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Small Claims Court is sometimes referred to as the Peoples Court as the proceedings are very informal and often the parties to the suit represent themselves. Small Claims Court has been established to provide expeditious and relatively inexpensive adjudication of small debts. Small Claims Court may hear disputes that have claims for monetary damages up to and including $5,000.00.
What and where to file a Small Claims Suit:
The Clerk will supply you with a form to fill out which will state your claim. This form will tell the other party why you are suing and what claim he owes you. Please bring with you all information to substantiate your claim. For example: contracts, paid bills, estimates, invoices, photographs, etc.You must supply one set of copies for the court file, and one set of copies for each defendant that you name in your suit. The Clerk's Office can make extra copies for a nominal fee. The Clerk's Office cannot advise you what to use as evidence.You will need to decide this before you file your case. The Small Claims Office is on the second floor of the Columbia County Court House located at 173 NE Hernando Street, Lake City, Fl.
Serving the Defendant:
After filing your suit with the Clerk's Office, the defendant(s) must be served with a copy of your claim.
This can be done by the Sheriff's Office or by certified mail. If the Sheriff's Service is elected a separate money order or cashiers check is necessary to cover the Sheriff's service fee. This should be made payable to the Sheriff of the County in which Service is to be made. Furnish the Clerk's Office with a street address, not a post office box. The Court Summons will be sent by the Clerk's Office to the Sheriff with your payment for service attached.
Certified mail is effective in the State of Florida only. Service on defendants out of the State of Florida must be made by the Sheriff. It is the Plaintiff's responsibility to obtain the address of the Sheriff of the County where the defendant is to be served.
The Pretrial Hearing:
Before you get to trial, you will have to appear at a pretrial conference, where mediation will be offered if all parties to the dispute are present and unable to settle their dispute. Do not bring witnesses to the pretrial hearing. A mediator acts to encourage and facilitate a resolution of the dispute between the parties. It is an informal and non-adversarial process with the objective of helping the disputing parties reach a mutually acceptable and voluntary agreement. In mediation, decision-making authority rests with the parties. If the dispute cannot be settled, a trial date will be scheduled by the court for your case to be heard by a Judge.
Be prepared to bring all witnesses, documents and other evidence you plan to use in the trial. If you have a witness who will not appear and testify voluntarily, you may request the Clerk's Office to prepare and issue a subpoena. There is a fee for signing and sealing and/or preparing the subpoena by the Clerk's Office.
The Sheriff charges a service fee for the delivery of each subpoena. You must also pay each witness a fee and a mileage allowance to appear.
At the trial, the Judge will consider all the evidence, as well as testimony from the witnesses, and decide the rights of the parties. If the Judge decides in your favor, the Clerk's Office will send you a certified copy of the Final Judgment and the defendant should pay you the amount set out in the Final Judgment.
Be on time, as this could jeopardize your case.
After Judgment - getting your money:
If the defendant does not pay you, these are the steps you may take to get your money.
If the defendant owns real property, you can record a certified copy of the Judgment in the county or counties where real property is located. You will record this with the Clerk of Circuit Court in that county. This will act as a claim of lien against all properties owned by the defendant in that county. Because it is a lien, it will usually be resolved when the defendant tries to sell the property and offer clear title to a purchaser, if not before.
You may also get a writ of execution from the Clerk's Office 10 days after the Final Judgment is entered. Deliver the writ to the Sheriff of the county where the defendant lives or owns real property. The Sheriff may (for a fee) seize the property and sell it to satisfy the Judgment. There are many laws concerning what the Sheriff may or may not seize and sell. Since execution of a judgment is a complicated procedure, it will probably be in your best interest to obtain a lawyer for this action.
A Writ of Garnishment may also be filed against the defendants wages, bank account or a third party having in his possession money owed to the defendant. Due to the complexity of garnishments, we recommend that you consult an attorney or a library with legal texts available, so that proper procedures are followed. The Clerk's Office cannot prepare the Writ of Garnishment for you.
Satisfaction of Judgment:
When the Judgment is paid in full, you are required to furnish the defendant with a Satisfaction of Judgment, signed by you in front of a notary, so that the defendant may remove any liens placed against him or her by recording the satisfaction in the same County or Counties where the judgment was recorded.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who can file a Small Claims Case?
