New Jersey Small Claims Law


Small Claims – General – New Jersey

Note: This summary is not intended to be an all inclusive discussion of the law and procedures of small claims in New Jersey, 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 New Jersey: $2,000.00

Which Court hears small claims in New Jersey? In New Jersey, the small claims court is one of three sections in the Superior Court’s Special Civil Part. All claims which do not exceed $2,000.00 may be heard here.

Who hears the claims in small claims court? The claim will be heard by a judge. The Small Claims Section is a court in which you may sue someone (the defendant) to collect a small amount of money that you believe is owed to you. Because procedures in Small Claims are simpler than in other courts, persons usually can file and present their cases relatively quickly and inexpensively, and often without an attorney. Small Claims is one of three sections of the Superior Court’s Special Civil Part. The other two sections are Landlord/Tenant and regular Special Civil Part. Small Claims handles cases in which the demand is not more than $2,000. If the amount of money you are trying to recover is more than $2,000, but less than $10,000, your case should be filed in the regular Special Civil Part. Cases in which damages are more than $10,000 must be filed in the Law Division of the Superior Court.

If you believe you are entitled to damages greater than S2,000 but still wish to sue in Small Claims, you give up your right to recover damages over S2,000. The additional money cannot be claimed later in a separate lawsuit.

Claims over which the Small Claims Court has Jurisdiction:
The small claims court in New Jersey may hear any of the following claims if the amount in controversy does not exceed $2,000.00:

1. breach of a written oral contract
2. return of money used as a down payment
3. property damage caused by a motor vehicle accident
4. damage to or loss or property
5. consumer complaints for defective merchandise or faulty workmanship
6. payment for work performed
7. claims based on bad checks
8. claims for back rent
9. return of a tenant’s security deposit
10. The above list is not exhaustive but does contain most of the common claims. However, the small claims court cannot resolve  disputes concerning professional malpractice, domestic dispute issues, or probate matters.

Who may file a claim in small claims court?An individual, 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 $2,000.00.

Must you be represented by an attorney? The parties do not necessarily need an attorney during the court proceedings.

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 must complete a Small Claims Complaint form.
Small Claims complaint form is available from the Clerk of the Special Civil Part in the county in which the case will be filed. The complaint can be filed through the mail or in person. When filing a complaint, you, as the plaintiff, must:

Give your full name, address, and telephone number.
To ensure proper service of the complaint, give the correct name(s) and address(es) of the person(s) named as the defendant(s) in the complaint. It is important that the defendant be properly identified as an individual, a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a corporation.
State the amount of money for which you are suing.
State the reason why the defendant owes you money.
State whether at the present time there is any other case involving both you and the other party(ies) and, if so, the name of the court.
Sign the completed form.
Pay the correct filing and service fees when filing the complaint with the Clerk of the Special Civil Part.

If you are filing a complaint because of a motor vehicle accident, a trial date will not be set unless the defendant notifies the Clerk of the Special Civil Part in writing within 20 (or 35) days from the date the complaint was served that the case will be defended in court. Defendants living or located outside New Jersey have 35 days to respond to a complaint. If the defendant responds in writing within the 20 (or 35) days, a trial date will be scheduled. All parties will be notified by the court.

If the defendant does not respond within the 20 (or 35) days, the plaintiff may have a “judgment by default” entered.
Through a judgment by default, the court decides the amount of money, if any, to be awarded to a plaintiff because the defendant did not come to court or respond to the complaint in time.

If the complaint is for money damages caused by a motor vehicle accident and the judgment requires a defendant to pay $500 or more, the defendant must pay within 60 days. If the defendant does not pay within the 60 days, the plaintiff may request through the Clerk of the Special Civil Part that the Division of Motor Vehicles stop the defendant’s driving privileges until the judgment is paid.

The complaint may be filed in person or through the mail. The cost for filing a complaint in Small Claims is:

$12.00 for one defendant.
$ 2.00 for each additional defendant.
$ 3.00 for each defendant served by certified and regular mail. A fee for mileage may be charged instead of the $3.00 mailing fee if the complaint is served personally by a court officer. Staff of the Special Civil Part can inform you of the mileage fee, if any.
If you are poor, you may apply to the court to qualify as an indigent and your filing fees may be waived by the judge.

Who serves the Defendant with summons or process and how is the defendant served: The court clerk will issue the summons unless otherwise provided by law. Personal service may be made by sergeants-at-arms of the court and other such persons authorized by law to serve such process as the judge designates. After filing a complaint and receipt of a docket number, service may be made by mail by the plaintiff or, in those counties which have established a service by mail program, by the clerk.

