A Look at Indiana’s Small Claims Process

We’ve all seen it on TV, two parties yelling at each other before a judge like Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, or Judge Mathis. And, inevitably, the judge yells back, makes both parties feel stupid, and then arbitrarily picks a side to believe. Then, most enjoyably, there is a post-proceeding interview with an awkward engagement between the parties….priceless.
Though the small claims process is glorified for TV ratings in those shows, the formalities aren’t much different, minus the showmanship of the judges.

AN INFORMAL PROCESS:

The small claims process, though considered a formal judicial proceeding, tends to be more laid back and relaxed as compared to higher level civil cases with higher damages alleged or criminal cases. In fact, the statute under Rule 8 states, “the trial shall be informal, with the sole objective of dispensing speedy justice between the parties.” As such, many times parties choose to represent themselves, forgoing an attorney, in hopes that they can just share their story, sell their opinion to the judge, and sway the result in their favor.
The small claims process is typically viewed as more informal because of how the proceedings typically unfold. When lawyers aren’t involved, the judges know that the parties aren’t familiar with the formalities of court proceedings, the rules of evidence, and/or the court etiquette. In fact, Rule 8 states that the parties “shall not be bound by the statutory provisions or rules of practice, procedure, pleadings or evidence except provisions relating to privileged communications and offers of compromise.”

As such, they tend to be more forgiving to the parties and more understanding as to how information is presented. Therefore, the rules of criminal procedure and introducing evidence are more laid back as compared to other trial settings, and typically testimony isn’t formalized, but is rather seen in more of a narrative form from both parties.

THE FORMALITIES OF A SMALL CLAIM:

  • RECOVERY LIMIT: There is also a limit on the size of recovery a party is entitled to under a small claims proceeding. Jurisdiction for small claims cases is typically limited to $6,000 (or slightly more) when damages are alleged for anything other than landlord tenant issues. Parties are not held to those limits in other landlord tenant situations.
  • WHERE TO FILE: Typically, a small claim can be filed in any township court within the county for which the incident arises or the parties are subject to jurisdiction (such as where the contract was signed, where the defendant lives, etc.). Rule 12 states, “proper venue for a case filed in the small claims docket of a Circuit, Superior, or County Court shall be in the county where the transaction or occurrence actually took place or where the obligation was incurred or is to be performed, or where on the defendants resides or has his or her place of employment at the time the complaint was filed.” For a list of township courts in Marion County, click here.
  • TIMELINE TO FILE: Indiana’s statute of limitations for small claims filings is ten (10) years if you have a written contract, six (6) years if there is an oral contract, two (2) years for a personal injury claim, and two (2) years if property damage is alleged.

THE MOST COMMONLY FILED CASES:

In Indiana, the most commonly filed cases revolved around unpaid bills (medical, credit cards, legal, etc.), unpaid debts, breach of contract claims, landlord/tenant issues (rent, damages, or breach of contract), and/or any other form of property damage. However, claims are not limited to these select areas of law.

FILING A CLAIM:

So you’ve determined that you want to file a claim and that you qualify to do so, what now?
VERIFIED NOTICE OF CLAIM: An action for a small claim is commenced by filing an unverified notice of claim in a court of jurisdiction and by paying the court fee for initiating the filing. That notice of claim must include things such as your name, address, phone number, your adversaries information, when the parties are to appear, a brief description of the nature of the claim and damages sought, whether attorneys will be utilized, and an instruction to the defendant as to what they are to bring to court.
SUMMONS: As part of the original filing, a summons must also be provided so that the court can summons the defendant to court to account for the allegations and participate in the proceedings.

GENERAL SMALL CLAIMS RULES & PROCEDURES:

  • AUTOMATIC PRESERVATION OF CLAIMS: All defenses “shall be deemed at issue without responsive pleadings” in a small claims setting. This is different from other court proceedings whereby all parties must formally respond to all pleadings with specifically mentioned defenses.
  • COUNTERCLAIMS: If a defendant has a counterclaim, the defendant must make the court aware of it at least seven (7) days prior to the first trial setting, though more time can be granted upon request.
  • INFORMAL DICOVERY: Unlike other criminal and civil proceedings, discovery in a small claims case is generally more laid back. In fact, the statute says, “the court should grant discovery only upon notice and good cause shown and should limit such action to the necessities of the case.”
  • PRETRIAL SETTLEMENTS AND FINAL JUDGMENTS: Many times cases are resolved prior to the court trial setting. If that is the case and the parties come to a resolution, the agreement must be in writing and signed by all named parties as a final judgment. If not, the judge will issue a written order and judgment after hearing all the evidence presented.

IN CONCLUSION:

As anyone can see, the small claims process was created to accommodate the lay person. With the lowered requirements for rules of procedure, evidence, and pleadings, many choose to brave the system on their own, without legal guidance. So long as you go in prepared with the evidence you want to present and are ready for any arguments the opposing side may raise, you should be fine to proceed pro se. However, if the proceedings involve complicated issues, contracts, and/or heavily strained relationships where emotion can overtake the proceedings, sometimes it pays to have a non-biased Indianapolis criminal defense lawyer represent you.

Contact Banks & Brower

If you find yourself in a situation where you believe you are in need of a small claims lawyer, give the attorneys at Banks & Brower  LLC a call today, 24/7/365, at 317.870.0019 or email us at info@banksbrower.com. As former prosecutors, we have the experience and trial skills you need to succeed with your small claims matter.