If a person or business owes you $5,000.00 or less of money, you may want to consider suing them in Small Claims Court, a Division of the County District Court, in the State of Washington. As of 02/07/2018, there is now pending in the Washington Legislature, SB 5989, which if passed by the House of Representatives, would increase the $5,000.00 limit to $10,000.00. I travel to Olympia on February 9, 2018, to testify before the House in support of that legislation. It is important that people who cannot afford a lawyer get that additional access to justice.
Attorneys are not allowed in Small Claims Court and the forms are easy for a layperson to understand. As with any lawsuit, it must be filed before the statute of limitations has run from the date your claim started. For personal injury and property damage matters in Washington State (except assault, which is two years) filing must be done before three years from the accident/injury date. For an oral contract, the limit is also three years. For a written contract, it is six years. If the statute of limitations time runs out before you settle or file your suit, the claim is barred, but for only a couple of exceptions, such as cases involving a minor or someone of diminished mental capacity. You will be representing yourself, but if you pay attention to the details and keep in mind the suggestions here, you should get your day in court.
Go to the Small Claims Court Clerk’s Office and ask for a Small Claims Prefiling Information form to fill out. Some counties will have that form available on their official webpage. You will need to name the individual you have the claim against as a defendant and additionally name any spouse, since Washington is a community property state, as spouses are usually presumed to be acting on behalf of their marital community. If the Defendant is a minor or someone of diminished mental capacity, then also name the parents or guardian. If the Defendant is a business or its employee, then name the employee and all of the owners or head managers who are listed for that entity on the Washington Secretary of State Corporations look-up website.
Turn in the completed Small Claims Prefiling Information form to the Small Claims Court. If you and the Defendant(s) reside in the same county, then you file there. If the Defendant lives in another county, you’ll likely need to file there, unless the accident/injury occurred in your county of residence. Some contracts will have a venue (county) selection clause which states exactly what county and state any lawsuit must be filed in. The Small Claims Court Clerk will actually type the Small Claims Complaint and Summons, which you will need to sign. Delay is not usually recommended, so consider filing the action promptly, because you have a limited amount of time to locate the Defendant(s) for proper service (delivery) of the Small Claims Court documents.
After you have filed your case, the clerk will give you copies for delivery to the Defendant(s). It will show the date when your Small Claims Court case hearing will be. You must personally attend, so keep that date on your calendar. You are not permitted to be the messenger for delivery of law suit documents to the other party. Rather, contact the local County Sheriff’s Office to make arrangements for a deputy to serve copies on Defendants or, you can have a professional document service messenger do it, such as Tom Stotts of Strategic Intelligence in Spokane, Washington. He is also a private detective. If a Defendant business’ information is found in the Washington Secretary of State Corporations look-up website, it will tell you who is their Corporate Agent and where their address. Have the Sheriff for the county where they are located do the service. While anyone over age 18 and not a party to the law suit can deliver documents, a Sheriff Department charges a modest fee, they know the rules for proper service and will also file an Affidavit of Service (sometimes called a “Return”). That Affidavit must be filed with the Small Claims Court Clerk to prove actual delivery of the court papers. Once served, the suit is started and can go forward to the hearing. If a Defendant cannot be found for personal service or if they don’t have an actual residence where court papers can be left with a mature person who also lives there, then contact a private detective to do a basic locate (sometimes called a skip-trace) to find where they reside.
Since you will be representing yourself, you will need to personally appear in Small Claims Court on the day and at the time of hearing (informal trial) to show what documents you have and tell your side of the story to justify your claim(s). Remember, you can only ask for money. Child custody, tenant eviction, probate of a deceased person’s will, for example, are non-monetary case that have to be filed in another court. If you don’t show up at the final hearing, you will likely lose and your case will be dismissed. If the other party shows up, you could even have costs assessed against you. If the other party fails to appear, you should ask the Court to enter default judgment against the other side. You will need to have clear and complete copies of all documents (including photos) relating to this matter and present any and all actual witnesses who have knowledge about the incident, transaction or other matter which you believe makes the other side liable to you for payment of money.
You may present witnesses and if a potential witness refuses to appear voluntarily , you can ask the Small Claims Court Clerk to have them subpoenaed. The local Sheriff will need to serve a copy of that subpoena on your witness and file the Return, as discussed above. There is no rule against hearsay evidence in Small Claims matters, but make sure that you, and any witness you present, show relevant information that will help the Judge be convinced that your story is accurate and that you deserved a money award.
For the final hearing, dress like you would for church or a graduation. Don’t take any drinks or chew gum in the courtroom. Men may not wear hats there. Refer to the Judge as “Your Honor” and not “Sir” or “Ma’am”. When making your presentation, think of it as telling your entire story in 3-5 minutes. Use simple English. If you don’t have a solid grasp of English, you can apply for free translation to the Small Claims Court Clerk. Don’t try to sound formal or say it like a T.V. lawyer or else you’ll sound like a T.V. lawyer and risk distracting the Judge. Use the basic steps of: Who, What, When, Where and How, then fill in the gaps. I suggest telling the Court exactly what you are requesting at the very beginning and again at the end. A judgment against all Defendants for the full amount of your actual damages, court costs and service fees is usually a full recovery. If there is a promissory note or contract involved which allows for interest, then present your interest calculation as an additional amount to recover. At the end of your presentation, ask the Judge if you can answer any questions or clarify anything. Small Claims Court is for lay people. The Judge will be very interested in doing justice.
If the Court decides in your favor, you win and an order to pay will be signed by the Judge. Presently, the losing party has 30 days to pay the full amount of the award. If not paid in that period, the Court will enter a judgment against the other side. For a small fee, you can get a judgment abstract from the Small Claims Court Clerk and file it in the Superior Court for any county where a defendant owns real estate. Upon such a filing, that judgment will become a judicial lien against any real property (land, fixtures and improvements) which the defendants own in that county. Such a judgment lien usually works to block any refinance or sale of that property, until the debt is fully paid with statutory interest at 12% per year. The lien amount grows with post-judgement interest at 12% per year right now, but that could change given the fluctuation in the Federal Treasury bond rate. Over the years, I have seen judgment liens, which I have forgotten about, get paid by closing agents who were handling real estate transactions. Unfortunately, a judgment lien can be discharged in Bankruptcy Court by proper action of the Bankruptcy Attorney involved.
Judgment liens like this are good for ten years, but can be extended for an additional ten years, if a motion and order for extension of the judgment period is filed and a new filing fee paid before the first ten-year period expires (usually in the last quarter before final expiration). There are options for collection of money judgments, such as garnishment of the debtor’s wages, seizure of bank accounts, etc.. For collection of a Small Claims Court Judgment, I recommend that you discuss options with my office, as attorney fees incurred to collect this type of judgment may be added to the total balance due as an additional judgment. This is a unique feature of Small Claims. This paper is not meant as legal advice, rather it should be taken as a general guide to get one started in this arena. Best wishes on your Small Claims Court journey!