Guide to Erie County Small Claims Court

Claudia Diaz - New York - September 23, 2022

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Thinking of filing a small claims lawsuit in Erie County? Small claims courts are efficient, and low-cost courts intended to help everyday people resolve their legal disputes. To learn how to file a lawsuit in Erie County small claims court read the article below. 

Common Types of Erie County Small Claims Lawsuits

You can bring a small claims lawsuit to Erie County small claims court, as long as there is not a better court that can handle your lawsuit. For example, if you want to evict someone you would need to go to Housing Court as this is the court that handles evictions. 

Here are common types of small claims lawsuits filed in Erie County small claims court:

  • You lent your roommate money and they won't pay you back.

  • Someone hit your car and now they won't pay for the damages to your car.

  • You paid a contractor to do work on your home in East Aurora but they never showed up.

  • Your clients won't pay you for services you rendered. 

  • You are a tenant that moved out of your Tonawanda apartment and your landlord has not returned your security deposit.

  • You own a small business in Lackawanna and your customer refuses to pay their outstanding invoices. 

  • Someone damaged your property and they won't pay to fix the damages.

  • You gave someone a loan and they won’t pay back the loan amount. 

  • You are a landlord and own a rental unit in Buffalo and your tenant refuses to pay rent. 

In Erie County, you cannot sue someone in any small claims court to force them to do something or return your property. You can only sue for money. For example, you hired a mechanic to fix your engine but the mechanic damages your car while making the repairs. You can only sue the mechanic to recover how much it will cost to fix the car, you cannot sue the mechanic to force them to fix the damages.  

Erie County Small Claims Limits

The small claims “limits” determine how much you can sue for in Erie County small claims.

There are two types of small claims courts in Erie County:

  • City Courts

  • Town and Village Courts 

The most important difference between these two courts is the amount you can sue for.

  • In Erie County city courts, the maximum you can sue for is $5,000.

  • In Erie County town and village courts, the maximum amount you can sue for is $3,000

What happens if I am owed more than what I can sue for in Erie County small claims?

It may be that the other party owes you more than the small claims limit. If this is the case you may want to consider filing your lawsuit in another court. However, Erie County small claims courts are more affordable, efficient, and faster than other types of courts. 

You also cannot file multiple smaller lawsuits to get around the claim limit. However, if you have multiple claims you may be able to file two different lawsuits, one for each claim. 

Erie County Small Claim Court Locations

The three court locations listed below handle small claims:  

Buffalo City Court 

Buffalo City Court Building 

50 Delaware Avenue 

Buffalo, NY 14202

Phone: 716-845-2663 

Lackawanna City Court 

City Hall

714 Ridge Road

Lackawanna, NY 14218

Phone: 716-845-7220

Tonawanda City Court 

City Hall

200 Niagara Street

Tonawanda, NY 14150

Phone: 716-845-2160

Fax: 716-845-7590

Remember the maximum amount of money you can sue for in an Erie County city court is $5,000.

There are also dozens of town and village courts in Erie County that handle small claims. Use the New York court’s website to locate a specific town or village court near you. Remember, in Erie County town and village courts, the maximum amount you can sue for is $3,000. 

How Do I Calculate How Much to Sue For?

We know that this is a trickier question to answer than it seems. Generally speaking, taking someone to small claims isn't meant for you to come out winning more than what you are owed. At the hearing, the judge will want to know how you calculated the amount you are suing for and will ask you to prove your calculations. 

‍Here are some tips for calculating how much to sue for:

  • Use receipts. For example, if you hired painters to paint your home and they used the wrong colors and you had to go out and pay new painters to fix the job you can use invoices and receipts to figure out the total amount the first set of painters owe you. 

  • Use estimates. For example, if someone crashed their car into your front gate, you may need an estimate from a contractor estimating how much it will cost to fix the gate. Use this estimate to calculate how much to sue for. 

How Much Does it Cost to Sue in Erie County Small Claims?

If you are an individual suing another individual or business in one of the Erie County city courts then you will pay: 

  •  $15 if you are suing for $1000 or less, and 

  •  $20 if you are suing for more than $1000.

If you are a business (corporation or LLC) suing an individual or business, the cost to file will be $25 plus postage. These types of small claims lawsuits are known as commercial claims

The cost to file in an Erie County town or village court ranges from $10-$15 so check with the specific town or village court you wish to file in. 

