Small Claims Court is a division of the District Court of Maryland. It handles disputes involving no more than $5,000, and is less formal than other Maryland courts. The Court's rules of procedure and evidence are relaxed to make it easier for persons to represent themselves without hiring attorneys, although you may hire an attorney to represent you if you want. Cases are decided by a judge; there is no jury.
A lawsuit may be filed in Small Claims Court in the District Court If:
- The suit is for money only (not for the return of property or performance of a service, for example).
- The suit is for no more than $5,000 plus interest and costs.
- The person filing suit (plaintiff) is at least 18 years old. If the plaintiff is not 18 years old, another person who is at least 18 years old must sue on the plaintiff's behalf.
- The steps for filing a Complaint in the Small Claims Division of Maryland District Court are outlined below. Please review these steps carefully. If you have questions about the procedure, talk to a lawyer. You can talk to a lawyer for free at the District Court Self-Help Center.
Before filing suit, you may choose to send a letter to the intended defendant warning that you will sue unless your claim is satisfied within a stated period of time. Keep a copy of the letter you send.
Many cases come to trial needlessly because the parties have not tried to talk to each other. Before filing suit, you should make every effort to resolve the dispute by settling it out of court. Consider Mediation. District Court mediation is free. For more information, contact the District Court of Maryland’s ADR Office.
There are drawbacks to going to trial. It may be time consuming, and even if you win your case, you may have trouble collecting the money. Also, if you win, the defendant may appeal the decision, and you may have to go through a new trial in Circuit Court. Therefore, you may decide to settle for a lesser amount rather than go to trial. If you cannot settle the claim before filing suit, you may still settle after filing suit. In deciding the amount you will accept as a settlement, remember to consider any amount already spent on court costs.
When to See an Attorney
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. If the defendant is insured, he may be represented by an attorney provided by his 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.
When to File
File your case as soon as it is 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.
How & Where to File
To start a case, you must file a Complaint. You can find the Complaint form online or pick up a copy in a District Court clerk’s office. You must pay a fee when you file. If you cannot afford the fee, you can apply for a fee waiver. You may also have to pay a fee to have the defendant served with the court papers.
In most cases, you should file your complaint at the District Courthouse 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.
The defendant may claim that you filed in the wrong county. This is called “improper venue.” The defendant can raise this issue by filing a written motion with the Court, by raising it at trial, or the judge may determine that venue is improper. If the defendant files a motion, he or she should mail you a copy of the motion so you can respond. The Court may transfer the case to any county in which it should have been brought, or may dismiss the case.
Notifying (Serving) the Defendant
Your case will not move forward until the defendant has been served with the court papers—a summons to appear and a copy of your Complaint along with other papers filed with it. There are three ways to serve a defendant:
- For a fee, the court may send the papers to the defendant by certified mail, restricted delivery, return receipt requested.
- 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.”
- 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 directly 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 return an affidavit detailing the service to the court. 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 wasn’t served personally, the affidavit should state the relationship of the person served 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 service has not been made, and if the defendant who has been served intends to appear at trial. If the defendant files his 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. After that, and before judgment is entered, you may dismiss with prejudice. This means you cannot file this claim again.
If You Are Sued (the Defendant)
If you are a defendant who is sued in Small Claims Court, read the other sections of this page to be aware of actions the plaintiff may take.
As a defendant, you should receive a Complaint describing the reason for the suit and a Summons notifying you to appear in court for the trial. See “Notifying (Serving) the Defendant” above to learn more about service. If you were not served properly, you may file a motion to dismiss the case based on improper service.
If you believe you do not owe some or all of the money the plaintiff is claiming, you must file a Notice of Intention to Defend if you want the opportunity to tell the judge your side of the story. In most cases, you must file your Notice of Intention to Defend 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 don’t 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, he or she will enter a judgment against you.
If you believe the claim against you is justified and you do owe the money, you may still try to settle with the plaintiff for a lesser sum or enter into an installment payment arrangement to avoid having to go to trial. Avoiding a judgment may also be better for your credit. If you settle the case or agree to pay a lesser amount, be sure to get the agreement in writing. Make sure the agreement is filed with the court so the court knows you settled. If not, the case may move forward without you.
