Topics on this page:
- What is a Small Claim?
- How Can I File a Small Claim?
- What Happens in Court?
- Preparing for Trial
- What to Do if You Are Sued in District Court
- Appealing a Small Claim Decision
- What Happens After Court?
In Maryland, a small claim is a dispute that involves only money, and the amount involved in the claim is $5,000 or less. Small claims are handled less formally than other cases. The rules for small claims cases are simplified to make it easier to represent yourself. Additionally, filing fees for small claims are cheaper and the process is generally faster than a regular civil case.
Small Claims Court is a division of the District Court of Maryland. To be tried as a small claim, your case must meet the following conditions:
- Your claim is for $5,000 or less;
- Your claim is for money only, not the return of property or performance of a service; and,
- You are not planning to request any discovery such as interrogatories (written questions that the other side must answer under oath in writing, before trial).
Read the Law: Md. Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings § 4-405
While you are not required to do so, if you would like to hire a lawyer to represent you, you can. There are times when it may be necessary or advisable to consult an attorney. For example:
- If your case involves personal injury and/or medical expenses.
- If your case involves damages resulting from a traffic accident, the defendant may be represented by an attorney provided by an insurance company. You may also wish to have an attorney.
- If you have difficulty filling out the forms or have unanswered questions about preparing your case.
If you do decide to engage an attorney to represent you, you will need to pay the attorney’s fees.
There are four basic steps to starting a small claims case:
- File a Complaint with the court.
- Pay the filing fee.
- Notify the other side (called “the defendant”) that a suit has been filed.
- Submit Proof of Service to the court showing that the other side has been notified.
You should file your case as soon as reasonably possible. If you wait too long, the defendant may win the case by raising the Statute of Limitations, the law that requires that lawsuits be brought within a certain period of time. In Maryland, most cases must be filed within three years of the time when it was first possible to sue, but some must be filed sooner, and some may be filed later.
One of the most challenging parts of filing a small claim is to make sure you sue the right person. Be sure your complaint names the correct defendant.
Suing an Individual
An individual must be at least 18 years old to be named as a defendant. If the individual you intend to sue is under 18, or is older than 18 but has a legal guardian, you may need to name the individual’s parent or guardian, or anyone else who gives care or has custody of the person or estate, as defendant.
Suing a Company
When you are suing a company, naming the defendant can be complicated. The defendant is not the company’s manager or even its president, but the company itself. Always put the full, formal business name on the Complaint form, such as “John Debtor Enterprises, Inc.” or “Debtor and Son, Ltd.” To find the full, formal name of a Maryland corporation, check the State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) website.
In most cases, you should file your complaint at the District Court in the county where the defendant lives, works or is employed. If there are multiple defendants, you may file in the county where any of them could be sued. A corporation which has no principal place of business in the State may be sued where you live. In some tort actions you may file the suit where the cause of action arose. If you are not sure which county to file in, talk to a lawyer.
Your case will not move forward until the defendant has been served with the court papers – a summons to appear (issued by the court after you file the complaint) and a copy of your Complaint along with other papers filed with it. There are three ways to serve a defendant:
- Certified Mail: For a fee, the court may send the papers to the defendant by certified mail, restricted delivery, return receipt requested.
- Sheriff: For a fee, the sheriff may serve (deliver) the papers, to the defendant or leave the papers with a person who lives at the defendant’s home who is of “suitable age and discretion.”
- Private Process: You may have the papers served by a private process server. A private process server may be a paid service, or you can use any person over 18 years old who is not involved in the case. The process server must deliver the papers personally to the defendant or leave the papers with a person who lives at the defendant’s home who is of “suitable age and discretion.” The process server must file an affidavit with the court detailing the service. The affidavit should state that the person who made the service is at least 18 years old, and the name, mailing address and telephone number of the process server; the name and description of the person served, and include the date, time and place of service. If the defendant was not served personally, the affidavit should state the relationship that the person served has to the defendant.
If the Court or sheriff has attempted to serve the defendant without success, you will be notified. If a private process server was unable to serve the defendant, you should still return the affidavit of service to the Court. Your process server should detail how many attempts were made, including the date(s), time(s), and place(s) of the attempted service. You may then, for an additional fee, renew the Summons and attempt to have the defendant served again. You may decide to give the Court a different address for the defendant or try another method of service.
