How to file in Small Claims Court 1: a DIY lawsuit

When I think of Small Claims Court, I think about that rich guy who sued his cleaners for losing a pair of his pants.

Oh, no, wait. That wasn’t Small Claims Court, which only handles cases for $5,000 or less, and that guy sued for something like $25 million bucks. No, Small Claims Court wasn’t his venue.

But it is mine. The contractors’ bills I paid to repair my damaged ceilings after two leaks caused by the Skush-O’Briens’ negligence came to $3097.45. Definitely under the Small Claims Court $5000, um, ceiling (they have one, too). So here’s what I did:

  • I compiled the series of specific and detailed e-mails I wrote to our building manager, Rarus P. Griggsby, about the leaks, the ceiling damage and my efforts to get it repaired. I made two copies of both contractors’ invoices, proof of my payments, and a copy of the checks I wrote to the contractors.
  • I made up a new file folder. What to call it? Hmm, hmmm. “Small Claims.” Yes, that will do nicely. And I put all of the above into it.
  • Then I wrote a straightforward letter to Rarus P. Griggsby, our building manager. I  stated the situation briefly and without emotion, enclosed the paid invoices, the canceled check, et cetera. I ended it by saying I expected a reimbursement check for the full $3097.45 by May 11, 2012, two weeks from the date of the letter. I didn’t threaten; I just “expected.” O, happy optimist that I am! I put a copy of the letter into my new file folder.
  • I sent the package certified mail, return receipt requested.
  • I put a little reminder in my date book about that check. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get it so…
  • I then went into the Small Claims Court website — you’ll find a direct link to their guide in the right-hand column, under Sites of Interest — printed out the guide and claim form, and read everything thoroughly (it’s an easy, well-written pamphlet). I highlighted important tidbits and filled in the one-page form, Civil Court of the City of New York, Small Claims Part, Statement of Claim.
  • Then I tossed everything into my new file folder and tucked it into my file drawer and went on with my life.

Oh my! Here it now is, May 11, the date on which I expected that check. But — crushing disappointment — the check didn’t arrive. So that’s why, on Monday, May 14, I pulled out my new file, reminded myself that I’d have to pay a filing fee of $20 (the fee is calibrated on the amount you’re claiming) and wrote out my check to the Clerk of the Court.

Then I took myself with paperwork down to the courthouse at 111 Centre Street and went upstairs to Room 322.

The process — for which you don’t need a lawyer and, in fact, you’d be wasting your money to retain a lawyer — couldn’t have been more me-the-plaintiff-doing-this-by-myself friendly.  Believe this: I was the only person there. The clerk instructed me to re-do my claim, writing two separate claim forms — I am suing the Little Crooked House Tenants Corp., c/o Rarus P. Griggsby, and personally suing Chaz Skush-O’Brien. I sat at a small table (the clerk even loaned me a pen) and filled everything out.

(When I noticed a few computers in one corner of the small room, I asked the clerk if I could search my defendants to see if they had other cases against them. I was the only person there; he said, “I’ll do it for you,” and he did.)

The clerk didn’t need my ample paperwork. And my personal check wasn’t acceptable. I had to pay the filing fee either in cash or with a certified check. Only one $20 fee, though, for both defendants. I paid in cash and was rewarded with a receipt, and a hearing date: December, 2012.

Yeah. December. I stood there for a few seconds, trying to figure out what season I was in at that moment, and what that date signified. Heavy coat, winter boots?

Indeed, the introduction page to the NYC Civil Court website says, “Welcome to the website of the Civil Court of the City of New York, one of the busiest courts in the world.” So yes, Small Claims Court is overworked and takes a long time. Doesn’t matter. The Court itself serves my opponents, i.e., I don’t have to.

And if the defendants fail to send me a check for the full amount before the hearing date, I will be in court. I’ve got the date, time and room number in my calendar. I will bring ample proof to back up my claim.

I will win. They will lose. That simple. And when they lose, they’ll have other problems to confront. I’ll make sure of it.

This entry was posted in The Facts of Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.