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  • Writer's pictureBret "Recovering Lawyer" Thurman

Pleadings in a Small Claims Court Case

In a previous post, we stated that small claims court is a bit like Judge Judy without the TV cameras. That’s essentially true, but not entirely true.

Apropos of nothing, a 2016 story claimed that 10 percent of college graduates thought Judge Judy was on the Supreme Court. That headline is a bit overclaimed (Judith Sheindlin, a Supreme Court-ish name, was a multiple choice option in a question), but nonetheless troubling.

A major difference between shows like Judge Judy and real-life small claims court is that there is usually not that much talking in a real case. The he-said, she-said exchanges are for the benefit of the home audience. Most judges review some documents in advance. Maybe they ask a few questions to clear up a few points, and maybe they do not.

So, whether you are a plaintiff or a defendant in small claims court, it’s very important to communicate key points in these documents without boring the judge.

Complaint/Petition/Bill of Particulars

Regardless of the state’s rules of civil procedure, small claims court is usually a fact pleading jurisdiction. As the name implies, the plaintiff must plead facts which support its claim for relief. In a home warranty case, that claim is usually either a request for the home warranty company to make covered repairs or a demand for reimbursement for repairs already made. More on that below.

In contrast, most big boy state courts are notice pleading jurisdictions. A brief statement detailing the general nature of the claim is sufficient.

A small claims court complaint form usually gives plaintiffs about a half page to state the details of their complaint. As a result, this real estate is very valuable. Stick to the basic facts in your pleading. A home warranty complaint might look something like this:

● I bought a policy on 3/1/2019 which covered major home appliances, including the water heater.

● My water heater broke on 4/1/2019.

● I filed a repair claim on 4/5/2019.

● The company denied my claim on 5/5/2019.

● I want the company to repair or replace my water heater OR I paid $1,000 for a replacement water heater on 5/30/2019.

In other words, your complaint should detail the where and when. A separate section, usually the summons or certificate of service, sets out the who and what. There is no need to repeat that information in your complaint. Furthermore, quite frankly, the judge probably does not care about the why. S/he does not want to know, at least at this point, why your water heater broke or why the company denied the claim.

When you go to court, have evidence in hand which supports each point. Have a copy of your home warranty policy, time or date-stamped photos which show the damage, and so on. The judge might or might not ask for this evidence, because in small claims court, pleadings are evidence. Nevertheless, you should have it ready. Have copies of documents or photographs to show the other side.

Answer/Affirmative Defense/Grounds for Defense

Plaintiffs do not need to worry about these things. The answer, which is also known as the grounds for defense in some jurisdictions, is the defendant’s pleading.

Nevertheless, you might find yourself at the other counsel table at one time or another, especially if you have a small business.

The same general rules apply. Since small claims court is a fact pleading jurisdiction, a simple general denial (e.g. I didn’t do it) is normally insufficient. Instead, defendants should set out, in short, declarative sentences, their defenses. They might or might not get a chance to do so at the hearing.

Technically, defendants should list affirmative defenses before their grounds for defense. Affirmative defenses include things like statute of limitations, assumption of the risk, and incorrect legal name. Some small claims court judges are sticklers for fine points of law like these, and others are not.

Lawyers usually should not represent defendants in small claims court, but a lawyer can give you general advice about your pleadings. That goes for both plaintiffs and defendants.

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