Return of Summons: Process must be made within 12 days after the filing of the complaint. The clerk must send a postcard to the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney showing the docket number, date of mailing and a statement that, unless plaintiff is notified, a default judgment will be entered. If service cannot be effected by mail, the clerk will send a second card to the plaintiff or attorney stating the reasons for the incomplete service and requesting instructions for reservice.

Removal to another Court: An action pending in the Special Civil Part may be transferred to another court for consolidation with an action pending in such other court in accordance with R. 4:38-1. A plaintiff, after commencement of an action in the Special Civil Part, but before the trial date, amy apply for removal of the action to the Law Division, on the ground that it appears likely that the recovery will exceed the Special Civil Part monetary limit by filing and serving in the Special Civil Part and affidavit or that of an authorized agent stating that the affiant believes that the amount of the claim, when established by proof, will exceed the sum or value constituting the monetary limit of the Special Civil Part and that it is filed in good faith and not for the purpose of delay; and filing in the Law Division and serving a motion for transfer. The Law Division shall order the transfer if it finds that there is reasonable cause to believe that the amended claim is found on fact and that it has reasonable chance for success upon the trial thereof.

A defendant filing a counterclaim in excess of the special Civil Part monetary limit may apply for removal of the action to the Law Division by filing and serving in the Special Civil Part the counterclaim together with an affidavit or tht of an authorized agent stating that the affiant believes that the amount of such claim, when established by proof, will exceed the sum or value constituting the monetary limit of the Special Civil Part and that it is filed in good faith and not for the purpose of delay; and filing in  the Law Division and serving a motion for transfer. The Law Division shall order the transfer if it finds that there is reasonable cause to believe that the counterclaim is founded on fact and that it has a reasonable chance for success upon the trial thereof.

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.

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.

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.

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: If you, as a plaintiff or a defendant, disagree with the court’s decision, you may appeal the case to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court within 45 days from the date of judgment. You must file a Notice of Appeal, a copy of the Request for Transcript, and a Case Information Statement within the 45 days with the Clerk of the Appellate Division (located at the Hughes Justice Complex, Trenton) and deliver copies to:

All parties to the case who appeared in court.
The Clerk of the Special Civil Part from which the appeal is taken.
The judge who decided the case.

You must pay a filing fee of $135 with the Notice of Appeal and deposit $300 with the Clerk of the Appellate Division within 30 days of the Notice of Appeal. This deposit may be used to pay settlement or court costs if the appeal is lost. If the appeal is successful, the deposit will be refunded.

You also must obtain a transcript (a copy of the record of what happened in court) of the trial. The request for a transcript should be made to the Office of the Clerk of the Special Civil Part in the county in which the case was tried. You must deposit with the Clerk the estimated cost of the transcript (as determined by the court reporter, Clerk, or agency preparing it) or $300 for each day or part of a day of the trial. You must file three copies of the transcript with the Office of the Clerk of the Appellate Division. Questions concerning an appeal should be directed to the Office of the Clerk of the Appellate Division at
(609) 292-4822, or to an attorney.

Collection of Judgment: The judgment creditor may collect judgment by a writ of execution, attachment, or replevin. All requests for issuance of writs of execution and other process for the enforcement of judgments shall be made in writing to the clerk at the principal location of the court. A request for the issuance of a writ of execution other than wage execution shall be accompanied by a statement of the amount due. The court officer shall give tot he judgment-creditor or judgment-creditor’s attorney at least 30 days’ notice of an intention to return a wage execution or an unexpired writ of execution, marked unsatisfied or partially satisfied and may so return the writ unless further instructions are furnished within that time period.

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Other Matters:

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

Continuances: A continuance will only be allowed for good cause.

Out-of-Court Settlement: If the parties decide to settle out of court, the court clerk must be notified.

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 you have been named as a defendant in a case and you believe the plaintiff (the person who filed the complaint)
owes you money, you may file a counterclaim. To file a counterclaim, follow the same procedure (outlined above) for filing a complaint, but be sure to do it before the date listed for trial in the summons.

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.

Common Forms used in Small Claims Court:

Claim Statement/Complaint
Summons
Return of Summons
Answer
Subpoena
Abstract of Judgment

Rules: Rules Governing Practice in the Law Division, Special Civil Part:
In order to view all rules governing Small Claims actions in New Jersey, please see
http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/rules/rules_toc.htm. Scroll down to Part VI entitled
“Rules Governing Practice in the Law Division, Special Civil Part.”