The Court should notify you if the defendant has not been served, and also if the defendant has been served and intends to appear at trial. If the defendant files a Notice of Intention to Defend, the Court may reschedule the trial date. Your case cannot move forward unless the defendant is properly served.
You may dismiss your claim at any time before the defendant files a notice of Intention to Defend. This dismissal is without prejudice. Dismissal without prejudice means you can refile the case later. After a notice of Intention to Defend has been filed, and before judgment is entered, you may dismiss with prejudice. Dismissing with prejudice means you cannot file this claim again.
Read the Rules: Md. Rules, Title 3, Chapter 100
If the defendant files a Notice of Intention to Defend, the court will notify you. The Notice of Intention to Defend includes space for the defendant to explain why they should not be required to pay you the money you claim you are owed. If the defendant chooses to list a reason, the notice you receive from the court will include that reason. Take note of the defendant’s claim. You need to be prepared to explain to the judge why the defendant’s argument is not valid. The court will set a trial date.
Even if the other side does not file the Notice of Intention to Defend, you may still be required to come to court. At trial, be prepared to present any witnesses, evidence or exhibits to prove your claim. The trial will be more informal than a regular trial, but you still need to be able to prove that the other side owes you the money you claim.
Before the trial, you should prepare your case thoroughly. The judge evaluates the case based only on the evidence presented by you and the other party. You should come prepared to supply as much information as possible. If you forget to bring evidence or witnesses to court on the trial date, the judge may not postpone the trial to give you the opportunity to gather evidence.
Usually, it is best to have witnesses come in person to testify in court. Although any available evidence is permitted in a small claims case, judges often prefer live witnesses to written statements or affidavits.
It is important to have itemized estimates of costs relating to your claim. Defendants, and plaintiffs, may want to come prepared with estimates of the amount of damages is in dispute. In some cases, you may need an expert witness to come in person to present evidence to the judge. If the person is considered an "expert witness" (i.e., an auto mechanic in a damaged automobile case), you may have to pay them for spending time in court. If you are not sure if you need an expert witness, talk to a lawyer.
Make an outline of what you plan to say to the judge. Practice before trial and bring a copy of your outline to the trial. Sometimes people get nervous or distracted and forget to present an important point. If you are calling witnesses, make a list of questions that you plan to ask your witnesses. Practice with them so you are not surprised by what they say at the hearing. Do not forget that court testimony is given under oath and that you and all witnesses must tell the truth.
Court hearings are open to the public. Many people find it very helpful to attend Small Claims Court before the date of the trial to see how things go.
Finally, in small claims cases, there is no discovery. Discovery refers to the formal process before a trial where parties try to obtain information from the other side about his or her case.
- Collect all documents relating to the case, including written contracts, correspondence, estimates for repair or replacement, warranties, canceled checks, photographs, and any other similar materials that you may want to show the judge and enter into evidence.
- Arrange your material either chronologically or in the manner in which you plan to discuss your case.
- Discuss the case with potential witnesses who have personal knowledge of any aspect of the case and who may be able to provide evidence in your favor at the trial. The evidence may be a written, signed statement, or, even better, the witness's personal testimony at the trial. Personal testimony lends more weight to your case than a written statement.
- If there is someone you believe can provide essential information and that person is unwilling to appear in court or to give a written statement, you should ask the clerk to issue a subpoena for him or her at least ten days before the trial date. Even if your witnesses agree to testify, it is still a good idea to subpoena them to appear. Judges are often unwilling to postpone a trial if witnesses do not show up.
If you have been notified that a small claims action has been brought against you, the court documents served on you should include a copy of the complaint filed in the case. The complaint will tell you who is suing you, the reason why, and how much the plaintiff claims you owe.
The action you take in response to the complaint depends on the specifics of the complaint.
There are rules governing the procedure for filing a small claims case. If the plaintiff did not correctly follow the rules, you may be able to raise a procedural issue. For example, the plaintiff must legally serve you a copy of a summons or complaint. If you are not served legally, you can request that the court dismiss the case for improper service. If the amount claimed in the complaint is greater than $5,000, the case may not qualify as a small claims action. The complaint may also have been filed in a county other than where the defendant lives, carries on business or works. If you do not live in Maryland or do not have business here, Maryland courts may not be able to rule on the case.
If you believe you do not owe some, or all, of the money the plaintiff is claiming, and you want the opportunity to tell the judge your side of the story, you must file a Notice of Intention to Defend with the court. In most cases, you must file your Notice within 15 days of receiving the summons.
