Alabama Small Claims Law


Small Claims – General – Alabama

Note: This summary is not intended to be an all inclusive discussion of the law and procedures of small claims in Alabama, but it does contain basic and other information. This summary only discusses civil claims (property and money claims that may be filed in small claims court). Criminal charges are not discussed.

Definition - Small claims courts, also sometimes called “Peoples Court”, is a court of limited jurisdiction.  Limited jurisdiction means only certain matters may be filed and heard by the small claims court. There is also a maximum claim amount limitation. Small claims court offer a quick, informal and inexpensive way of resolving many types of disputes you may have with particular individuals or companies.

Maximum Amount of Claim Small Claims Court may hear in Alabama: $3,000.00

Which Court hears small claims in Alabama? The small claims court is a special civil division of the District Court. They are located in each county within the state.

Who hears the claims in small claims court? In small claims court, the trial is an informal hearing before a judge. There is no jury and the plaintiff presents his or her evidence and witnesses. The defendant is also responsible for presenting his or her witnesses. After hearing both sides of the dispute, the judge will render a judgment based on the law and the facts presented.

Claims over which the Small Claims Court has Jurisdiction:

The small claims court in Alabama may hear any of the following claims if the amount in controversy does not exceed $3,000.00:

1.recovery of money owed
2.landlord/tenant disputes
3.personal injuries
4.The above list is not exhaustive but does contain some of the common claims. The following claims MAY NOT be filed in small claims court: libel, slander, professional malpractice, assigned claims, and punitive damages.

Note: Actions of unlawful detainer shall be filed on the regular district court docket.

Who may file a claim in small claims court? An individual (age 19 or older), partnership or corporation (or LLC)  may file a claim against another individual(s), partnership or corporation (or LLC) in small claims court if jurisdiction exists to hear the claim and the amount of the claim or property involved does not exceed $3,000.00.

Must you be represented by an attorney? You may represent yourself or you may obtain an attorney.

Should You File a Small Claims Case? Before you file a claim, you should contact the person or business you plan to sue and attempt to settle your dispute out of court. This effort may save you both time and money. You should also find out if the person or business you plan to sue has any money or assets to pay your claim, if you should win. Otherwise, you may have a difficult time collecting on a court judgment. Remember, it is up to you-not the court-to take further legal action against the person or business if they do not pay the judgment.

Things to do before you File a Claim: Get the facts straight so you can complete the forms correctly and answer any questions court personnel may need to know. Be sure to obtain the correct legal name of the defendant, correct address and place/address of employment.  If the defendant is a Corporation or Limited Liability Company you would use the legal corporate or LLC name as the defendant. If the defendant is a Corporation or LLC, you may need to contact the secretary of state in your state and obtain the proper name and address to serve with a copy of the suit. This person is called a registered agent and is designated by the corporation to receive process or summons when the corporation is sued. Be sure to also contact the small claims court to determine the filing fee for filing the claim.

How to File the Claim: The plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney should go to the small claims division of the district court in the particular county where the person or business to be sued has an office or is domiciled and file a Statement of Claim (Complaint) form.

The plaintiff is responsible for furnishing the court with the correct and complete address of the defendant. The clerk will assign the plaintiff a case number and this number must be used whenever contacting the court concerning the particular case.

A filing fee is required at the time the claim is filed. If the plaintiff cannot afford to prepay the fee at the time of filing, he or she can submit an Affidavit of Substantial Hardship and request that the judge delay payment. You may obtain this form from the court clerk.

Having filed a complaint, you then become the “plaintiff” in the case and the person you are suing is the “defendant.”

What happens after the Statement of Claim (Complaint) is filed? The clerk of the court will issue a summons ordering the defendant to appear in court. The summons and the complaint must be served on the defendant. The summons and the complaint may be served by certified or registered mail. If the court provides this service, there may be an additional fee. If the defendant cannot be served using these methods, the precinct constable or any registered private process server will serve the summons and complaint for a fee.

NEW: The clerk of the court will issue a summons to the defendant with a copy of the Statement of Claim you filed and a form answer. Once served with a Statement of Claim (Complaint), the defendant has 14 days to complete the Answer form and to file the Answer with the Clerk of the Small Claims Court.

