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Guide to Small Claims Court New York

Camila Lopez - New York Small Claims - June 10, 2024

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Contents

    Small claims courts were created to help everyday people resolve their legal disputes with other individuals or businesses affordably and efficiently. People can bring claims for up to $10,000, depending on which New York small claims court you sue in, for costs as low as $15. In this article, we explain the small claims process, what a small claims hearing is like, and everything you need to file a small claims lawsuit. 

    Quick Facts About New York Small Claims 

    Small Claims Limit 

    $3,000-$10,000. *Varies by court. 

    Cost to File 

    $0- $20. *Varies by court.

    Cost to Serve 

    The court clerk serves the lawsuit, if they are unable to serve, you will have to pay a process server or sheriff to serve the lawsuit. 

    Can a lawyer represent me? 

    Yes.

    Virtual Hearings

    Some courts have the option to attend the hearing virtually.

    Mediation 

    Free mediation is available in many courts after the lawsuit is filed. 

    Filing fees can be $0 if you apply and are eligible for a waiver of costs. 

    Common Types of New York Small Claims Lawsuits

    Our clients often want to know if they can sue someone in New York small claims court. Generally, the answer is yes, as long as there isn't a better court to handle your lawsuit. For example, you can’t use a New York small claims court to evict someone as there is a special court for evictions called Housing Court. 

    Here are common types of small claims lawsuits filed in New York:

    • You entered into a contract with a contractor, and the contractor never performs under the contract. 

    • Your landlord refuses to return your security deposit

    • You take your car to a mechanic for repairs, and the mechanic damages your car. 

    • A towing company damages your car while towing. 

    • You own a small business in New York your clients refuse to pay their outstanding invoices. 

    • You lend your roommate money, and they do not pay you back.

    Also, in New York small claims courts, you cannot sue someone to force them to do something or return your property. For example, if a contractor damaged your front door while renovating your living room, you can sue for the amount of money it will cost to fix your front door, but you cannot sue the contractor to make them fix the front door. 

    Small Claims Guides by Location

    In New York, each small claims court operates a bit differently from the other. You can review our guides by court location below: 

    In New York City, there are currently 5 small claims courthouses available to file a small claims lawsuit: 

    Brooklyn

    Manhattan 

    Bronx

    Queens

    Staten Island

    Outside of NYC, there are also counties with various small claims courts. 

    Nassau County

    Suffolk County (see also our guide for Long Island, which encompasses both Suffolk and Nassau) 

    Westchester County

    Erie County (see our guide for Buffalo for information specific to Buffalo City Court). 

    Monroe County 

    Orange County

    Albany County

    Dutchess County

    Onondaga County

    Check back soon, as we are continually working on new guides for areas outside of NYC. 

    New York Small Claims Limits

    How much can I sue for in New York small claims? This will depend on the small claims “limit” for the court you are filing in. This limit can vary from county to county or even by court

    In New York City, you can sue in small claims court for a maximum of $10,000 in all five NYC small claims courts. 

    The limit outside of New York City, will vary depending on what type of court you are filing in. There are three types of courts that handle small claims outside of New York City: 

    District Courts

    Claims can be up to $5,000.

    City Courts

    Claims can be up to $5,000.


    Town and Village Courts 

    Claims can be up to $3,000.

    The main difference between these three types of courts is the amount you can sue for. 

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

    • In 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 New York small claims court?

    If the person you are filing a small claims lawsuit against owes you more money than the small claims limit, you may want to consider filing your lawsuit in another court. However, small claims courts are faster, more efficient, and more affordable than other types of courts. 

    Also, you 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?

    In general, taking someone to small claims isn't meant for you to come out winning more than what you are owed. There are exceptions when a specific law allows you to win more than what you are owed as a penalty to the person who broke the law. For example, if your landlord purposefully kept your security deposit, you may be able to win more than what your security deposit is worth. 

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

    • Use receipts. For example, if someone scratched your car and you spent $1,000 getting your car fixed, you can use the receipt from the auto repair shop to prove your calculations.

    • Use estimates. For example, if you hired a contractor to remodel your kitchen but none of your kitchen pipes work, get estimates from a plumber for how much it will cost to get your kitchen pipes working properly. 

    • Research the law. You may want to do some research to see if there is a law that may allow you to sue for more than what you are owed (sometimes called “punitive damages”). 

    How Much Does it Cost to Sue in New York Small Claims?

    The costs of filing a New York small claims lawsuit depend on the courthouse you are filing in. In the guides we linked above, we break down the costs of filing in the various New York City and County locations provided. 

