In “Small Claims Court Basics and Filing the Small Claims Petition”, we discussed, generally, what small claims court is, the jurisdictional limits in small claims court, what legal matters are heard by small claims courts, what is required prior to filing the small claims petition, and what information is required to be in the small claims petition. Here, we will discuss what you can expect once the petition is with the court and your small claim begins (or the small claim has been brought against you).
We will discuss various motions that can be made in small claims court. We will discuss the general applicability of any given state’s evidentiary rules and civil procedure rules, motions to dismiss, motions to conduct discovery, what discovery is, how to respond to discovery requests, summary judgment motions, how to respond to summary judgment motions, and continuance motions.
General Applicability on the State’s Rules of Evidence and the Rules of Civil Procedure in Small Claims Courts
It should be noted at the outset that small claims courts are not like the bigger district courts, where the parties and the court are bound by the state’s evidence rules and civil or criminal procedure rules. Because small claims courts are meant to be an expeditious and relatively simple way to resolve legal matters, the evidentiary rules and civil procedure rules that would usually apply will not be applicable here.
Also remember that there is a good chance the judge will not be licensed to practice law and will have had no legal training. In addition, because the claims brought in small claims court are usually not worth the amount it would take to hire an attorney to represent the claimant, most claimants, and respondents (the person or entity being sued), will not be represented by an attorney and will be the sole person responsible in representing or defending their interests. This is oftentimes referred to as pro se representation. In this sense, it is the intention that the small claims process be as simple as possible and is not overly burdensome on claimants, respondents, and the court. With that in mind, the evidentiary rules and civil procedure rules required in district courts are generally not applicable to small claims court matters.
Motion to Dismiss
A more common motion made in small claims court is a motion to dismiss. A motion to dismiss can be made on many bases. However, they are usually made towards the beginning of the small claims process. Some of the grounds that a motion dismiss can be based on are “failure to state a claim,” “failure to prosecute,” or that the court lacks authority to decide the claim (i.e., “lack of personal jurisdiction,” “lack of subject-matter jurisdiction,” or inadequate “service of process.”).
A motion made to dismiss on failure to state a claim essentially alleges that there is no legal basis on which the complainant can be granted the damages they request. Although this is a somewhat silly example, the complainant can’t receive damages on a claim that alleges the respondent was “mean” to them or “bullying” them. However, there is a legal claim when the complainant alleges that the respondent harmed their reputation by making untrue statements to a third-party. Although the second statement does not state any law that has been violated, it does provide reasonable detail about what the complaint is trying to allege: a slander claim. Ultimately, the claim that is brought must be one that would result in legal consequences to the respondent. While it doesn’t need to include any legal knowledge, it must be adequate to put the respondent on notice as to why they’re being sued. As always, with the knowledge that most complainant’s representing themselves have no legal knowledge, a court would be unlikely to dismiss the complainant’s claim on this basis unless even a reasonable interpretation could not lead to a valid claim to which the complainant could receive damages.
A motion to dismiss on the ground of failure to prosecute alleges that the complainant has not taken reasonable steps to resolve their claim or seeing it through the litigation process. This can happen during many stages in the litigation process. The complainant is required to do more than bring a claim, they must appear at hearings, respond to motions, and generally be responsive to the courts and the respondent’s requests. Not showing up to a hearing “without cause” or not responding to the court or the respondent can result in a default judgment, which will result in the opposing party having the court rule in their favor and dispose of the claim accordingly.
Motions to dismiss on more procedural issues, like lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, lack of personal jurisdiction, and inadequate service, are motions that are based on the court’s ability to hear and decide the case, the court’s ability to have the respondent hauled into court, and the process the complainant engaged in to give the respondent notice that they are being sued. These are not issues relating to the merits of the claimant’s claim. Motions to dismiss on procedural grounds are less likely because the court clerk is likely keeping close tabs on the contents of the complainant’s complaint.