If the defendant fails to file an Answer within 14 days after being served, you may ask the clerk of the court to enter a Default Judgment against the defendant.

Return of Summons: The sheriff, constable, or other process server shall, after effecting service, must endorse that fact on a copy of the summons and return it to the court clerk who will make the appropriate entry on the docket sheet of the action.

If you are the Defendant, what should you do after being served with a Statement of Claim? You may choose to settle with the plaintiff before the date the claim is set for trial. If you do settle, then the claim may be dismissed, with no judgment entered against you. If you choose not to settle or you are unable to settle, you must answer the Complaint within 14 days after being served, admitting or denying all or part of the claim. Remember, your answer must be filed within 14 days or a default judgment may be entered against you. As the defendant, you may also choose to file a Counterclaim, which is a claim that you have against the plaintiff.

All parties to a small claims case are encouraged to try and reach a settlement agreement prior to trial.

All settlement agreements should be in writing and should state who is to pay the court costs. If the defendant does not agree to pay the court costs as part of the settlement, the plaintiff will be responsible.

If a settlement agreement is reached before the trial, the plaintiff must immediately notify the clerk so that the trial can be cancelled.

How are hearings scheduled? The clerk of the court will provide you with the procedure to set the case for trial or hearing at the time you file your claim. At least fourteen days before trial, the clerk wil notify the parties of the place and time of the trial.

Subpoena of Witnesses: If witnesses are required but unwilling to voluntarily attend unless they are subpoenaed, you may obtain a subpoena issued by the court clerk for service on the witness. The subpoena is an order for the witness to appear at the hearing and testify. Some employers may require that an employee be subpoenaed in order to be excused from work.

Trial Procedures: The trial procedure is generally informal than other courts although the formality will vary from county to county and judge to judge. The case will usually be called in open court and you will respond that you are present and ready to proceed. You will then be advised when to present your claim. Be prepared to present your claim in your own words. Be prepared to question witnesses if witnesses are needed.

Exchange of Information in Advance of Trial: The parties are encouraged to make voluntary exchanges of information before the trial but in no event shall the court require such an exchange. See Rule G. This could be important to do in order to show the Court that you are comlying with the Alabama Small Claims Rules.

What happens at trial? First and most important, you must be ON TIME. Please do not be late. If you are late, the judge may dismiss your case (if you are the plaintiff) or he may enter a default judgment against you (if you are a defendant). If something comes up which would prevent you from being on time or appearing at the trial, you MUST inform the clerk as soon as possible and request a continuance(delay)of the trial.

A trial in Small Claims Court is an informal hearing before the judge. There is no jury. When the case is called, the plaintiff will present his/her evidence and his/her witnesses. The defendant will then present his evidence, and call his witnesses.

After hearing both sides of the case and looking at the evidence, the judge will make a decision and render a judgment based on the law and the facts presented.

What should you do to prepare for trial? If an agreement cannot be reached, both the plaintiff and defendant should get together all papers, receipts, bills, sales tickets, estimates, photographs, etc., having anything to do with the claim.

You should write down the details and facts of the case to assist you in telling your side of the story at the trial.

As the plaintiff or defendant, you may bring any witnesses you feel can help explain your case. If there is any reason to believe a witness will not voluntarily appear, you may ask the clerk to issue a witness subpoena requiring that person to appear. You will be required to pay a witness subpoena fee.

If you do not feel confident and prepared to present your case yourself (plaintiff) or to defend your case yourself(defendant), you should contact an attorney. Both sides have a right to have an attorney present to represent them.

What happens if the defendant does not appear at trial?Usually, if the defendant does not appear at trial, a default judgment will be entered in your favor for the amount of the claim or other relief.

Rule K of the Alabama Small Claims Rules provides:

When a defendant does not answer within the required time or fails to appear when the case is set for trial, the clerk of the court shall enter a default against the defendant. When the amount claimed is a sum certain, such as a note, the clerk may enter a judgment for the amount claimed. When the amount claimed is not a sum certain such as damage to a car, the court, not the clerk, shall enter the default judgment but the plaintiff must furnish to the court some proof, such as a repair bill, before he can receive such judgment. The court can set aside a default judgment for any reason within 14 days after its entry. A defendant shall not be deemed in default if he has served an appearance in the form of a motion to dismiss.

