I Am Being Sued for $10,000 or Less

I Am Being Sued for $10,000 or Less
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Last updated: July 2013

topIntroduction

A lawsuit for $10,000 or less can go to "small claims" court. Small claims courts have special rules that make representing yourself easier and the process faster.

You might be sued in small claims court for cases like:

  • The cost of replacing something you damaged
  • Not returning a security deposit
  • Breaking a contract

The Common Questions and Related Articles sections will help you:

  • Understand what to do when you get a summons
  • Know what rules you must follow in small claims court
  • Get phone numbers Legal Aid organizations in your area that can help you

If you are not going to get help from an attorney, you should see the Related Articles section for more information on filing your forms with the clerk and going to court.

Click on words that appear like 'this' to learn what these words mean.

topCommon Questions Print

  1. What is "Small Claims" Court?
  2. What is "Pro Se" Court?
  3. How do I know if I'm being sued?
  4. Can we reach a settlement before going to court?
  5. Do I need to file anything?
  6. What can I do if I can't make my court date?
  7. What happens if I miss my court date?
  8. Do I need a lawyer?
  9. Can I have a jury?
  10. What can I expect when I get to court on the return date?
  11. What happens at the trial?
  12. What should I do to prepare for my trial?
  13. What if my best witness doesn’t want to come to court?
  14. What happens if I lose the lawsuit?
  15. Can I appeal if I lose?

What is "Small Claims" Court?

Small Claims court is a civil court where you can only sue or be sued for money in the amount of $10,000 or less. It has simplified rules and can go much faster than other types of cases.

You can be sued for a number of things, including:

  • Unpaid rent
  • Medical bills resulting from a car accident you caused
  • Not satisfying a contract

Many common small claims cases involve home improvements, car repairs, moving and storage companies, and landlord/tenant disputes over money.

Just like in other law suits, the person bringing the claim is the plaintiff. The person being sued is the defendant. Individuals, as well as companies and organizations can sue and be sued.

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What is "Pro Se" Court?

In Chicago, if you are being sued for $3,000 or less, the plaintiff can use the Pro Se Court. Other suburban districts and counties might have higher limits. The Pro Se court is similar to small claims court, but all plaintiffs represent themselves. The defendant can have an attorney.

For more information on pro se cases, call the Civil Division for the First Municipal District (Chicago) at (312) 603-5145 or visit the Pro Se Help Desk in room 602 of the Daley Center.

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How do I know if I'm being sued?

If you are sued, you will be be told about the lawsuit by getting a copy of the complaint and summons. This is called "service of process," and will come from:

The summons must be given to you or someone that lives with you. The complaint will tell you why you are being sued and the amount the plaintiff is suing for.

The summons will tell you where and when to go to court. This is called the "return date." You must appear in court on the return date. If you lose the summons, call the Circuit Clerk in the county where the case was filed and ask when your return date is.

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Can we reach a settlement before going to court?

Yes. The plaintiff and the defendant can agree to a “settlement.” A judge still has to approve any settlement you agree to.

A settlement can be best for both sides. You and the defendant can agree to something good for both of you. A judge does not have the same flexibility in making a ruling. A judge usually has to pick one side or the other.

You should still appear in court on the return date to make sure that your settlement agreement is filed with the judge. Remember, the plaintiff is not representing your interests in the lawsuit - only you are.

If you can't come to an agreement, the case will go before a judge to decide the outcome.

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Do I need to file anything?

You must come to court on the return date listed on the plaintiff's complaint and tell the judge whether you agree or disagree with the complaint. You should also file an appearance before the return date, so you don’t risk a judge ruling against you.

For more information on filing an appearance, see “Filing an Appearance Form and Answer” in the “Related Articles” section of this guide. For Small Claims court, you do not have to file an answer, but you should still file an appearance.

If you believe the plaintiff owes you money, for something similar to why he is suing you, you can file a counterclaim. If you believe that you have a good counterclaim, you should contact an attorney.

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What can I do if I can't make my court date?

If you have a very good reason for missing court on the return date, then you may request a continuance. You need to file a written motion and order for continuance with the Circuit Clerk before the return date.

