Pro Se Litigants in Small Claims Court

Pro se” means “for himself” and a “pro se litigant” is an individual who appears for himself in court.  The Small Claims Court is a division of the Cleveland Municipal Court that is designed to provide easy court access to non-lawyers.  By law, the appearance of an attorney on behalf of any party is permitted, but not required.  When a small claims complaint is filed by an individual who represents himself, he is appearing “pro se.”  The individual who files the complaint is the “plaintiff” and the individual being sued is the “defendant.”  If an individual defends himself in a small claims action, he is also appearing “pro se.”

The Small Claims division hears cases seeking to recover money only.  The most that can be sued for is $3,000.  Generally, counterclaims (a claim filed by the defendant) also cannot exceed $3,000.  Cases for slander, libel, replevin (the return of specific personal property), malicious prosecution, punitive damages, and other cases where more than money is pursued are not permitted.  Small claims trials are heard by magistrates of the court.

If the court is successful in notifying the defendant of the lawsuit and the trial date, the case will be heard on the specified date set.  When filing a claim, counterclaim or cross claim, it is important to give the court the correct name and address of the opposing party, especially if the party is a business entity.  If the plaintiff is a corporation, an officer of the corporation is permitted to file the lawsuit.  If the defendant is a corporation, the name of the statutory agent must be indicated in order to serve that agent.  If the business entity is not incorporated, you must name and serve the business andthe individual or partnership who is d.b.a. (“doing business as”) the named defendant.

pro se litigant in a small claims case must organize his own presentation before going to court.  All documents related to the case must be presented in court and it is best to have copies and prepare in advance how the case will be explained.  Any witnesses who have firsthand knowledge of the subject matter may be brought to court to testify.

Although the rules are more relaxed than in other court settings, small claims trials generally follow the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure.  In addition, the Cleveland Municipal Court has its own local rules, which are accessible from the website’s homepage.  After the trial is heard, the magistrate will issue a Magistrate’s Decision which is mailed to the parties.

If a plaintiff or defendant wants to challenge the Magistrate’s Decision, a written Objection, detailing the specific challenge to the decision, must be filed with the court within 14 days of the filing of the Magistrate’s Decision.  If the court overrules the Objection and upholds the Magistrate’s Decision, an appeal to the 8th District Court of Appeals may be filed.  If the court sustains the objection, the decision may be modified or the matter may be reset for trial in front of another magistrate.

Once a judgment is issued in favor of the plaintiff (on a claim) or the defendant (on a counterclaim), it is that parties’ responsibility to collect on the judgment.  The court does nothing on it’s own to force the opposing party to pay the judgment.  If the judgment is not paid, a party may have to take additional steps to collect the money.  These steps may include a judgment debtor exam, garnishment of wages, attaching property, and attaching bank accounts.  There will be additional costs to pursue these collection efforts.  See the Clerk of Court for details on how to proceed with collection.

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