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Any individual, business, partnership or corporation (with a few exceptions) may bring a small claims action only to recover money; a "natural person", meaning a human being, may file a claim up to $10,000; the limit is $5,000 in all other cases. In general, the claim must be filed in the district court of the county in which the defendant(s) reside.
Exceptions and specific rules can be found at RCW 3.66.040. The State of Washington may not be sued in a small claims action. Attorneys and paralegals are excluded from appearing or participating with the plaintiff or defendant in a small claims action unless the judge grants permission.
There is a $50 filing fee paid by the plaintiff to the court clerk at the time the suit is filed. In addition, you may have some additional fees payable to the Sheriff or process server to have the Notice of Small Claim served on the defendant. As an alternative, you may commence the suit by registered or certified, return-receipt mailing. If you win your case, you are entitled to recover your costs of filing and service fees.
First, you will prepare a Notice of Small Claim form that is provided by the clerk. You are required to sign the Notice in the presence of the clerk unless otherwise instructed by the court. On the Notice form, a hearing date will be entered by the clerk. It is the plaintiff's responsibility to accurately identify the defendant, provide a proper address, and, if possible, provide a phone number.
The clerk will assist you with forms and general information about the process. The clerk is not allowed to give legal advice or attempt to predict how the judge might rule in a given situation. Service of the claim form can be accomplished by any of the following:
The Notice of Small Claim must be served on the defendant not less than ten days before the hearing. If you are having the sheriff's office serve the Notice, it is recommended that you take the paperwork to their office immediately to allow sufficient time to perform service in a timely manner. A return of service, or mail return receipt bearing the defendant's signature, must be filed at or before the time of the first hearing. You cannot personally serve the claim. See RCW Chapters 4.28 and 12.40, and CRLJ 5 for more detailed information.
In most cases, neither party is one hundred percent right or wrong. You are encouraged to try to settle your case before trial. If you settle the dispute before the hearing, you must inform the court so the hearing can be canceled and your case dismissed. If the other party agrees to pay at a later date, you may ask the court for a continuance. If the other party pays before the postponed date, ask the court to cancel the hearing. If you do not receive your money by the time of the continued hearing, proceed with the case in court. If you drop the suit, your filing fee and service costs are not returned.
To prepare for the trial, collect all papers, photographs, receipts, estimates, canceled checks, or other documents that concern the case. It may be helpful to write down ahead of time the facts of the case in the order that they occurred. This will help you to organize your thoughts and to make a clear presentation of your story to the judge.
Remember that judges are under pressure to process cases quickly, and you can help yourself by being well prepared. It is also a good idea to sit through a small claim court session before the date of your hearing. This will give you firsthand information about the way small claims cases are heard.
If the defendant fails to appear for trial, the plaintiff will be granted judgment for the amount of the claim proven in court, plus costs - provided the plaintiff can show proof of service. If the plaintiff fails to appear, the claim is dismissed. However, generally the court will permit the plaintiff to start over, if good cause for the nonappearance is shown.
After the judge hears both sides, the court will issue a judgment or dismiss the case. If the plaintiff wins, the judge will order the defendant to pay a certain amount for the claim, as well as the costs the plaintiff spent to bring the case and any interest on the amount owed. Once the judgment is issued, the clerk will enter it into the civil docket of the court and will provide a certified copy of the judgment to the prevailing party for no additional cost.
Even if you have a judgment, it does not necessarily mean that you will be paid. The Small Claims Court does not collect the judgment for you. If the debtor does not pay right away, the court may order a payment plan. If the losing party fails to pay, the judge may increase the amount of the judgment to cover the cost of enforcing the judgment. If the judgment remains unpaid, you may seek to enforce the judgment through the collection process, which could include garnishing the defendant's wages or bank accounts; or seeking to obtain the personal property of the debtor. Remember, the court clerks cannot give you legal advice so you may need the assistance of an attorney or collection agency, whose fees may be paid by the debtor.
When the judgment is paid in full you must send written notice to the District Court that the judgment has been satisfied and paid, or to the Superior Court if the judgment has been transcribed.
The party who files a claim or counterclaim cannot appeal unless the amount claimed exceeds $1,000. No party may appeal a judgment where the amount claimed is less than $250. If an appeal is taken to the Superior Court, the appealing party is required to follow the procedures set out in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 12.36. The following steps must be taken within 30 days of the entry of the judgment:
When the appeal and bond are transferred to Superior Court, the appellant (person appealing the decision) may request the Superior Court suspend enforcement of the judgment until after the appeal is heard.
Within 14 days of filing the Notice of Appeal, the District Court clerk will transmit the court record to the Superior Court who will assign a new number and notify the District Court. The District Court clerk will advise the appellant of that number, and the appellant must then contact Franklin County Superior Court for further instructions.
Once the judgment has been appealed to the Superior Court, then enforcement of any judgment entered in the case will be handled in Superior Court in the same manner as any other Superior Court judgment.