The motion for continuance must be filed early enough in advance to allow the judge enough time to hear and rule on the motion. You must also properly notify the other side of your motion.

If your motion is denied, you will need to attend court on the originally scheduled return date.

To learn more about motions, see the Related Articles tab.

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What happens if I miss my court date?

If you do not show up in court on the return date, the judge will probably award the plaintiff the amount claimed in the complaint and court costs.

If this happens, you have 30 days to file a motion to cancel or vacate the judgment. For more information see the Related Articles tab.

If neither you nor the plaintiff go to court on the return date, then a new date will be assigned. This gives both sides another chance to be heard in court.

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Do I need a lawyer?

Not necessarily. A person can represent himself as a defendant in a small claims case. This is called "pro se." Persons under 18 must be represented by a licensed attorney in Illinois.

The court will expect you to follow the same rules and procedures as an attorney. If you file your case pro se, do not assume that the plaintiff won't have an attorney.

If your case is too complex for you, you should try to find an attorney. Search the "Helpful Organizations" section below to find free legal help.

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Can I have a jury?

Yes, you have the right to a jury trial in a small claims case. Typically, you must request a jury when you first appear in court. Jury trials are more complex, have additional, non-refundable fees, and take much more time. You should consult an attorney if you would like a jury trial.

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What can I expect when I get to court on the return date?

For your court date, you should dress as if you were going to an important business meeting. Get to court early on your return date, in case you get delayed.

When you arrive at the courtroom, check in with the law clerk. When your case is called, approach the bench. The judge will ask you if you admit or deny the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint. If you deny the allegations in the complaint, a trial will be scheduled. If you admit the allegations in the complaint, a judgment will be entered against you for the amount asked for by the plaintiff.

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What happens at the trial?

The plaintiff will have the first chance to present evidence and witnesses to prove their case. When the plaintiff finishes, both you and the judge can ask questions. Then you will have your chance to present evidence and witnesses. The judge and the plaintiff can question or "cross-examine" the witnesses you bring. The court has the power to limit or prevent questioning or cross-examination if the questioning harasses the witnesses or delays the trial.

If no jury was requested, the judge will either dismiss the case or award the plaintiff a judgment.

If it is a jury trial, the jury will give their verdict to the judge. Based on the jury's conclusion, the judge will either dismiss the case or award the plaintiff a judgment.

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What should I do to prepare for my trial?

To prepare for your trial date, make sure to:

  • Organize your main points
  • Re-read the complaint
  • Know how to explain your side of the story
  • Organize your documents to be easily used
  • Line up witnesses who know the facts
  • Bring expert witnesses (a mechanic, for example) who will support your case
  • Know what your witnesses will say

Note: All small claims court sessions are open to the public. You may attend any of these courtroom proceedings to observe.

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What if my best witness doesn’t want to come to court?

If you can’t get a witness to agree to come to court, you can have the court make them come.

To do this, get a subpoena from the clerk's office. If the clerk issues the subpoena, the person you want as a witness is required to come to court. You will have to pay any witness you force to come to court. You or any other adult may deliver the subpoena to the witness, or you may ask the sheriff's office to deliver them.

For a subpoena form, see the Forms/Letters section of this guide.

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What happens if I lose the lawsuit?

If you lose, the plaintiff is given a judgment ordering you to pay a certain amount of money plus court costs.

You may not have to pay immediately, but interest collects starting on the day of the judgment. The longer you wait, the more you will pay.

If you do not pay, the plaintiff can bring you back to court to enforce the judgment. This could result in additional time and money in court.

A judgment against you can show up on your credit report.

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Can I appeal if I lose?

Yes. You have the option of appealing your case to the appellate court. In most counties you must file an appeal within 30 days of the entry of the judgment. Appeals are complicated and require additional fees. You should consult with an attorney before appealing your case.

Search the "Helpful Organizations" section of this guide find free legal help.

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topForms/Letters

For forms relevant to your location, please enter your zip code.

       

Helpful Organizations
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For a list of organizations in your area that may be able to help you, enter your zip code.

       

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