Consumerist empowers consumers to take on bad companies, but sometimes even the negative PR that Consumerist can bring to bear is not enough to persuade companies to behave. When that happens, you might have to sue in order to get what you want. Here is a brief guide to your options when you decide you need to escalate your complaint to the courts.
A “small claim” is a dispute about a small amount of money. For example, if the electronics store broke your MP3 player when you took it in for service, you have a small claim.
Small claims court is pretty much what you see on daytime courtroom dramas like Judge Judy, but without the sass. Lawyers rarely appear, and the money in dispute is usually fairly small (although it the upper limit is usually several thousand dollars).
Most states make it easy to start a lawsuit in small claims court. For example, in Minnesota, you can download forms and instructions from the courts’ website. The court clerks are helpful, and some counties even have self-help centers that can coach plaintiffs through the process.
If you have a small claim and want to file a lawsuit yourself, find your state or county small claims court. Look for forms, instructions, and self-help resources.
Some important things to remember:
- Include all the money you want in your statement of claim;
- Gather up all your documentation, and bring an extra copy to court to share with the judge and/or the defendant;
- Wear a suit, because the other guy probably will;
- Be ready and willing to settle, but do not feel like you have to settle;
- Stay calm, especially in front of the judge or referee, because the party that gets upset is usually the party that loses; and
- At the hearing, focus on why they owe you money; don’t digress, Boston-Legal style, into a catalog of the company’s human rights abuses.
Things that are not small claims
Many consumer protection laws provide for attorney fees, which means the person or company you sue will have to pay your lawyer, so you don’t have to. Not quite a free lawyer, but it means you should not have to pay your lawyer unless they get money for you. In many cases, you will get more money if you hire a lawyer than if you represent yourself.
Here are a few things you should talk about with a consumer rights lawyer instead of bringing a lawsuit yourself:
- Debt collection abuse and harassment;
- Credit report errors;
- Credit, housing, or other forms of discrimination;
- Problems with credit repair companies;
To find a consumer lawyer, the best place to start looking is the consumer lawyer database at the National Association of Consumer Advocates.
The statute of limitations may be as short as one year, so get on it!
Remember, filing a lawsuit is serious business, even in small claims court. Frivolous lawsuits will get tossed, and if you file one, you may even get sanctioned. But there are times where you are right, the company is wrong, and the only way to get what you deserve is to open up your closet and put on your lawsuit.
Sam Glover is a consumer rights lawyer, enemy of shady debt collectors, previous Consumerist contributor, and writes the Caveat Emptor blog. His column appears the first Monday of every month on Consumerist.
(Illustration: Leo Espinosa)