Motions to Conduct Discovery and Discovery Requests
Amongst those procedures generally not required in small claims courts are discovery procedures. Although the court’s rules may not require that the parties engage in the discovery process, many courts will permit discovery, when necessary, upon a request made to the court by one or both parties to do so. However, discovery will likely be conditional upon a court’s decision that discovery is necessary.
Although the complainant likely had adequate information to support their claim to court, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the complainant (or the respondent) has adequate information to win or defend their claim. The discovery process is a process by which claimants and respondents can get important answers, admissions by the opposing party, and other tangible evidence (documents, pictures, etc.) that could help them prove their case. There are three subsections contained in the greater term known as “discovery”— Interrogatories, admissions, and production.
Interrogatories are a discovery tool used to allow parties to exchange the required information or explain certain occurrences. Many times, you will see interrogatories that seek very basic information, such as the names, addresses, and phone numbers as to the parties or witnesses involved in the case. Other interrogatories might be more expansive and request that the opposing party explain how the events giving rise to the case transpired, or the methodology the opposing party used to calculate their damages. For example, a question on an interrogatory might state, “Please state the events that occurred immediately prior to the incident.”, or “Please describe what actions you took immediately after the incident occurred.”
Admissions are what they sound like. Admissions are another discovery tool that seeks to establish certain matters related to the case. Usually, an admission will be a broad question intended to elicit a certain response. For example, an admission request might state, “The respondent (or complainant) caused the car accident between respondent (or claimant) on January 4, 2019.” Admissions require that the opposing party only respond by stating “admit” or “deny” in response to the statement. That’s it. There is no opportunity to explain or the opportunity to say “yes” or “no,” although “yes” ostensibly translates to “admit” and “no” to “deny.” The time to give a more robust answer with an explanation comes with the interrogatories, as described above.
A production request is a request that the opposing party produce tangible evidence. This can be documents, photographs, police reports, contracts, recordings, etc.
Responding to Motions to Conduct Discovery and Discovery Requests
A party responding to a request to conduct discovery may have reason to believe that discovery isn’t needed, either because the responding party has already provided all relevant evidence to the party moving to conduct discovery or because the responding party doesn’t have discoverable information. While this would be a valid basis, a court will nonetheless be likely to deny any response saying that discovery isn’t needed provided that the moving party can provide valid reasons as to why they believe discovery is needed. A party responding to discovery requests is permitted to make objections to the request. However, most requests will be valid. A valid objection can be made to a request that is not likely to result in relevant evidence or information or is overly broad. Although there are numerous objections that can be made pursuant to case law and court holdings, it’s best to keep it simple and respond to all reasonable requests made.
Generally, responding to a discovery request is somewhat simple. For the most part, the responding party will simply give a true and accurate response to the questions asked, or the statements provided, in a timely manner. As a party responding to discovery requests, the biggest thing to keep in mind is deadlines. Usually, in the more rigid district court setting (and probably in small claims courts, too), responses need to be made within 30 days of receiving the request. Due to the more laid-back environment small claims courts provide, the timeline on giving responses could be a little more lenient. As always, it will be necessary to review the small claims court’s rules to be sure about the required deadlines.
In the more traditional district court setting, a late response to an admissions request has heavy consequences. When a response to admissions is made late, it will result in the responding party admitting all statements. That means that the responding party will have admitted to wrongdoing even though you may not have done it. This could cost the responding party to lose their entire case because they will now have admitted to doing everything the complainant has alleged.
Any party serving discovery requests on a matter automatically gives the right to have the opposing party make their own discovery requests, too. A court would never permit one party to conduct discovery without granting the other party the same right.