Cross-Claims, Counterclaims, Third-Party Claims
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 cross-claim 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, cross-claim, 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.
Preparing for Trial
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 if 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 him 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. Don’t 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’s still a good idea to subpoena them to appear. Judges are often unwilling to postpone a trial if witnesses do not show up.
New Trial and Appeal
You have ten (10) days after the Court makes its decision to request a new trial or to ask the court to receive additional evidence. You should do this by motion. Read the Rules: Md. Rule 3-533 and 3-534
You have thirty (30) days to file an appeal to 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 will not have to pay for a transcript, although there are fees to appeal. If you cannot afford the fees, you may ask the court by motion to waive them. You may ask the Court to provide you a recording of your trial. There is a fee for this service. Read the Rules: Md. Rules 7-101 through 7-116.
Collecting Your Judgment
If the judge finds that the defendant owes money to the plaintiff, he or she will enter a judgment against the defendant. If the defendant fails to pay voluntarily, the plaintiff may try to collect on the judgment. It’s not always easy to collect a judgment. You can try using the following processes:
Garnishment of Property
You may ask the Court to seize money in bank accounts which you believe the defendant has. Garnishments must be served on the bank in the ways discussed above (certified mail, restricted delivery, sheriff or constable, or private process server). If the defendant has money in the bank, the bank will "confess assets" to the Court, and the Court may order that these be paid to you.
The defendant may choose to exempt certain funds from garnishment. Other funds like Social Security, child support, and certain government pensions may be exempt from garnishment. The defendant can also seek to exempt up to the value allowed by law, or $6000, in a bank account. The defendant should tell the Court within 30 days of the day the Writ of Garnishment is served if the money is exempt by filing form DC CV 36. Read the Law/Rule: MD Rule 3-645.1, MD Code Courts & Jud. Proc. § 11-504
Garnishment of Wages
You may ask the Court to garnish wages of the defendant if he is employed. The garnishment must be served on the employer in the ways discussed above (certified mail, restricted delivery, sheriff or constable, or private process server). The defendant has 30 days after service to file an answer and assert defenses. After the writ is served, the lien or claim against the garnishable wages continues until the judgment is paid in full. If the defendant has other garnishments, no wages will be deducted under a later garnishment until the earlier wage garnishment has been paid in full. Federal law also makes 75% of the defendant's wages exempt from garnishment. In some cases, if the defendant has a very low income, there may not be any income that can be garnished. Read the Rule: MD Rule 3-646
You may ask the Court to levy on and sell certain goods which you believe the defendant owns. A deposit is required assessed as costs, to cover moving, towing, storage fees and the costs of advertising and of the auction. The deposit will be returned if the sale brings sufficient return. If you ask the Court to levy on real estate, in most counties, you must request the clerk to file a lien in the Circuit Court of any Maryland county. It will attach to any real estate (land) or interest in real estate the defendant has or may acquire in that county, unless the interest is owned jointly with the defendant's spouse, and the judgment is against only one of them. After doing this, the plaintiff may ask the Court to order the sale of the land. The lien attaches whether the land is sold voluntarily or as the result of a court order.
Certain goods may not be seized or may be exempt.
Oral Examination in Aid of Execution
If you aren’t sure what assets the judgment debtor has, you need to do an investigation. If you file for an “oral examination,” the Court may order the defendant to appear in court to answer questions under oath about his finances. If you file for an oral examination, you are the one who asks the questions, not the judge. Prepare for the oral examination by writing down a list of questions that you want the defendant to answer about his finances. You must wait to file for an oral examination until 30 days have passed from the date the judgment was entered. If you wish to examine a person again, the court usually orders that person to appear again, unless less than one year has passed since the first examination. If that is the case, the court may require you to show good cause.
You may also use interrogatories to ask the defendant what assets he has. Read the Rule: Md. Rule 3-633.
If the defendant pays you the amount of the judgment, you must give the defendant a statement that the judgment is satisfied and you must file this with the clerk.