The Notice of Intention to Defend lets the Court know that you intend to appear and contest the case. You can find the Notice of Intention to Defend attached to the Summons form. You can submit it to the court by delivering it in person or by mailing it to the clerk’s office. You should get a copy of your Notice of Intention to Defend date stamped by the clerk’s office to make sure you have proof that it was filed on time. If you appear for trial without having filed a Notice of Intention to Defend, the case may be postponed, or you may have to tell the judge why you do not owe the money before the case will be rescheduled for trial.
If you cannot appear at the time designated for trial, you may ask the court to postpone the hearing to a future date. You should ask for a postponement as soon as you know that you will not be able to make it. If you ask for a postponement too near the trial date, the judge may deny your request. If you do not appear for trial, or if your postponement request has been denied, the judge may rule against you for the amount claimed or for some other amount. This is called a default judgment. Even if you are not there, if the judge decides you owe the money, they will enter a judgment against you.
If you have a claim against the plaintiff and you want to sue the plaintiff, you may file a counterclaim within 10 days after the time that your Notice of Intention to Defend is due. This is usually 25 days after you are served with the court papers. If you miss the deadline, you can file a motion and ask the court for permission to file a late counterclaim.
If you are one of several defendants, you may sue another defendant in a crossclaim if you believe the other defendant owes you for the money the plaintiff claims you owe.
If you believe someone who is not named as a defendant in the suit against you owes you money that should be used to satisfy any judgment the plaintiff may win from you, you may file a third party claim at least 10 days before trial.
If you counterclaim, crossclaim, or third-party claim is for more than $5,000, the entire case will be moved from Small Claims Court and more formal rules of evidence and procedure will apply.
If you believe the claim against you is justified, and you do owe the plaintiff money, you may attempt to negotiate a settlement or agree to a payment plan to avoid having to go to trial. The agreed upon amount of the settlement can be for a lesser sum than the amount claimed in the complaint. Avoiding a judgment may also be better for your credit.
Negotiate a Settlement – You may attempt to negotiate on your own or seek the help of a mediator. In mediation, a trained mediator helps the parties settle or resolve their dispute. If you do not reach an agreement, you can still go to court. District Court mediation is free. For more information, see District Court Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).
Agree to a Payment Plan – If you agree to a payment plan, get the agreement in writing. Notice of the agreement must be provided to the court. If the agreement is that the case will be dismissed, you may use the Notice of Dismissal form.
Keep copies of checks or money order stubs that you use to pay off the debt. It is important to keep a record showing that you made payments or paid off the debt. If you do not make the payments as agreed, the plaintiff could still bring you to court for the amount you owe.
If you neglect to notify the court of settlement of the claim, the case may move forward without you.
A resolution conference is an opportunity for you to meet with the attorney for the opposing party (the plaintiff) in your case to attempt to resolve your case without going to trial. A resolution conference is not a hearing, and a judge is not present in the courtroom.
For information on resolution conferences, please see the District Court’s website.
Learn more about What To Do When You Have Been Sued in Small Claims Court.
Defending a Small Claim
If you do not agree with the decision the judge made, you have the following options:
- File a motion in the District Court Requesting a New Trial
- You can file this motion in writing within 10 days after the date of the judgment.
- You must state in writing all of the reasons that you believe that the District Court judge made the wrong decision. When you file this motion, you are saying that the District Court judge made mistakes in the trial. Be specific about what you believe these mistakes are.
- Appeal to the Circuit Court
- If either party files an appeal of a District Court case, your appeal case will be held in front of a judge in the circuit court. Small claims appeals are heard “de novo.” This means a completely new trial will be held in front of a new judge in the Circuit Court.
- You have 30 days after the judgment date to file your appeal. If you have filed a Motion for a new trial or a Motion to Alter or Amend you have 30 days from the date of the ruling on the motion to file your appeal.
Read the Rules: Md. Rule 3-533 and 3-534
Read the Rules: Md. Rules 7-101 through 7-116.
Learn more about Appealing a District Court Decision.
After the court decides your case, both you and the other party will receive a copy of the judgment. The court will not collect the money owed to you. If the court ruled in your favor, and the other side does not pay you as ordered, you may need to take further steps to collect on the judgment.
Learn more about Collecting a Judgment.
How to File a Small Claim
Before You File a Small Claim
Service of Process in the District Court
Defending a Small Claim