What Is a Small Claims Court in Alabama?
An Alabama Small Claims Court is a court that settles legal disputes involving individuals and business entities where financial claims are $6,000 or less. Small Claims Courts in Alabama are not standalone courts. They are divisions of the respective District Courts in all the counties of the state. Small Claim Courts are special and simple, especially because they do not adopt the formal and conventional proceedings courts are renowned for. Alabama Small Claims Courts have jurisdiction to hold trials and enter judgments for cases involving the following:
- Landlord and tenant disputes
- Recovery of loans and other money owed
- Personal injuries
- Disputes of financial claims NOT involving libel, professional malpractice, slander, and punitive damages
How Does Alabama Small Claims Court Work?
Being a division of District Courts, Small Claims Court hears only civil cases with limited financial claims. Parties allowed to file cases before the court are individuals, corporations, and partnerships. The parties, also known as litigants, may appear pro se, or hire the services of competent attorneys. Appearing pro se means representing oneself in court without an attorney. As insinuated, this is a choice each party makes for themselves.
The suing party is the plaintiff, while the sued party is the defendant. A judge presides over a typical Alabama Small Claims Court case and enters judgment appropriately. For a person to qualify as a plaintiff, the person must be mentally competent and up to 19 years old (or emancipated legally). A Small Claims Court lawsuit starts when an aggrieved party approaches the Clerk of the Small Claims Court to file a case. As long as the claim does not exceed the upper financial limit of $6,000 as captured in the jurisdiction of the court, the clerk will process the case towards trial.
Trials involved the presentation of facts, evidence, and witnesses before the judge. It is noteworthy that Small Claims Courts do not hold jury trials, which means the judge has the full discretion to enter any judgment upon examination of the facts before the court and the prevalent law that applies to the case. As with most courts in the Alabama Judicial System, a party who is unsatisfied with the final judgment may appeal the judgment. After the appeal is filed (if any) and judgment entered, the winning party may collect the judgment in full as stipulated in the judgment.
How to Take Someone To a Small Claims Court in Alabama?
The first step to suing someone in a Small Claims Court is to prepare a Statement of Claim. A Statement of Claim is the official complaint by the plaintiff against a party. However, if the claim is property-related, the plaintiff may use the Statement of Claim for Specific Property instead. Both forms contain the basic information of the plaintiff and defendant, as well as the details of the dispute between them. Download and complete the relevant fields in either of the two forms or visit the Small Claims Court division of the right District Court Clerk’s office to do so.
Small claims lawsuits can only be filed at the Small Claims Court in the county where the defendant lives or has an office or where the issue under dispute occurred. After submitting the completed Statement of Claim, the next step is to prepare the Small Claims Summons, an official document informing the defendant of the lawsuit against them. Small Claims Summons are attached to the Statement of Claim and mailed to the defendant.
As such, when filing these documents, the plaintiff is expected to fill in the correct and current contact information of the defendant so they can be duly notified of the suit. These documents may be served to the defendant by the County Sheriff Department, a constable, or any other authorized process server. Typically, defendants are served the process via mail. Filing a lawsuit attracts different filing fees depending on the claim amount, the number of plaintiffs and defendants, as follows:
- A filing fee of claims up to $1,500 against one defendant costs $82
- A filing fee of claims between $1,501 to $3,000 against one defendant costs $156
- A filing fee of claims between $3,001 to $6,000 against one defendant costs $245
- Each additional defendant attracts $10
- Each additional plaintiff attracts $50
- The delivery fee of court documents to any party in the case attracts $11.89 per restricted certified mail and $6.74 for non-restricted certified mail.
If the fee is not affordable, a plaintiff may apply for a fee waiver using an Affidavit of Substantial Hardship form. When the defendant receives the notice of the lawsuit, they have a duty to ignore or answer the summon within 14 days. Suppose the summon is answered within the stipulated time frame. The defendant may accept responsibility and seek out-of-court settlement or deny responsibility and allow the case to proceed into a trial. If the summons is not answered, the plaintiff can pray the court to enter a default judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.
On the other hand, if the case proceeds to trial, both parties will present their arguments before the court, backed up with facts, evidence, and witnesses. If the plaintiff loses the case, he or she may accept defeat or appeal the court’s judgment. Suppose the court judgment is in the plaintiff’s favor and there are no appeals. The defendant has 14 days to pay the claim stipulated in the judgment.
When the waiting period elapses without payment of the claim, the winning party may file either a Writ of Execution or Process of Garnishment order against the losing party in a bid to collect the judgment. A Writ of Execution prays the court to authorize the Sheriff to seize and sell any property of the losing party in order to pay the judgment claim. On the other hand, a Process of Garnishment is an order that withholds the losing party’s wages until it is sufficient enough to pay the claim amount.
