowed, but it is actually more difficult in my opinion / experience to conduct discovery requests in Small Claims Court than in District Court. And discovery is very important for 2 reasons.

(1)(a) First, the discovery process allows you to compel the opposing party to give you documents, audio/video, electronically stored information, records, statements, and answer specific questions you submit in writing to the opposing party.

(1)(b) Second, discovery can be time consuming, annoying, and ‘not worth the hassle for the amount of money in dispute’. I hear that phrase a lot when sitting at hearings in the Small Claims Court. Although discovery cannot be used to frustrate, annoy, embarrass the opposing party, it is often an unintended consequence simply because no one actually enjoys responding to discovery requests. Business owners want to run their business not answer tedious discovery questions or copy hundreds of pages of documents requested by the opponent. Therefore, discovery requests can show the opposing party you are serious and may make the other side reconsider the decisions that got them into court in the first place.

(1)(c) For these reasons, the lack of formal / extensive discovery in Small Claims Court is a ‘CON’ in my opinion.

(2) Gut / Heart Decision Making vs. Sound Legal Reasoning: For better or worse, Small Claims Court judges and clerk magistrates often base decisions on feelings of the ‘gut’ or the ‘heart’ as opposed to carefully reasoned legal analysis and precedent. This is really a result of the nature of Small Claims Court—the claims are small and given limited resources and time, small claims warrant less attention than Superior Court cases.

(2)(a) You still have the opportunity to argue your case based on the law—and often the party that does this successfully will win the Small Claims Court case. However, most pro se litigants in Small Claims Court are unfamiliar with the law and lack access to legal research resources.

(2)(b) If you believe the law is on your side, go to your local library because many of them do have legal research resources you can use and the reference desk librarian can help show you how to do legal research.

(2)(c) Nonetheless, this main issue with this type of decision making is that it tends to result in unpredictability of the outcome. That level of unpredictability is, in my opinion, a CON of filing suit in the Small Claims Court system.

(3) Post-Judgment Collections Frustration: One of the biggest “CONs” in Small Claims Court is the post-judgment collections process. It is extremely time consuming, especially if the losing party has few assets or little to no income (see (i) below too). This process can require multiple return visits to court for payment review hearings, further mini-trials / hearings where the losing party complains he/she has no money to pay the judgment, etc.  Judges will often order the losing party pay as little as $50/month. At that rate, a $5,000 judgment would take 100 months to pay off. During that time period, payments are often late or not made at all and you have to go back to court again.

(3)(a) Keep in mind also that if the defendant has no (or few) assets and his/her only income is from social security or social security disability / supplemental security income, then he/she is  essentially judgment proof. A judge can order a payment schedule or you could win a judgment, but the Court cannot garnish or attach social security or social security disability / supplemental security income. Any attempts to recover on a judgment against a defendant In these circumstances is essentially futile.

(3)(b) If you’re lucky, the losing party may actually have assets and you can use a Small Claims Court judgment to lien / attach those assets, garnish wages, etc. However, using the Small Claims Court to lien property or obtain a wage garnishment is cumbersome and time consuming in my opinion, with the process being drawn out over multiple additional court appearances. Even missed court appearances resulting in a default by a defendant can often easily be undone—Small Claims Court regularly ‘vacates’ defaults against Small Claims Court defendants. This adds to the total time and effort even a winning party will spend in order to obtain payment from the losing party. I see this as a major CON to the Small Claims Court system.

(3)(c) All that being said, if the defendant / losing party actually has assets and substantial income, the Small Claims Court systems remains an inexpensive, relatively uncomplicated method of collecting unpaid money or money due as a result of a breach of contract.

(4) Waiver of Jury Trial: One final CON is that when you file in Small Claims Court, you waive the right to a trial by jury.  Jury trials in Small Claims Court cases are only allowed on appeal – the losing party in a Small Claims Court case can actually appeal the decision to a jury or judge trial. But, at the initial state of the Small Claims Court process, the judge (or clerk magistrate) and the judge alone, will make the final decision. This can actually be seen as a positive or a negative depending on a wide variety of circumstances which are too long to get into detail here. However, as a rule of thumb, if your case is a bit more complicated than most Small Claims Court cases, but you have the law clearly on your side, a judge trial is probably a good option.

(4)(a) Even though a plaintiff waives the right to a jury trial when he/she files in Small Claims Court, a defendant can always request removal to the District Court. Defendants rarely do this because it’s more difficult and likely requires the expertise of a lawyer, allows for formal discovery, and is typically a slower process.

Pros & Cons of Filing in District Court

PROS:

(1) Formal Discovery: Cases filed in District Court allow for significant, formal discovery. As explained above, this is a great tool for compelling the opposing party to provide you with documents and answers to questions that can help you win a case. Keep in mind, you could also discover documents or information that hurts your case too. But it’s better to know before a trial anyway. Nonetheless, the information gathered from formal discovery is extremely useful in evaluating the potential success or failure (i.e. merits) of your case. After the discovery process is complete, you may find the opposing party was right or justified and decide not to spend more time and money pursuing a case you will likely lose. It can also influence the parties to settle, also saving enormous time and money.