Judgment:If the defendant fails to appear, or if the court rules for you after the hearing, a judgment will be entered by the court for the amount of the claim, or other relief sought.

Appeal: After judgment is entered, the defendant will be allowed 14 days to appeal the judgment to the circuit court. If no appeal is taken, the judgment is final and may be collected or enforced. Usually, a judgment may not be enforced until the appeal time expires.

Collection of Judgment: After the judgment is obtained and the appeal time expired, you may seek to collect the judgment by acceptable means of collection. Collection of the judgment may be made by execution or garnishment. These actions require an additional filing fee.

Other Matters:

Are Motions allowed? Motions are allowed by the parties on a limited basis.

Continuances: Either party may be granted a continuance for good cause shown.

Out-of-Court Settlement: If a case is settled before the hearing date, one or both parties should notify the court clerk as soon as possible so that the hearing can be canceled.

When Payment is Received: When the judgment has been satisfied, the receiving party must send written notice to the court that the judgment has been satisfied.

Cross-Claims, Counterclaims, and Third-Party Claims: If the defendant wishes to file a counterclaim, the county clerk can provide the proper forms. The defendant must provide a concise statement of why the money is owed by the plaintiff. The counterclaim must be filed with the court and notice must be served on the plaintiff.

What happens if a defendant has filed bankruptcy? If the plaintiff has filed a claim against the defendant and the plaintiff is aware that the claim is listed as a debt in a bankruptcy proceeding, federal law prohibits the plaintiff from pursuing the claim in small claims court.

Will I need an expert witness? If a particular case requires proof of faulty or defective work or personal injuries, an expert witness may be needed to prove a valid case.

Common Forms used in Small Claims Court:

Claim Statement/Complaint
Summons
Return of Summons
Answer
Subpoena
Abstract of Judgment
Directory of District Court Judges and Clerks.

You may locate a directory at http://www.alabar.org/olDirectory/index_judicial.cfm.

Small Claims Rules: This summary contains some of the provisions from the Alabama Small Claims Rules but does not include a comprehensive discussion of all rules.  The rules shall not be applicable to actions of unlawful detainer pursuant to Title 6, Chapter 6 or Title 35, Chapter 9, Code of Alabama 1975. Actions of unlawful detainer shall be filed on the regular district court docket and shall be governed by the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure with district court difications. Note: Some Courts may have addtional local or county specific rules.

Statutes:

§ 12-12-31. Small claims actions; representation by attorney optional; when; attorney’s fees; prosecution of assigned claims by attorney only; attorney must be licensed.

(a) The district court shall exercise exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions in which the matter in controversy, exclusive of interest and costs, does not exceed three thousand dollars ($3,000). These actions shall be placed on a small claims docket by each district court and shall be processed according to uniform rules of simplified civil procedure as may be promulgated by the Supreme Court.

(b) A party, including an individual, partnership, or corporation, may appear in cases on the small claims docket of district court with or without representation by an attorney. If a partnership appears without representation by an attorney, the person representing the partnership shall be a partner or employee of the partnership and if a corporation appears without representation by an attorney, the person representing the corporation shall be an officer or full-time employee of the corporation.

(c) No party shall seek or recover any judgment in a case on the small claims docket which includes an award of attorney fees unless the party is represented by a licensed attorney.

(d) No action shall be filed or prosecuted on the small claims docket by an assignee of the claim which is the subject matter of the action without being represented by a licensed attorney; nor shall any person, firm or corporation, excluding licensed attorneys, file or prosecute such an action on behalf of the original owner of the claim.

(e) No action may be filed or prosecuted on the small claims docket by any individual whose license to practice law, at the time of filing or prosecution, has been revoked, suspended, or otherwise impaired for disciplinary reasons by the Alabama Board of Bar Commissioners or the Alabama Supreme Court.

(f) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the docket fee for cases on the small claims docket in which the matter in controversy exceeds one thousand five hundred dollars ($1,500) shall be the same as the docket fee set for cases in the  district court that are not small claims cases.