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Efficient and inexpensive justice: Consider small claims court as a way of avoiding expensive lawsuit fees

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It is no secret that a lawsuit can be an expensive undertaking. Unless you have the potential of recovering a relatively large sum, the unfortunate reality is that it may not make economic sense to hire an attorney to file a lawsuit because a significant portion of your recovery could be consumed by your legal fees.

If you are seeking to recover $5,000 or less, the better option may be taking your matter to small claims court.

The small claims lawsuit process is streamlined to provide quick and efficient means for a plaintiff to present his or her case and obtain a judgment. Attorneys and paralegals generally cannot participate in small claims proceedings, automatically reducing your expenses and providing a level playing field for both you and the defendant.

Also, unlike a lawsuit filed in Superior Court where the filing fee would likely be $240, the filing fee for small claims court is between $14 and $29 depending on the county (you will need to use the small claims court in the county in which the defendant lives).

If you believe you have a viable case and want to utilize the small claims court process, your first task is the preparation of a Notice of Small Claim. The Notice of Small Claim is a simple form that can be picked up from the District Court Clerk.

On the form, you will identify the parties and explain how you feel you have been wronged. The form will need to be signed in front of the clerk, and then the clerk will assign you a date and time for your hearing. Unlike a lawsuit in Superior Court which can involve multiple hearings leading up to a trial which may be set a couple of years out, adjudication of a small claim only requires one hearing (the trial itself) which is generally held less than a month after filing.

After filing the Notice of Small Claim, it is time to serve the defendant. You may serve the defendant using any of the three conventional ways of service: (1) a process server; (2) a law enforcement agency with jurisdiction; or (3) any person 18 years or older who is not a party or witness in the case. In addition, and unlike in Superior Court, you can also serve the defendant by using registered or certified mail with return receipt requested.

However, service is only effective if the defendant signs the return receipt. Service must occur not less than 10 days before the trial, and proof of service will need to be filed with the court clerk before the date of the trial.

Unless you are able to settle the case with the defendant before the date of the trial — and settlement efforts are often encouraged — you will need to prepare for your trial. Contact any witnesses you would like to have at the trial and gather all of the evidence you intend to present to the judge. You will need to bring to the trial two additional copies of any documentary evidence because one copy will be given to the defendant, and the other to the judge.

The trial itself is informal when compared to a trial in Superior Court. The judge will swear in the parties, and then first ask the plaintiff to present his or her case through personal testimony, evidence, and/or witnesses. Next, the defendant will have an opportunity to present his or her side of the story. After each side has presented, the judge generally announces the decision and provides the parties with the judgment.

If you receive a judgment in your favor, the judgment debtor is required to pay you the judgment amount within 30 days, but if he or she does not pay, you will need to make efforts to collect on the judgment. If no appeal is taken and you do not receive the judgment amount within 30 days, you may transcribe your judgment to the district court for a small fee. This will allow you to seek garnishment of the judgment debtor’s wages or bank accounts, or you may seek execution on the judgment debtor’s non-exempt personal property.

For an additional small fee, you can instead transcribe your judgment to Superior Court, which allows you to pursue the above collection methods and place a lien on any real property owned by the defendant in the county. You can later seek to foreclose this lien if you are unable to collect against the judgment debtor’s personal property.

Even though attorneys are not permitted to assist in the small claims court proceedings, they are allowed to undertake collection efforts for you once the judgment is transcribed.

Fortunately, Washington law provides that if a small claims judgment is not paid within 30 days and no appeal is taken, the judgment creditor is entitled to costs incurred while attempting to collect on the judgment, including reasonable attorney fees. Any such amounts can be added to the judgment upon court approval.

Kyle D. Mott represents businesses, municipalities, and individuals in commercial, employment, and real estate related litigation and transactions from the Wenatchee office of Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC.

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