(1)(a) As above, compelling the opposing party to respond to formal discovery can put pressure on the opposing party to resolve the suit or settle. It can also force the opposing party to think more about the legal issues and review key documents in its possession, leading that party to evaluate their own likelihood of success or failure in the case. Responding to discovery requests also requires a lot of work, time and effort. This is, of course, a two-way street, as discovery costs – in time and money – can be cumbersome and costly to you as well.

(2) Cost of Legal Representation: In District Court, both sides are generally represented by an attorney. Individuals may proceed pro se, but unlike Small Claims Court, in District Court a business entity cannot represent itself and must hire legal counsel. This is an additional cost to both parties (and can be seen as a CON) but since claims such as MGL ch.93A allow for attorney’s fees and some attorneys will pursue the case for a percentage of the recovery/judgment/settlement (i.e. a contingency fee arrangement) the additional cost of hiring a lawyer is often a greater burden on the defending party. This may be an incentive for the opposing party to settle the case. And since handling a case in District Court is more difficult than in Small Claims Court, the legal fees are generally higher as well.

(3) Post-Judgment Collections Have Bigger “Teeth”: Compared to Small Claims Court, a District Court judgment has more “teeth” in my opinion. As explained above, even a favorable judgment in Small Claims Court is often not the end of the court appearances or the hassle you face in collecting your money.  Further action is still required in District Court as well, but the process of attaching assets and garnishing wages is actually clearer and (again, in my opinion) more straight forward and final than in Small Claims Court.  Of course, if the losing party has no assets to lien or very little wages to garnish, you face some of the same problems as in Small Claims Court.

(4) Formal Atmosphere & Procedural Rules: Due to the more formal atmosphere and procedural rules involved, District Court judges tend to take the claims filed in District Court a bit more seriously than in Small Claims Court. This is not necessarily intentional, but claims filed in District Court are generally for more money, are more complicated, and therefore there is more ‘on the line’ than in Small Claims Court—it’s just the nature of a judicial system with limited resources and time in the day—the more serious cases, get more serious attention.

(5) Decisions Based on Legal Principles: As a result (see d. above) decisions are based more on legal principles and less on feelings of the ‘gut’ or ‘heart’, although there is still plenty of this in District Court to go around as well. This provides for some more predictability in judgments and ‘split-the-baby’ decisions are less common.

CONS:

(1) Greater cost: District Court claims are more expensive to file and serve on the defendant. It costs approximately $195 to file a suit, plus $5/summons for each defendant, and about $50 to serve a copy of the complaint on each defendant.  There are also the added costs associated with discovery and attorney’s fees, which, in some situations, can be substantial.  However, depending on the type of claim, court costs and attorney’s fees can be recouped by the successful party through a statute (such as MGL ch.93A) that allows it, or pursuant to the contract that forms the basis of the dispute.  If the fee arrangement with your attorney is on contingency, then the plaintiff will not have to pay attorney’s fees (or costs, generally) unless successful.

(2) Greater time commitment: District Court claims can be more time consuming, and the formal discovery process adds to the process. In addition, District Court dockets are routinely backed up many months before a trial can be scheduled. However, the additional time may be mitigated by the fact that Small Claims Courts can schedule and hold multiple hearings before a case is actually heard. Even a default in Small Claims Court can easily be undone by a defaulted defendant. The return court appearances mean a day out of work each hearing, so spending a few months waiting for discovery to complete may be a better option for you. The post-judgment collection attempts / hearings can also be time consuming and frustrating.

(3) Counterclaims: As explained in the Small Claims Court section, counterclaims are made by the defendant against the plaintiff. In many cases, the defendant does have valid claims against a plaintiff, but since the plaintiff filed suit first, the defendant’s claims are called ‘counterclaims’. These are relatively rare in Small Claims Court in part because they are not ‘compulsory’. In District Court, however, if a defendant fails to make counterclaims that are related to the same facts and circumstances of the plaintiff’s case, then the defendant may never be able to make those claims. This is not the case for Small Claims Court though. Counterclaims are much more common in District Court claims. The reason they are in the CON section of District Court claims is because if the defendant has counterclaims and he/she hires legal counsel, chances are those claims will be brought against you. It is one thing to pursue claims against a defendant, but it’s much more difficult and time consuming (i.e. expensive) to pursue and defend against legal claims.

Which Option is Better for You: Small Claims Court or District Court?

(1) It is clear that there many considerations and factors go into determining whether to file in Small Claims Court or District Court. The answer is not always a simple one—it requires some serious thought.

(2) If your claim is relatively small in value and not complex, Small Claims Court is an efficient and cost-effective route to take.  However, when your claim involves large amounts of money, is complex, or you desire formal discovery, more formality of procedures, and greater predictability in judgments, filing in District Court is generally the better way to go. If your case is for truly significant value of damages though, Superior Court would be the next option, but the District Court v. Superior Court choice is a topic for a different day.

(3) This guide only scratches the surface of the myriad factual, legal, monetary, and personal considerations involved in deciding whether to file in Small Claims Court or District Court.

(4) If you have more questions about whether to file in Small Claims Court or District Court, an experienced attorney at THE JACOBS LAW, LLC can help. As legal counsel for businesses seeking to collect on customer accounts or pursuant to contracts, The Jacobs Law has valuable experience in advising clients whether to file in Small Claims Court versus District Court.  Please feel free to contact THE JACOBS LAW,LLC at CONTACTUS@THEJACOBSLAW.com for more information or to hire an attorney for your next Small Claims Court or District Court case.