    The costs of filing will also depend on whether you are suing as an individual or on behalf of a corporation, partnership, or association (known as commercial claims). For example, in New York City, if you are an individual suing another individual or business, 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 low-income and cannot afford to pay filing costs, you can apply for a waiver of your court fees: 

    • In order to file, you should call the court clerk’s office as the requirements may vary from judge to judge. Generally, you will have to go in person to the courthouse to make a statement under oath.

    • This procedure is called Poor Person Relief. 

    Is it Worth it to Sue Someone in New York Small Claims?

    We often see our clients use a cost v. benefit analysis when deciding whether to sue or not in a New York small claims court. 

    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? Most small claims hearings in New York are delayed, but as courts work through their backlog, hearings are being scheduled faster. 

    • Time spent. With our current court system, it is hard to know how much time it will truly take for you to file a lawsuit. You may have to go a few times to 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. It is about ensuring the other person understands that what they have done is wrong, so they do not continue that pattern of behavior. 

    What is the Statute of Limitations for New York Small Claims Court? 

    The statute of limitations is a deadline that states by when you have to file your New York small claims lawsuit. For example, to sue someone for property damage will have a different statute of limitations than suing someone for personal injury. The deadlines range between 3-6 years and are the same for a small claims lawsuit as for other types of lawsuits in New York. 

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

    What to do Before You File in New York Small Claims?

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

    1. Consider sending a demand letter. 

    2. Figure out 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.

    Consider sending a demand letter

    If you are an individual filing a small claims case, you are not required to send a demand letter before filing. However, by sending a demand letter, you can ask the other party to resolve the case before resorting to court. Here is a template on how to write a demand letter before suing someone in small claims court.

    Here are at least two good reasons to send a demand letter prior to filing a small claims lawsuit: 

    1. Written demand letters signal to the person or business receiving it that you are serious about the problem and are willing to spend time and money to get your money or property back.

    2. Sending a demand letter may lead to a resolution without having to pay court fees

    Determine in which New York small claims court to file your lawsuit

    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 fill out the small claims forms, you will need to provide a New York address that corresponds with where the other party either lives, works, or has an office. For example, if you want to sue in a Westchester County small claims courthouse, the other party has to have a Westchester, NY address that corresponds to where they live, work, or have an office in Westchester County. 

    There are some exceptions to this rule, for example, in landlord/tenant cases. 

    Here are some questions our clients frequently ask us: 

    • 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 New York to be sued in New York.  

    • What happens if I file in the wrong small claims court?  You may still be able to file your lawsuit, this will be up to the judge to decide. 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 court decides 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 New York small claims. Ask yourself, who is owed money? Anyone who is owed money should be included in the lawsuit.

    ‍When in doubt, 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 gave your landlord a $3,000 security deposit. You both moved out, and your landlord has not returned 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 roommate’s car, and another driver hit you while driving. It will cost $1,000 to fix the car. Your roommate should be included in the lawsuit since she is 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. Do not make common mistakes like suing the property management company and not the landlord in a security deposit case. You want to make sure you sue the person or business listed on your lease or rental agreement as they are the one holding on to your security deposit, plus anyone else you also think is responsible.

    • Car accident lawsuits. You want to make sure to include the driver of the car that is responsible for hitting your car as well as the owner of the car (if it is not the same person). 

    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, you want to make sure that you have the correct information for the person or business you are suing.

    Suing an individual in small claims:

    • You will need their full legal name and their 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. Try looking on Google, or Linkedin, or consider having someone run a report called a "Skip Trace" that looks for their information on different databases.

    Suing a business in 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 may want to narrow down a business’s official legal name before suing them in New York small claims. What is an official legal name? This is the name the business has used to incorporate its 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 Architects to design your new home. ABC Architects never performs any services for you, so you decide to sue them in small claims. You first need to determine whether ABC Architects is a corporation, LLC, or an individual using the name ABC Architects.

    • Many businesses also do business using a name other than their official legal name. This is called an “assumed name,” "dba," 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. This is important because you don’t want problems collecting a money judgment later on.

    How to File a Small Claims Lawsuit in New York Small Claims Court

    Here are the 4 steps to taking someone to small claims court in New York:

    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 New York small claims lawsuit

    To prepare your New York small claims lawsuit, you will need to fill out the correct forms provided by the court. The guides we have provided at the beginning of this article include the proper forms you will need to complete depending on where you are filing. 

    Make sure you are using the correct form. For example, if you are suing on behalf of a corporation, partnership, or association, you are filing what is called a commercial claim which sometimes requires you to fill out specific forms. 

    Filing your small claims lawsuit

    Most courts in New York DO NOT accept online filing of small claims lawsuits.

    Also, make sure to double-check how the court accepts payments. Most New York small claims courts accept cash, credit cards, or money orders, but they may not take other forms of payment. 

    People Clerk can help you prepare the small claims form and file your small claims lawsuit.

    How to serve your New York 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 serve the lawsuit by mailing the documents to the other party. 

