1. PARTIES AND REPRESENTATION
An action in the Small Claims Division is commenced upon the filing of a complaint with the court. The party who files the complaint is the plaintiff. The party against whom the action is filed is the defendant. NOTE: The clerks at the Small Claims counter may not give you legal advice, so please don’t ask.
The basic purpose of the Small Claims Court is to help individuals recover small amounts of money quickly, informally, and relatively inexpensively and without having to hire a lawyer. But, if you don’t use a lawyer, you still must be able to prove your case.
An individual may present his or her own case or may be represented by an attorney. Individuals under the age of 18, or those declared legally incompetent, may appear in court through a parent, legal guardian, or attorney.
A partnership may be represented by a general partner or an attorney.
A corporation may be represented by an attorney. A bona fide officer or salaried employee may file and present a claim or defense in any action, but may not, in the absence of an attorney, engage in any cross-examination, argument, or other acts of advocacy.
Jurisdiction refers to the Court’s authority to hear a case as to the subject matter and the parties. The Small Claims Division has a jurisdiction for the recovery of money only up to $3,000.00, exclusive of interest and costs. If your claim is for more than $3,000.00, you may use small claims only if you agree to give up your rights to any amount in excess of $3,000.00. Otherwise, you may file your case in the Civil Division.
The Small Claims Division does not have jurisdiction over action for libel, slander, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, or replevin (i.e., recovery of property); or in any claim for punitive damages (except those specifically brought under the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act, R.C. §§ 1345.09 and 1345.48). Further, assignees (persons who are not the original claimants) may not file in Small Claims. The court also does not have jurisdiction to hear a claim brought against either the State of Ohio or the United States of America or their respective agencies.
3. TYPES OF CLAIMS
Most claims for money can be brought in Small Claims. Typical cases involve suits for the return of security deposits, payment of back rent, repayment of loans, recovery of amounts paid for services never rendered or not rendered to satisfaction.
You must, at the time of filing, provide the following information in the following types of claims:
- CAR ACCIDENT DAMAGES – The person whose name appears on the title is the person who must sign the complaint. You must provide two copies of the car title and two estimates for repair or copies of a paid bill. If you are using estimates, the lower of the two will be the amount of your claim. You may file against the owner of the other car and also against the driver if they are not the same person.
- SECURITY DEPOSITS (R.C. § 5321.16) – It must be at least 30 days since the termination of your lease. You must leave your forwarding address in writing with your landlord. You may also claim double damages if your deposit has not been returned in 30 days, or for amounts that were wrongfully withheld. You must supply two copies of both your lease and any letter from the landlord listing reasons for withholding of the deposit.
- ACCOUNTS PAST DUE – You must provide two copies of the statements showing actual charges made and the current running balance.
- WAGES – You must provide the dates worked, number of hours, and the rate of pay.
- BACK RENT AND DAMAGES – You must list the address of the property, the term of the lease, the months owed in rent, and the amount of rent per month. Damages and cleaning expenses for the property in question must be itemized. If there was a written lease, two copies are required, along with two copies of any receipts for expenses.
4. COUNTERCLAIMS, CROSS-CLAIMS AND THIRD-PARTY COMPLAINTS
A counterclaim is a claim brought by a defendant against a plaintiff. A cross-claim is a claim brought by one defendant against another defendant. A third-party complaint is a claim brought by a defendant against a party not named in the original complaint. Each of these types of action may be brought in Small Claims Court for money only, up to the $3,000.00 limitation. Forms and instructions are available at the Small Claims clerk’s counter. These claims must be filed at least seven (7) days prior to trial.
A party may obtain one (1) continuance, not to exceed thirty (30) days, by delivering a written request to the Small Claims office at least seven (7) days prior to the scheduled date of the trial. A second continuance, or a continuance for more than thirty days, or a continuance requested less than seven days in advance, may be had by either a.) obtaining the consent of all other parties involved, or b.) obtaining a special order for such from the magistrate or judge. A special continuance will be granted only in exceptional circumstances.
6. TRIAL, EVIDENCE AND SUBPOENAS
A magistrate will conduct the small claims trial. The plaintiff will first present evidence. The defendant may then ask questions of the plaintiff’s witnesses (“cross-examination”). The defendant will then present evidence and the plaintiff may likewise cross-examine those witnesses (a person representing a corporation who is not an attorney, however, may not ask questions of any witnesses).
The “burden of proof” rests with the complaining party, who will be required to prove the case by “the preponderance of the evidence” presented. If the evidence presented by the complaining party is merely equal to or less than that presented by the responding party, the claim will fail.
Evidence may include the relevant testimony of sworn witnesses, original documents (or acceptable duplicates) including motor vehicle certificates of title, contracts, receipts, public records, photographs, actual objects, etc. Copies attached to and part of the original complaint are NOT EVIDENCE. The originals or other copies must be presented at trial to be considered as evidence. Hearsay evidence (including written statements from witnesses who are not present at trial) is not admissible. Written estimates, however, may be offered as a measure of monetary loss.
THIS IS THE ONLY OPPORTUNITY YOU WILL HAVE TO PRESENT EVIDENCE. MAKE SURE YOU BRING EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE YOU NEED TO PRESENT YOUR CASE. YOU MUST PROVE YOUR CASE.
Subpoenas may be issued to compel the appearance at trial of a witness or to obtain documents. Requests for subpoenas should be made at least one week prior to trial at the small claims counter. The requesting party prior to the issuance of the subpoena must pay witness fees.
7. MAGISTRATE’S DECISION AND FINAL JUDGMENT
Based on the evidence and testimony presented, the magistrate will file a decision either immediately at the hearing or after researching the law. A copy of the decision is mailed to each party. Either party has the right to object to the magistrate’s decision. Objections must be IN WRITING and filed within fourteen (14) days after receiving the magistrate’s decision. A copy of the objections must be mailed to the opposing party.
Upon objection, the judge thoroughly reviews the case file, the audio tape of the hearing, the magistrate’s decision, the objections, and enters a final judgment which may be the same as the magistrate’s decision or a modification of it.
The judgment entered by the judge can be appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals in Toledo, Ohio. This is a very technical procedure that must be done within a relatively short period of time (usually thirty days) after the final judgment and will probably require the services of an attorney.
8. COLLECTION OF JUDGMENT
It is the responsibility of the winning party to initiate any steps to collect judgment. The clerk’s office has the necessary paperwork available for collecting judgment. Please refer to the civil division for details on collecting judgment.