How Much Can You Sue For in Alabama Small Claims Court?
The maximum amount a person or an entity may sue for in an Alabama Small Claims Court is $6,000. Any claims above that will be rejected by the court. The plaintiff may choose to reduce the claim to align with the financial limit of the court's jurisdiction or may proceed to a higher court with sufficient jurisdiction to hear the case.
How to Defend Yourself in Alabama Small Claims Court?
When a Small Claims Summons is served, the defendant has 14 days to answer to the court. Ignoring the summon is not advisable, as it gives the plaintiff the legal premise to file a motion for a Default Judgment in the plaintiff’s favor. The defendant is mandated to print and complete the Defendant’s Answer form. In this document, the defendant may either admit guilt in part or whole OR outrightly deny the defendant’s allegations. If in denial, the defendant may choose to file a Counterclaim against the plaintiff.
Upon completion, submit the Defendant’s Answer form by mail or in-person to the Small Claims Court Clerk’s office. As long as the defendant denies owing part or whole of the claim amount, the court sets a date for trial and issues a Notice of Trial to all parties involved in the case. In Alabama Small Claims Court trials, litigants may either hire attorneys or represent themselves. Whichever the case, the defendant can prepare for the trial by collating all necessary documents that back up the narrative or argument.
Relevant documents include receipts, contracts, photographs, bills, etc. In the same vein, talk with witnesses that can back up the story and convince them to testify before the court. If a witness is unwilling to testify, defendants may apply to the Court Clerk to issue a Subpoena mandating the witness to show up in court.
In the trial, the plaintiff makes the opening arguments, presenting pieces of evidence and calling witnesses. After this, the court hears the defendant’s argument, with evidence and witnesses (if any). Both parties are allowed to cross-examine or question the witnesses of the other party. As a defendant, the chances of winning the case are dependent on the prevalent law, and how well the facts justify the argument.
Since there is no jury, the judge enters judgment on his or her own discretion in keeping to prevalent laws. Suppose the judgment is against the defendant’s favor. The defendant may pay the claim amount within 14 days or appeal the judgment. The winning party may be forced to file a Process of Garnishment or Writ of Execution if the claim is not paid within 14 days.
However, every Alabama resident has their rights and is advised to consult with their attorneys if such court orders are executed against them. Suppose the defendant won the case. The court enters judgment against the plaintiff and dismisses the case. Appeals are allowed for both parties. If the defendant filed a counterclaim against the plaintiff and also won, the defendant may collect the claim within 14 days if no appeal was filed.
How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Alabama Small Claims Court?
The operations of Alabama Small Claims Courts are subject to the state's Statutes of Limitations as captured in Alabama Code Title 6. Civil Practice § 6-2-38. For most cases within the court's jurisdiction, an aggrieved person has a maximum of two years from the date of an incident to file a charge against an individual, partnership, or corporation. Charges not filed within this period may never be filed.
What Happens if you Don't Show up for Alabama Small Claims Court?
In several instances, litigants fail to show up in court for trials. When a defendant fails to answer a Small Claims Summons within 14 days, the plaintiff may ask the court to enter a Default Judgment against the defendant. The plaintiff must go to court to state how much the defendant should pay. Suppose the defendant fails to appear in court for trial after answering the Summons. The court may enter judgment based on the facts, evidence, and witnesses that plaintiff presents in the defendant's absence. On the part of the plaintiff, non-appearance in court for trial means a dismissal of the case.
What are Alabama Small Claims Court Records?
Alabama Small Claims Court records are documents that capture the proceedings of various trials held in the Small Claims Courts across the state. Alabama is an open record state. As such, Small Claims Court records are public and accessible to members of the general public.
Where can I find Alabama Small Claims Court Records?
Since Small Claims Courts are divisions of District Courts in various counties in the state, records of Small Claims Courts cases are maintained by the Office of the District Court Clerk. In some counties, the Small Claims Court Clerk keeps these records. A requestor may visit the appropriate court where a case was tried and request copies of the case record. The Alabama Administrative Office of Courts also maintains an online repository of Alabama court records, including Small Claims Court records.
The repository, known as "Just One Look" is Alabama's On-Demand Public Access to Trial Court Records. It allows interested persons to conduct electronic searches on any Small Claims Court case in the state. Although it is meant to cover the entire state, the records may not be updated as some district courts in some counties do not file their records with the site on time. The platform is not free and requires requestors to sign up with the platform before making a court record search. Each search by name or case number costs $9.99. Alternatively, requestors may obtain Small Claims Court records from reputable third-party sites.