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Thinking of filing a small claims lawsuit in Buffalo, New York but don’t know how to?It may feel intimidating, but just know that small claims courts were designed to be the “People’s Court.” Small claims courts are efficient, low-cost and user-friendly courts intended to help everyday people resolve their legal disputes. To learn how to file a lawsuit in Buffalo small claims court read the article below.
Buffalo Small Claim Court Locations
In Buffalo, New York, there is one city court that handles small claims cases. The court location is listed below.
Buffalo City Court
Buffalo City Court Building
50 Delaware Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14202
Common Types of Buffalo Small Claims Lawsuits
You can bring a small claims lawsuit to Buffalo 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. However, Buffalo small claims court handles a variety of other types of cases.
Here are common types of small claims lawsuits filed in Buffalo small claims court:
You are a tenant that moved out of your downtown Buffalo apartment and your landlord refuses to return your security deposit.
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.
You own a small business in Elmwood Village and your customer refuses to pay their outstanding invoices.
Someone damaged your property and they won't pay to fix the damages.
You are a landlord and own a rental unit in Buffalo and your tenant refuses to pay rent.
How Much Can I Sue for in Buffalo Small Claims?
The amount you can sue for in small claims court is known as the "small claims court limits." In Buffalo small claims, you can sue for a maximum of $5,000.
In Buffalo small claims court, you can only sue for money, you cannot sue someone to force them to do something or return your property. For example, you hired a web designer to build you a website but the web designer never performs as per the agreement. You can sue the web designer for the amount you paid for services not performed but you cannot force the web designer to perform.
What happens if I am owed more than what I can sue for in Buffalo small claims?
If you have a claim for more than $5,000, which is the limit in Buffalo small claims court, you may want to consider filing your lawsuit in another court. However, Buffalo small claims court is more affordable and more efficient than filing your lawsuit in 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.
How Do I Calculate How Much to Sue for?
Calculating how much to sue for in small claims can be difficult. When you sue in small claims court you expect to win what you are owed but you need to be able to prove your claim to a judge and how you calculated how much you are owed.
Here are some tips for calculating how much to sue for:
Use receipts. For example, if you paid movers to move your furniture and they damaged the furniture how much was the furniture you bought worth? If you still have the receipts from the furniture store this should be fairly straightforward. However, if the furniture is older and has signs of wear and tear you should adjust accordingly.
Use estimates. For example, if your tenant caused water damage to the hardwood floors in your rental unit in downtown Buffalo, you may need an estimate from a contractor estimating how much it will cost to fix the hardwood floors.
How Much Does it Cost to Sue in Buffalo Small Claims?
If you are an individual suing another individual or business in Buffalo small claims court 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.
If you are low-income and cannot afford to pay the Buffalo small claims filing costs, you can apply for a waiver of your court fees:
In order to file, you should call the Buffalo small claims court clerk’s office as the requirements vary from judge to judge. Generally, you will have to go in person to the courthouse to make a statement under oath.
This waiver is unfortunately named the Poor Person Relief, but don't allow the name to drive you away if it is something that you need in order to file a lawsuit.
Is it worth it to sue someone in Buffalo Small Claims?
There are many different ways to know if something is “worth” your time and energy. Here is how some of our clients measure how worthwhile it is to file a small claims lawsuit:
Cost. Spending $20 to get back $1,000 is very affordable.
How soon will you find out whether you won? Hearings are delayed in Buffalo because of the backlog the pandemic created, but as the court works through its backlog hearings are being scheduled faster.
Time spent. This is a tricky question because our court system is outdated and very frustrating. 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 Buffalo small claims lawsuit from home as we take care of the logistics.
Justice. For some people, it isn't about time or money. For some, making sure the other person understands the consequences of their actions is as valuable as recovering money.
Statute of Limitations and Buffalo Small Claims
In Buffalo small claims court, there are statute of limitations, which are deadlines, that let you know by when you should file your small claims lawsuit. 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 but varies depending on the type of claim you bring to court. For example, there will be a different statute of limitations that addresses property damage cases and breach of contract cases.
Here are some other points to consider with regard to the statute of limitations:
Your hearing does not have to be before the statute of limitations, however, your case does have to be FILED before the statute of limitations.
You can still file a small claims lawsuit even if the statute of limitations has already passed. This is because ultimately it is the judge who decides whether or not 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.
If you want to be as certain as possible about the statute of limitations for your lawsuit (1) consult with a lawyer, (2) review the New York state code for your type of claim, or (3) let the judge decide at the hearing.
It is recommended you do not wait until the last minute to file your Buffalo small claims lawsuit. Here are at least 3 reasons why:
If you file your lawsuit incorrectly and need to be able to refile your lawsuit, your second lawsuit may miss the statute of limitations.
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.
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 Buffalo Small Claims?