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

    How to prepare to win your New York small claims hearing

    To prepare to win your New York small claims lawsuit:

    • 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 an attorney if you would like. For example, if you are suing a towing company but do not know the general towing laws of New York, it will be beneficial for you to look up the laws that apply to your circumstances. 

    • Prepare your evidence. Make sure to collect and organize all potential evidence that can be used to support your claim; it is your responsibility to prove to the judge why and how much the other party owes you. This can include invoices, contracts, receipts, etc. For example, if you are a small business owner suing a client for unpaid invoices, include the invoice in question. Also, include any correspondence you have had with your client about the situation. 

    • 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 their side of the story. 

    • 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 New York small claims hearing.

    What Accommodations Can the Court Provide?

    The New York State Unified Court System provides a number of ADA accommodations and other reasonable accommodations for those who need assistance while pursuing their case in court.

    • 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.

    Can I Have a Lawyer Represent Me in New York Small Claims?

    Yes. 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, it is important to note that legal fees can quickly add up. This shouldn’t discourage you from proceeding with small claims 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?

    If you do not wish to file a New York small claims lawsuit, other options are available to you. 

    Consider filing a Government Complaint

    In New York, several government agencies handle consumer complaints against companies or individuals. Below we have included some of the main government agencies that handle complaints. 

    New York Attorney General 

    The New York Attorney General is the chief legal officer of the state of New York. The office of the Attorney General handles complaints across the state with regional branches across New York. Keep in mind that the New York attorney general won’t represent you in court but will take up a lawsuit when many New York residents complain about a similar situation.  

    The New York Attorney General’s website also has a comprehensive list of other agencies in New York that handle complaints. To search this list, use the link here

    Learn how to file a complaint with the New York Attorney General.

    New York Department of State Division of Consumer Protection

    The New York Department of State Division of Consumer Protection protects consumers in New York in a multitude of ways. One of the most important roles of the Division of Consumer Protection is to help consumers settle disputes against businesses through their complaint process. 

    To file a complaint with the Division of Consumer Protection: 

    You can also fill out the printable consumer complaint form and submit your form via U.S. mail to:

    New York State Department of State

    Division of Consumer Protection

    Consumer Assistance Unit

    99 Washington Avenue

    Albany, New York 12231-0001

    New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection 

    The New York Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (formerly the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA)) is a department of New York City that regulates over 51,000 businesses in the city. The DCWP is mainly responsible for enforcing fair business practices and empowering citizens to help them make informed decisions about the New York City marketplace.

    To file a complaint with the DCWP:

    If you want to mail your complaint print out the complaint form and submit TWO copies of the completed form and related documents (e.g., store receipts, warranties, contracts, etc.) to the following address: 

    NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection

    Consumer Services Division

    42 Broadway, 9th Floor

    New York, NY 10004

    Review our guide on how to file a NYC consumer complaint

    New York Department of Financial Services 

    The New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) supervises and regulates nearly 3,000 financial institutions including insurance companies, state banks, credit unions, virtual currency companies, etc.

    To file a complaint with the DFS, go to the DFS website and file your complaint online using the DFS portal.
    If you would rather mail your complaint, print and fill out the consumer complaint form and submit the form to either of the following addresses: 

    Department of Financial Services

    Consumer Assistance Unit, 1 State Street

    New York, NY 10004 

    Department of Financial Services

    Consumer Assistance Unit, 1 Commerce Plaza

    Albany, NY 12257

    New York Department of Education Office of the Professions

    The New York Department of Education Office of the Professions is the government agency that regulates more than 50 professions and nearly 1 million practitioners. To file a complaint against licensed individuals in New York (i.e., accountants, veterinarians, engineers): 

    Mediation 

    In New York, the other option you have outside of small claims is mediation

    How does the mediation process work? 

    • Mediation is used to help parties come to a mutually agreeable solution or settlement. It provides the parties with the opportunity to communicate with each other while the mediator facilitates the conversation. 

    • The mediator is not there to make a decision on your case. You and the other party can come to a settlement only if you wish to. 

    • The settlement can be for the same amount of money being claimed and can involve other non-monetary agreements between the parties. For example, in Dutchess county small claims court, the court can’t force someone to give you back your property. So if this is something you would like, you can make it a term of your settlement. 

    • New York small claims courts offer free mediation for certain cases. Check with the courthouse you are filing with to see if your case can be mediated.  

    • You can bring in any evidence you have to the mediation. This is so the mediator can understand your case better and the other party can see why you brought a case against them and why they owe you money. 

    • If you reach a settlement agreement, you don’t need to go before the judge. 

    • If you do not reach a settlement during mediation, don’t worry! You can continue with your court hearing in front of a judge.

    Author

    Camila Lopez

    Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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