Any person(s) eighteen (18) years or older or any individual(s) doing business as a company may file a Small Claims Case. A parent or guardian may file on behalf of a minor child. Each person who is a party to the claim must appear at the Clerk's Office to sign the necessary paperwork in the presence of a Deputy Clerk, or the signatures must be notarized.
Do I need a lawyer?
No. In most cases you can represent yourself if you so desire. If the case is complex you should consider getting legal counsel. The Clerk's office will provide you with the necessary forms to file a claim and give general information and assistance, but no legal advice can be given.
Is there a statute of limitations?
How long you have to file a claim in court, notably Small Claims Court, varies depending on the topic and circumstances of the respective litigation. Chapter 95.11, Florida Statutes, explains that a person has between one and five years. In some case, you can have up to 20 years to file if you are challenging a judgment or court decree.
How can I find an owner, resident agent, or principals in a corporation or partnership?
Information for partnerships and corporations may be found by checking occupational licenses in the county or city where the business is located, or through the Secretary of State, Division of Corporations, Tallahassee, Florida (850)245-6000.
What if either Plaintiff or Defendant fails to appear in Court?
If the defendant has been duly served, and fails to appear on the designated court date, in person or represented by an attorney, a judgment may be entered automatically in favor of the plaintiff.
If the plaintiff fails to appear on the designated court date, in person or represented by an attorney, the case may be dismissed for lack of prosecution.
What should be done if both parties settle before the Court Date?
The Plaintiff needs to notify the Clerk's Office in writing as soon as possible. The case will then be removed from the court docket.
What happens if the Summons is returned un-served?
In the event the Summons is returned to the Clerk's Office unserved by either the Sheriff or the Post Office, you will not be able to proceed with your case. By law, the defendant must be served before he or she can be held liable. In this instance you should try to obtain a new address or if sent by certified mail attempt using Sheriff’s service.
Small Claims Worksheet
Plaintiff Information (party filing suit):
Under Plaintiff's Statement, please PRINT or TYPE your name (this may be individual, company, business, or corporate name) and complete address. Also provide a telephone number where you can be reached.
How did your claim come about?
On the lines provided, fill in the amount for which you are suing and check the line that best describes your claim. Be sure NOT to add the court costs to the amount for which you are suing. The Clerk's Office will add the court costs to the total. If you don't feel that the choices provided describe your particular situation, check "other" and write a brief description. You should also provide the date and place where the alleged claim occurred.
Regarding military service, the question "Is he / she in the military service " MUST be answered to the best of your ability. The Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act of 1940 states that proceedings may be stayed at any stage, at the discretion of the Court, so that military personnel would not be subject to prosecution while unable to attend court proceedings. The Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act, states that any person who shall make or use an affidavit required under this section, or a statement, declaration, verification or certificate, certified to be true under penalty of perjury, knowing it to be false, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shallbe punished by imprisonment not to exceed one year or by fine not to exceed $1,000.00 or both.
Naming your defendant:
Under "My Claim is Against" PRINT or TYPE the name of the person you wish to sue. If the defendant is a corporation we must have the name of the President, Vice President, or Registered Agent on which to serve the papers, but do not list that person as a defendant unless you also have a claim against that person. You may call the Secretary of State, Division of Corporations at (850) 488-9000 in order to obtain this information. You must also PRINT or TYPE the Defendant's address at which they are to be served.
Serving the Summons:
Please indicate whether you would like the Sheriff to deliver the Court Summons on the defendant(s) or if you would prefer it to be sent by certified mail. Certified mail is effective in the State of Florida only. If you elect to have the Sheriff serve the defendant(s), you MUST provide a money order or cashiers check made out to the Sheriff of the county in which the service is to be made. For out of state service, the Sheriff MUST deliver the summons. It is the Plaintiff's responsibility to provide the Clerk's Office with the proper money order or cashiers check required and the address of said Sheriff in order for the paperwork for service to be forwarded.
Be sure to include copies of basic information to substantiate your claim. We require one set of copies for the court file and one set for each defendant,
at the time you file your case.