|Suing Someone for $10,000 or Less||
Last updated: July 2013
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.Types of cases that you might bring to small claims court are:Injuries Property damageDisagreements about home improvement car repair costsComplaints against moving and storage companiesLandlord and tenant disputes over money owedThe person suing is the “plaintiff” and the person being sued is the “defendant.”Click on words that appear like 'this' to learn what these words mean.What is "small claims" court? Small Claims court is a court where you can only sue or be sued for money and only for $10,000 or less. It has simplified rules and can go much faster than other types of courts.You cannot bring a case in small claims court to:Get a service that is owed to you;Stop an action; orGet your property back.What is "pro se" court? “Pro Se” means going to court without a lawyer. In Cook County, if you are suing for $3,000 or less, you can use the Pro Se Small Claims Court. Other counties might have higher limits. The pro se court is similar to small claims court, but all plaintiffs represent themselves. The defendant can have a lawyer. If the defendant hires a lawyer, the plaintiff then has a right to hire a lawyer also.For more information on pro se court, call (312) 603-5145 or visit the Pro Se Help Desk in room 602 of the Daley Center. Do I need a lawyer for a small claims case? Not necessarily. You can represent yourself in court, which is called "pro se." Persons under 18 must be represented by a licensed attorney in Illinois.Consider the following before you choose whether to hire a lawyer: The court will expect you to follow the same rules and procedures as a lawyer;The defendant may have a lawyer even if you do not; andCorporations who are suing someone in Illinois must have a lawyer.If your small claims case gets too complicated for you to handle by yourself, you may want to find a lawyer. See the "Find Legal Help" section of this guide to find free legal help in Illinois.Who can I sue? Any person, corporation, or organization doing business in Illinois can sue or be sued in small claims court. It is important to identify the defendant correctly when you file your case. For more information see "Naming a Defendant in a Lawsuit" in the "Related Articles." section. How much will a small claims case cost me? In Illinois, your filing fees in a small claims case depend on the amount for which you are suing. The filing fees generally are not more than $250. You must pay this fee to the Office of the Circuit Clerk when filing. If you win you your case, you can usually have the defendants pay for your court costs. If you cannot afford to pay the filing fee, you can apply to have your filing fee waived. You will have to fill out a form and show the court that you don’t have a lot of money. For more information about how to waive filing fees, see “Filing Court Papers for Free" in "Related Articles." What should I consider before I file a small claims case? Before you file a small claims case, make sure that you will be able to prove your case. Some information that you should know is:What the disagreement is about;When and where it took place;How much money you want the other person to pay; and Why you think the other person owes you that amount. Other things to consider before you file are:Whether the person will be able to pay you if you win; and Whether you are able to travel to court multiple times if you need to. If you would like to see what small claims court is like, consider going to observe court for a day. All small claim courts are open to the public. How do I start a small claims case? First, you will need to file a summons and complaint. The “Forms/Letters” section of this guide is a form preparation program that will create these documents for you with your information. The “Instructions” section explains how to use this program. The complaint describes your claim against the defendant. If you have any documents to support your claim, like a bill, attach copies to your complaint.The summons is a separate form that tells the defendant that a lawsuit has been filed against them. It also tells the defendant how and where they need to respond to your lawsuit.How long do I have to file my case? The amount of time you have to file your claim depends on the kind of case it is. For example, you usually have:2 years to file against someone who injured you5 years to file against someone who damaged your property5 years to file against someone you have a contract with that is not in writing10 years to file against someone you have a written contract withIf you have any questions about how long you have to file, contact a legal aid organization in the "Find Legal Help" section of this guide.Can I have a jury in a small claims case? Yes. You have the right to a jury trial in a small claims case. However, the only chance that you have to request a jury is when you first file your complaint. There is an additional fee when you request a jury trial. The fee is $12.50 for a jury of 6 and $25 for a jury of 12.Jury trials are much more complex, involve additional, non-refundable fees and take much more time. You should consider talking to a lawyer if you would like a jury trial. For more information about requesting a jury, see "How Do I Get a Jury Trial in Small Claims Court?" in the "Related Articles" section of this guide.Do I need to go to court on the return date? The return date is the date that the defendant has to respond to your lawsuit by filing an appearance.Whether you have to go to court on the return date depends on where you filed the lawsuit. If you filed the lawsuit in Cook County, you do not need to go to court on the return date. You should check with the court for when you have to go to court.If you filed the lawsuit in any other county in Illinois, you do usually have to go to court on the return date. You should check with the clerk when you file your complaint when you have to return to court.What can I expect the first court date? First, the judge will ask the defendant if he admits or denies the claims in the complaint. The following are the possible outcomes from the first court date: If the defendant denies the claims, a trial will be scheduled;If the defendant admits the claims, a judgment will be entered against him; or If the defendant does not appear in court, a default judgment is usually entered. Be sure to take proof of proper service with you to court. See the "Instructions" section of this guide for an explaination of proper service. What can I do if I cannot go to court on the return date? If you have a very good reason for missing court on the return date, then you may ask for another court date. You do this by filing a motion for continuance with the Circuit Clerk before the return date. You must file the motion for continuance early to allow the judge enough time to hear and rule on the motion. You must also properly notify the other side of your motion.Remember that if you filed the case in Cook County, you do not need to go to court on the return date.What happens if I miss my return date? If you do not appear in court on the return date and the defendant does appear, then the judge will dismiss your small claims case.If neither you nor the defendant appears in court on the return date, then the judge will assign you a new date and mail it to you. This gives you another chance to appear at a later date. However, if you do not appear the second time, the judge will usually dismiss the case. You may then re-file the case, but you will have to pay the filing fees again.Remember that if you filed your case in Cook County, you do not have to go to court on the return date.What happens at the trial? The trial will be in front of the judge only, called a bench trial or a hearing, or in front of a jury and a judge, called a jury trial. At the trial, you should prove that you should win the case. In order to prove your case, you may bring papers or ask witnesses to give information that supports your case.The judge may ask you questions. The judge will also listen to the other side and what they have to say. After the hearing, the judge will either dismiss the case or give you a judgment for the money. If it is a jury trial, the jury will talk privately and give their decision to the judge. Based on the jury's conclusion, the judge will either dismiss the case or award you a judgment for money.Can I bring any witnesses with me to court to support my case? Yes. You may bring witnesses with direct knowledge of the facts in your case. You may also bring a professional in as an expert witness, like a mechanic. What happens if I win my lawsuit? If you prove to the judge or jury that the defendant owes you the money, you will get a money judgment, which may also include your court costs.However, this does not mean that you will walk away from the courthouse with money. If you win your small claims case, you must next enforce the judgment against the defendant. If the defendant does not pay you what the judgment says, you can have the judgment amount:Taken out of the defendant's earningsTaken out of their bank accountsPut as a lien on their propertyFor information on how to collect a judgment, talk with a legal aid organization in the "Find Legal Help" section of this guide.If I lose my case, can I appeal the decision? Yes. You can appeal your case. The court that you would take your case to is called an appellate court. You must file an appeal within 30 days of the day the judge enters a judgment. Appeals are complicated and require additional fees. You should talk to an attorney before appealing your case. Search the "Find Legal Help" section of this guide to find a legal aid organization in your area.
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