If you are low-income and cannot afford to pay filing costs, you can apply for a waiver of your court fees. In New York state this waiver is unfortunately named the Poor Person Relief. To file for a Poor Person Relief waiver, you should call the court clerk’s office you are suing in. Different judges require different proof to decide your fee waiver request, so, the court may ask you to submit additional items to prove you do not have the money to pay your court costs.

Is it Worth it to Sue Someone in Erie County Small Claims?

When deciding if to sue someone in Erie County small claims court use a cost v. benefit analysis.

Here is how some of our clients measure the cost v. benefit of going to small claims:

  • Cost. Spending $20 to get back $2,000 is very affordable.

  • How soon will you find out whether you won? After your small claims court hearing, you can expect to have a decision from the judge within a couple of days but it could take around 2 months. 

  • Time spent. It is tricky to calculate how much time you will spend on a lawsuit because of our current court system. You may have to go a few times to the court to file the lawsuit especially if you need more information or do it wrong. The good news is that with People Clerk, you can prepare and file your small claims lawsuit from home as we take care of the logistics. 

  • Justice. For some, it isn't about the time or the money. Sometimes just knowing you are deterring someone from hurting others as they hurt you is enough. 

Statute of Limitations and Erie Small Claims 

Erie county has statute of limitations, which are deadlines, that let you know by when you should file a small claims lawsuit in Erie County. The statute of limitations can range between 3-6 years. The statute of limitations is the same for a small claims lawsuit as for other types of lawsuits in New York. For example, there will be a different statute of limitations that addresses property damage cases and personal injury cases. 

We wrote an entire article on the New York Statute of Limitations if you have doubts about when you can sue. 

Here are some common questions about the statute of limitations:

  • Does my hearing have to be before the statute of limitations? No, but your case has to be FILED before the statute of limitations.

  • Can I still file my small claims lawsuit if the statute of limitations already passed? You will still be able to file your lawsuit because it is not the clerk who decides whether the statute of limitations has passed. The judge is the only person who can decide whether the statute of limitations has passed. If the statute of limitations has passed, the judge will let you know at the hearing and will close your case.

  • How do I get more certainty about the statute of limitations? (1) consult a lawyer before suing in small claims, (2) review the New York state code for your type of claim, and (3) let the judge decide at the hearing.

Do no wait until the last minute to file your Erie County small claims lawsuit. Here is why:

  1. If you file your lawsuit incorrectly and need to be able to refile your lawsuit, your second lawsuit may miss the statute of limitations.

  2. You begin to lose your evidence the more you wait. Many small claims lawsuits have text messages as evidence and if you lose your phone and a backup you won't have access to those text messages.

  3. You begin to lose credibility the more you wait. The judge will be curious to know why you waited so long to file your lawsuit if what you are saying is true.

What to Do Before You File in Erie County Small Claims?

Here are some steps you can take before you file a small claims suit:

  1. Ask the other party to pay you back.

  2. Decide where to file the lawsuit.

  3. Determine who needs to sue (the "claimants").

  4. Determine who you need to sue (the "defendants").

  5. Make sure to have the information you will need to prepare the small claims lawsuit.

Ask the other party to pay you back

In Erie County small claims court, individuals filing a lawsuit are not required to send a demand letter before filing. However, we recommend you ask the other party to pay you back either over the phone or preferably in writing in the form of a demand letter. 

Here are two reasons why you should send a demand letter: 

  • When you send a demand letter you are taken more seriously by the other party. 

  • You will also be able to include a copy of your demand letter as part of your evidence to show the judge that you gave the other party an opportunity to resolve the dispute before escalating it to small claims court. 

If you are a corporation suing in Erie County small claims court there are special rules you need to be aware of:

  • You are required to mail a demand letter at least 10 days before filing. 

  • Include a copy of your demand letter with the lawsuit and have a notary certify that you sent a demand letter. 

Figure out in which court to file your Erie County small claims lawsuit 

When filing your small claims lawsuit, it isn't about which court is closest or most convenient to you in many situations. Before going to your nearest Erie County small claims court to file your small claims lawsuit, take some time to figure out which court has "authority" over the other party. This is known as "jurisdiction."