Motion For Summary Judgment (MSJ)
Although a party might be required to ask the court to conduct discovery, a MSJ is likely permitted in the court’s rules and permission won’t be required to make a MSJ. A party can make a summary judgment motion once discovery has ended and each party has obtained all the evidence necessary to prove their claim. A MSJ is used to throw the case out prior to trial and have the court make a ruling in the moving party’s (the party making the MSJ) favor. At its core, an MSJ alleges that there is no genuine issue in dispute, and that the moving party is entitled to win on that basis. Let’s break that down a little. A simpler way to explain what an MSJ is by saying that the party moving for summary judgment can prove that they are entitled to win based on all the evidence presented and all the facts alleged because the evidence and/or facts are not disputed or can’t be disputed.
There are two types of MSJs: a no-evidence MSJ and a traditional MSJ. Although both can accomplish the same goal—having the case resolved without going to trial, they are distinguishable. A no-evidence MSJ alleges that the opposing party has no evidence to prove their case, even upon conducting discovery and having access to all the evidence available. A traditional MSJ alleges that the evidence the opposing party has is not adequate to result in a ruling in the opposing party’s favor (or, as the language stated above indicates, “there is no genuine, material issue in dispute” that the Court must resolve to make ruling).
To win on the MSJ, the moving party will want to provide evidence that they are entitled to win, as merely stating that there is no genuine issue in dispute or that the opposing party has no evidence, alone, will not be considered adequate to be granted summary judgment. The moving party can cite the evidence that proves your claim in your motion and attach said evidence to your motion—commonly known as “exhibits.”
Responding to MSJs
To avoid summary judgment being granted to the moving party, the “nonmovant” will need to show the opposite of what the movant is alleging is true—that there is evidence that is adequate to prove the claim or that there are genuine issues that must be resolved through trial to have the court make the correct ruling. Like the party making the summary judgment motion, the nonmovant will need to provide some evidence to prove that the movant is not entitled to summary judgment; merely restating facts made in the answer to the claimant’s complaint is not adequate.
A nonmovant is not required to respond to an MSJ, but it would recommend, as a nonmovant that doesn’t make a timely response can end up having their case dismissed (if they are the party who brought the claim to court), or the court can rule in the opposing party’s favor, requiring them to pay what is due to the movant (if they are the respondent).
Although MSJs are usually permissible pursuant to the court’s rules, many courts are likely reluctant to grant an MSJ because they want to provide the opposing party an adequate opportunity to be heard. As explained above, many litigants represent themselves in small claims court and don’t have any legal knowledge. MSJs can be a bit complicated, and a court would probably want to avoid any impediment that would prevent a party in having the opportunity to argue their case. For this reason, a small claims court would generally be more reluctant to grant an MSJ than would a district court, where the parties are likely represented by counsel.
Motion For Continuance
A continuance motion essentially asks the court to grant an extension on an upcoming hearing or trial and to have the court hear the matter later. Usually, a court will have no problem in granting a continuance if there is a good basis to do so. While whether the party requesting the motion has a good reason in making the request might seem subjective, there are some objectively bad reasons to request a continuance. For example, it is not wise to request a continuance because you have a Birthday party to attend. However, requesting a continuance based on a personal medical emergency, an ailing spouse, child or parent, the need to conduct discovery because all available evidence hasn’t been obtained, or some other valid reason that is not within your control, will usually be recognized by the court and the court will grant the motion accordingly. However, use continuances sparingly and only in extenuating circumstances, as the more continuances a party requests, the less likely they are to be granted.
This is only a sampling when it comes to motions that could be presented in small claims court, and there are many more that could arise in the small claims’ context. While this article was generated with the purpose to provide basic information as to what motions are available and what their purpose is, to know and understand all the motions that can be made, their requirements, and how to respond to those motions, you will need to get acquainted with your small claims court’s rules, which can usually be accessed online. Because most small claims courts are experienced in helping claimants and respondents during the small claims process, do not hesitate to reach out to the court clerk and ask their advice on how you should proceed with a certain issue, what certain motions require, etc. Even when they may not be able to provide you with an exact answer, they can likely point you in the right direction.