Here are some steps you can take before you file a small claims suit:
Ask the other party to pay you back.
Decide where to file the lawsuit.
Determine who needs to sue (the "claimants").
Determine who you need to sue (the "defendants").
Make sure to have the information you will need to prepare the small claims lawsuit.
Ask the other party to pay you back
In Buffalo small claims court, individuals filing a lawsuit are not required to send a demand letter asking the other party to pay them back before filing. However, we recommend you send a demand letter in writing. Note that you can ask for your money back over the phone but a written letter is more formal.
Here are at least two reasons why you should send a demand letter:
When you send a demand letter you are taken more seriously by the other party. The other party will know that you are willing to take action to resolve your dispute.
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 Buffalo 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 small claims lawsuit
When deciding where to file your lawsuit it is not about what is most convenient to you in many cases. Before going to your nearest 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 Buffalo small claims court, the other party must live, work or have an office in Erie County (the county Buffalo is located in). 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. For example, you rented a unit near the Waterfront in Buffalo, and your landlord refuses to return your security deposit. Even if your landlord lives outside of the state of New York you can still sue in Buffalo small claims court because the rental unit is located in Buffalo.
Here is the relevant code section “...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.
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 Buffalo to be sued in Buffalo.
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 that they may close your case and you will have to refile 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 Buffalo small claims. To figure out who is the claimant simply consider who is owed money. Anyone who is owed money should be included in the lawsuit.
If you are not sure how to answer the question above it is better if you 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.
Below are common examples to help you answer this question:
You and your mother are both renters who live together in Allentown. You both gave your landlord a $2,000 security deposit. You both moved out and your landlord has not returned the security deposit. Both you and your mother are owed the money so the judge will want to make sure you both are part of the lawsuit.
You park your boyfriend’s car outside your house and you witness your neighbor damaging the car. It will cost $1,000 to fix the car. Your boyfriend should be included in the lawsuit since he is the registered owner.
Determine who you need to sue (the “defendants”).
In Buffalo small claims court, the person or business being sued is called the defendant. To determine who the defendant is ask yourself, who is responsible for what happened to me?
Here are some tips for determining who you need to sue:
If you are not sure, 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 are getting ready to take someone to small claims court, you want to make sure that you have the correct information for the person or business you are suing.
Suing an individual in Buffalo small claims:
You will need their full legal name and address corresponding to where they live, work or have an office.
What happens if I don't have the name or address of the person I am suing? You will need to find this information before suing them. Try looking them up on 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 Buffalo small claims:
After reviewing thousands of small claims lawsuits, we know that suing a business in small claims is tricky. Why? Because most people don't spend the time figuring out the correct information to list on the small claims lawsuit.
You need to narrow down a business's official legal name before suing them in 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 Air Conditioning to install central AC in your brownstone. ABC Air Conditioning never shows up so you decide to sue them in small claims court. Before you file a lawsuit you first need to determine whether ABC Air Conditioning is a corporation, LLC, or an individual using the name ABC Air Conditioning.
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 Buffalo Small Claims Court
Here are the 4 steps to taking someone to small claims court in Buffalo:
Prepare the lawsuit
File the lawsuit
Serve the lawsuit
Prepare for the hearing
These steps are broken down further below.
If you are suing an individual in Buffalo small claims court, you will need to properly fill out a Small Claims Statment of Claim.
In Buffalo, 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 Buffalo small claims forms in person, by mail, or electronically.
To file online use the Electronic Document Delivery System (EDDS).
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 the form of a certified check or money order. If you file in person at the courthouse you can pay your filing fees with a credit card or cash.
How to serve your Buffalo 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 Buffalo small claims court hearing:
Research the law. Generally, it is helpful to be up to date on laws that support your claim. If you have concerns about the claims you want to bring to small claims court consider consulting with an attorney prior to filing.
Prepare your evidence. Make sure to have all evidence collected and organized that can help your claim; it is up to you to prove to the judge why and how much the other party owes you. For example, if you own a small art framing business and you provided services to your client but they refuse to pay their outstanding invoices make sure to bring said invoices to the hearing.
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 Buffalo small claims hearing.
Can I Have a Lawyer Represent Me in Buffalo Small Claims?
Yes, you can have a lawyer represent you in court. This decision is up to you to make, and although getting a lawyer seems like an obvious decision, it is important to note that legal fees can quickly add up. This shouldn’t discourage you from proceeding in small claims court on your own.
Consider that 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 Buffalo, outside of small claims you also have the option of mediating your case.
Mediation is a meeting between you, the other party, and a neutral person called a mediator.
Mediation is used as a way for parties to 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.
The Center for Resolution and Justice mediates small claims cases for the 8th Judicial District (which includes Buffalo, NY). They also have an office located in downtown Buffalo on Main Street.
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, going to mediation does not remove your right to go to trial.
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