To sue someone in Erie County city courts, the other party must live, work or have an office in Erie County. So you will likely need to sue in the Erie County small claims court that is most convenient to the other party. However, if you are suing a landlord, you can sue the landlord where the rented unit is located as long as the small claims lawsuit concerns the rented unit. 

Here is the relevant code for Erie City Courts “...the defendant either resides, or has an office for the transaction of business or a regular employment within the county, or where the claimant is or was a tenant or lessee of real property owned by the defendant and the claim relates to such tenancy or lease, and such real property is situated within the county.” Uniform City Court Act (UCT) Chapter 497, Article 18. 

Here is the relevant code for Erie County town or village courts,...defendant either resides, or has an office for the transaction of business or a regular employment within the municipality where the court is located, or where claimant is or was a tenant or lessee of real property owned by the defendant and the claim relates to such tenancy or lease, and such real property is situated within the municipality where the court is located.Uniform Justice Court Act (UJC) Chapter 898, Article 18.  

Why can't all courts have authority over the other party? Because this is what your elected officials decided was fair. The logic is that it isn't fair for someone without a connection to Erie County to be sued in Erie County.  

What happens if I file in the wrong small claims court? You will likely still be able to file your lawsuit as this is a decision for the judge to make which means that you may not find out until the hearing that you filed your lawsuit in the wrong court. This means they may close your case and you will have to refile it in the right court. This is risky because if the statute of limitations has passed, then you won't be able to win even if you file in the right court the second time.

Determine who needs to sue (the “claimants”)

The person or business filing the lawsuit is normally called the claimant in Erie County small claims. Deciding who needs to be included in a lawsuit as a claimant is normally an easy determination. Ask yourself, who is owed money? Anyone who is owed money should be included in the lawsuit.

If you are not sure who to include, it is better to include everyone who potentially is owed money and let the judge decide at the hearing. If a judge doesn't think someone should be included in the lawsuit, they will take that person off the lawsuit at the hearing and leave everyone else as part of the lawsuit. Otherwise, a judge may have you refile the lawsuit.

Here are some common examples:

  • You and your roommate just moved out of a rental unit in East Aurora. When you both moved in you had to pay a $1,500 deposit. Your landlord refuses to return the security deposit. Both you and your roommate are owed the money so the judge will want to make sure you both are part of the lawsuit.

  • You were driving your friend’s car and another driver hit you while driving. It will cost $1,000 to fix the car. Your friend should be included in the lawsuit since they are the registered owner.

Determine who you need to sue (the “defendants”).

The person or business being sued is called the defendant. Ask yourself, who is responsible for what happened to me?

Here are some tips for determining who you need to sue:

  • When in doubt, sue everyone you think is responsible and let the judge decide at the hearing. You don't want the judge to close your lawsuit because even though they think you are right, you didn't sue the right person or business.

  • Security deposit lawsuits. The most common mistake we see is suing a property management company and not the landlord in security deposit cases. You want to make sure you sue the person or business listed on your lease or rental agreement as they are the ones holding on to your security deposit plus anyone else you also think is responsible.

  • Car accident lawsuits. Don't forget to sue the driver that is responsible for hitting your car in addition to the owner of the car. 

Make sure to have the information you will need to prepare the small claims lawsuit

As you prepare your Erie County lawsuit, you want to make sure that you have the correct information for the person or business you are suing.

Suing an individual in Erie County small claims:

  • You will need their full legal name and their Erie County home, office, or work address.

  • What happens if I don't have the address of the person I am suing? You will need to find this information before suing them. Use Google, Linkedin, or consider having someone run a report called a "Skip Trace" that looks for their information on different databases.

Suing a business in Erie County small claims:

  • Suing a business in small claims court can be a tricky process. Why? Because most people don't spend the time figuring out the correct information to list on their Erie County small claims lawsuit.

  • You need to narrow down a business’s official legal name before suing them in Erie County small claims. What is an official legal name? This is the name the business has used to incorporate their business. The reality is that many businesses are not incorporated (they don't need to be) which means that you are suing an individual and not a business. For example, you paid ABC Contractors to repair your home in Parkside. ABC Contractors never came to make the repairs so you decide to sue them in Erie County small claims. You first need to determine whether ABC Contractors is a corporation, LLC, or an individual using the name ABC Contractors.

