DIFFICULTY: Legal assistance is recommended
Initial Filing Fee: $50 to $100
Ohio law requires that every county and municipal court needs to establish a small claims division, also known as the small claims court. The purpose of this court is to hear minor disputes in a quick and inexpensive manner. The hearings in this court tend to be simpler than in larger courts, with not jury and only a judge to decide the outcome of the case. As a result, the costs for using this court system are also lower, which makes it the ideal place for any claim that is under $3,000. If a plaintiff wants to bring a case for remuneration of an amount above $3,000, however, they will need to do so in the Court of Common Pleas, as the amount that Small Claims Court can try is capped at that number.
Step 1: Determine if Your Claim Qualifies to be Tried in Small Claims Court
The first thing you need to do is see if the claim you would like to make qualifies to be tried in Small Claims Court. In order for a claim to qualify for this quicker and less expensive process, it needs to meet the following criteria:
• The claim must be for money only
• A claim cannot exceed $3,000 (not including interest and court costs claimed). Additionally, counter claims and cross claims can only be for $3,000 or less.
• It cannot be based on libel, slander, malicious prosecution; it cannot seek punitive or exemplary damages; and it cannot be brought by an assignee or agent
• It cannot be against the State of Ohio or the United States government and its agencies
• The plaintiff and defendant are each at least 18 years old
As long as the claim you’d like to make falls within the boundaries set by these criteria, you can proceed with the process in Small Claims Court.
Step 2: Determine Where You Can File Your Claim
To initiate a case in small claims court you need to visit a municipal or county courthouse that is connected to the case in some way. The criterion for choosing a courthouse is as follows:
• The incident or transaction on which the claim is based took place in that court’s territory
• The defendant or one of the defendants resides within that court’s territory
• The defendant or defendant’s principle place of business is within that court’s territory, as long as the claim concerns that business in some manner
If you can satisfy one of these then you can file your claim in that county or municipal districts Small Claims Court.
Step 3: File the Complaint
To begin the process in Small Claims Court you need to file a Small Claims Complaint with the Clerk of the Court. These forms are available at the courthouse and on some of the Ohio County Courthouse websites. When you go to complete the complaint you will need the following information:
• The full name, business name if applicable, address, and telephone number of the defendant
• A list of the evidence you have that supports your claim
• The names and addresses of all your witnesses
• Cash to pay the filing fee
Once you fill out the complain form with the necessary details you will need to submit several copies of the claim to the Clerk. This is for their records and for serving the defendant. In general you will want to have four copies of the complaint total, though some clerks of the court will offer to copy the complaint for your for a nominal fee.
Step 4: Serve the Defendant
Once you file your complaint with the court, the clerk will initiate proceedings for serving the defendant. Generally, this is accomplished through the mail or through personal delivery to the defendant or their residence by a member of the Sheriff’s office. When the defendant cannot be found, or in other extraordinary circumstance, it is possible to publish the service, though this can cost the plaintiff significantly more, ranging upwards of $500 or more.
Step 5: The Answer
Once the defendant receives the service and complaint, they will have a short period of time in which to respond to the claim. They may choose to acquiesce to the request, at which point they can either pay the amount requested once the ruling is official or request additional time to pay, or they can choose to dispute the claim. If they choose to dispute the claim, they will then submit a counter claim to the court, and the plaintiff may be required to answer the counter claim as well. Once all claims are submitted, the issue will finally be able to move to trial.
Step 6: The Trial and Any Appeals
At the trial, the judge will listen to both parties stories, consider relevant evidence, and render a judgment. Whatever the judgment, the party that is ruled against will have the option to appeal the decision. To do so, they will need to fill out an appeal form and file it with the Court of Appeals, which manages all such processes in Ohio. The process will then begin anew to hear any new details or to see if the original decision should be reversed.
Step 7: Remuneration
If you won a judgment in Small Claims Court, then you will want to get your money from the defendant. The judgment itself will usually specify the timeframe in which the defendant needs to pay you, although this does not guarantee that they will actually adhere to that. If, for some reason, the defendant does not pay the money that they owe then you will need to take legal action in order to receive your remunerations, as it is not the court’s responsibility to enforce their judgment. You receive your money through the following methods:
• Voluntary Payment: When the defendant voluntarily pays the money that they owe as a result of the judgment
• Garnishment: The court orders the judgment debtor’s bank or employer to pay their earnings to the court, which in turn pays the judgment creditor. In general, though, the court can only take 25% of a judgment debtor’s earnings to do so
• Judgment Lien: If the judgment debtor owns any real estate, you can seek a judgment lien provides you with a security interest in their property until the time at which you are paid
• Attachment: The court orders that some of the judgment debtor’s property be seized and sold in order to pay the judgment
The appropriate forms are available at the relevant courthouse’s website, most of the time, and always available in-person with the clerk of the court.