DIFFICULTY: Legal representation may be required
Initial Filing Fee: $25-$150
There are three courts in Michigan that can try general civil cases: the circuit court, the district court, and the probate court. Which court a case is tried in depends on the type of case that a plaintiff is bringing. All these cases must align with civil law, however, and concern a dispute brought against and individual or organization wherein compensation may be awarded to a victim or plaintiff. This is separate from criminal law, as civil law and civil court concern themselves with resolving disputes rather than the punishment of others. Possible causes for a civil case include but are not limited to:
• Rental security deposits
• Delinquent rent
• Physical damage
• Breach of contract
• Overdue accounts
The types of courts that these cases are tried in also depend on the amount that the claim is made for. For any suit up to $5,000 in which the plaintiff plans to represent them self, the trial would take place in the small claims division of the district court – though this amount may vary in some districts. When the claim is above $5,000 but below $25,000 the trial takes place in the general division of the district court, where attorney’s are allowed to represent either party, appeals are allowed, and a jury may take the place of a judge or magistrate. For any amount over $25,000, the trial must take place in the Court of Common Pleas (also known as circuit court), where there is no limit on the amount a claim may be for. In this final case, legal representation is mandatory.
Step 1: Establish Eligibility to File a Claim and Location You May File a Claim
In Michigan, it is sometimes possible for someone other than the plaintiff to file a complaint, although some of these only apply to small claims. In general, you may file a complaint if:
• You are the plaintiff
• You are the individual’s guardian, conservator, or next friend
• You are a sole proprietor’s full-time salaried employee with knowledge of the facts in the claim
• You are a partner in a partnership or a full-time salaried employee of that partnership with knowledge of the facts in the claim
• You are a full-time salaried employee of a corporation with knowledge of the facts in the claim
• You are filing for a county, city, village, township, or local or intermediate school district and are an elected or appointed officer or employee of that unit who has knowledge of the fact surrounding the claim and are authorized by the governing body of that unit to file the claim
Additionally, you will need to file the complaint in the district where either the plaintant resides, where the incident took place, where the defendant resides, or where the defendant’s business (if involved) is located.
Step 2: File a Claim
To begin a suit in civil court you must begin by filing the complaint. For small claims this means filing an Affidavit and Complaint with the district court. While for cases above that amount this requires you to file a Summons and Complaint with the appropriate judicial court or probate court. The clerk at your local courthouse can inform you which court you need to file with, as can an attorney or legal representative. Make sure to check the upper right corner of your form too, as this will tell you how many copies you will need to bring of a form to the court in order to file. You will also need to sign the complaint in front of a public notary or the clerk of the court in order to submit it. These complaints list the nature of the grievance as well as the remedies that are sought. In cases where the plaintiff cannot afford the fees associated with submitting and filing a claim, they may fill out a Suspension of Fees/Costs Form to fill out and submit that as well. Finally, if you wish to pick up forms at the courthouse there is usually a fee of $1 per form.
Step 3: Serving the Defendant
Once the claim is filed, the plaintiff will also need to select a form of service and pay the clerk of the court the cost of that service. The two choices are by mail or through personal delivery. The costs for sending the service, or summons as it is otherwise known, is as low as $5 for service through the mail and upwards of $21 plus mileage for personal service. Service is not optional, and only the clerk of the court may take the steps necessary to serve the defendant.
Step 4: The Defendant Answers the Complaint
Once the defendant receives the complaint, they have 21 days to answer if they were served in person or 28 days to answer if served through the mail. If the defendant does not respond in the required period, the court may enter a default judgment against them and rule in favor of the plaintiff. If the defendant chooses to file a counterclaim against the plaintiff, they will be served that counterclaim and need to answer as well. The answer should be filled out in the corresponding Answer Civil Form, though in the case of small claims the defendant is not required to answer and a default judgment only occurs if they fail to appear at court on the day of the trial.
Step 5: The Trial and Judgment
At the trial, both parties will have the opportunity to present evidence, witnesses, and any other items pertaining to their cases in order to convince the judge or jury to rule in their favor. At the trial the court may require a conference, case evaluations, or mediation if they wish, though in some cases the defendant or plaintiff may turn these down and proceed with the trial as per normal. If trial by jury or the use of attorneys has not been requested by the beginning of the trial, as they must be in small claims cases, then the case will continue as originally intended. Any request for these prior to the trial, however, will be honored. At the conclusion of the trial the judge or jury will render their judgment and the judge will sign the judgment before filing it with the clerk. Both parties will then receive a copy of the judgment for their own records.
Step 6: Appeals
As long as the case is not for small claims, the person that the judgment rules against has the right to appeal the judgment and have it retried. To do so, the party must fill out and submit a Claim of Appeal, as well as any other necessary documentation. For appeals, it is always advisable to consult an attorney if you have not already, as the process is far more complicated than the initial complaint and trial.
Step 7: Payment
Once the judgment is made, any party that has been found to owe the other party money is responsible for payment within 21 days, unless they cannot pay at this time. Should they not be able to pay, the judge may allow them extra time or establish a payment schedule. Should they miss the date of their payment, the party owed the money must go back to court and file to have the money taken from the other party’s wages or through seizing and selling some of their property.