  • Many businesses also do business using a name other than their official legal name. This is called a "dba" or a "fictitious business name” or trade name. 

  • Once you have determined the official legal name, you will be able to sue the correct business and serve the correct person on behalf of a business.

How to File a Small Claims Lawsuit in Erie County Small Claims Court 

Here are the 4 steps to taking someone to small claims court in Erie County:

  1. Prepare the lawsuit

  2. File the lawsuit

  3. Serve the lawsuit

  4. Prepare for the hearing

We break down each one of these steps below.

Preparing your Erie County small claims lawsuit 

If you are suing an individual in Erie County City Court, you will need to properly fill out a Small Claims Statment of Claim

In Erie County, claimants (the person filing) must have a corporation in New York state to file a commercial claim against a business or individual. For example, if you are ABC Corporation, a New York corporation, and you want to sue a business based on a commercial transaction you need to file a Commercial Claim Statement of Claim.  

Once you prepare the forms, you will need to file them with the court. 

Filing your small claims lawsuit

You can submit the Erie County small claims forms in person or by mail. 

  • It is good practice to take 2 copies of the form properly filled out but don’t sign them until you are in front of the court clerk. 

  • Make sure to take proper payment

In Buffalo City Court, you can also file online by using the Electronic Document Delivery System (EDDS)

How to serve your Erie County small claims lawsuit

Once you file your claim with the small claims court clerk, it is up to the clerk to notify the other party that they have been sued (this is called “serving”). The court will mail the lawsuit to the other party. 

If the mail comes back as undelivered, you will be able to serve the lawsuit using the sheriff or a registered process server. You will need to call the court to determine if your lawsuit has been served.

How to prepare for your small claims hearing

To prepare for your Erie County small claims court hearing:

  • Research the law. It is good practice to read up on the law that supports your claim. At this stage, you can choose to consult with an attorney if you would like.

  • Prepare your evidence. All your evidence should be collected and organized with dates and titles. For example, if you are an artist and you did commission work for a client that never paid their invoice, include the invoice, the work contract, correspondence between you and your client, etc. Remember, in small claims court it is your responsibility to prove to the judge why and how much the other party owes you.

  • Prepare what you will say. The judge will first ask the person who filed the lawsuit to tell them why they are suing. The judge will then ask the person being sued why they don’t owe the person who sued them any money. 

  • Bring multiple copies of your evidence. You should bring at least three copies of your evidence. One copy for you, one copy for the judge, and one copy for the other party.

People Clerk can help you organize your evidence for your Erie County small claims hearing.  

What Accommodations Can the Court Provide? 

  • If you or a witness do not speak English well, you can tell the clerk when you file your lawsuit and they will assign an official interpreter to your case.

  • If you need accommodations for a disability, each court has different policies. To find out what can be done for you, make sure to call the court or the clerk and convey your needs, they will tell you what needs to be done in order to accommodate those needs.

Can I Have a Lawyer Represent Me in Erie County Small Claims?

In Erie County, you are allowed to have a lawyer assist you and represent you in court. This decision is up to you to make, and although getting a lawyer seems like an obvious decision, legal fees can quickly add up. This shouldn’t discourage you from proceeding in small claims court on your own. 

Also remember, just like you have the choice to hire a lawyer, the other party in your case does as well. In the case that both parties decide to have a lawyer represent them, the judge can move the case from small claims to civil court.

Is Small Claims Court My Only Option?

In Erie County, the other option you have outside of small claims is mediation. 

What is mediation and how does the process work? 

  • Mediation is a meeting between you, the other party, and a neutral person called a mediator. 

  • Mediation is an effort to see if the parties can come to a mutually agreeable solution or settlement. The settlement can be for the same amount of money being claimed and can involve other non-monetary agreements between the parties. 

  • Erie County offers mediation for certain cases, check with the courthouse you file in to see if your case can be mediated. 

  • The mediator's role is to help you and the other party resolve your conflict. If you resolve your conflict, you don’t need to go in front of the judge. 

  • You will still need to bring all your evidence to work through your conflict with the other party and the mediator. 

  • If you do not reach a settlement during mediation you may continue with your court hearing in front of a judge.

Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Claudia is a lawyer and certified mediator in New York and Florida. She has participated in dozens of small claims mediations in New York City courts

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