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District of Columbia Small Claims Law

Small Claims – General – District of Columbia

Note: This summary is not intended to be an all inclusive discussion of the law and procedures of small claims in the District of Columbia, 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 the District of Columbia: $5,000.00

Which Court hears small claims in the District of Columbia? According to the District of Columbia Code Annotated Chapter 13, Section 11-1321, the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch has exclusive jurisdiction of any action within the jurisdiction of the Superior Court which is only the recovery of money, if the amount in controversy does not exceed $5,000, exclusive of interest, attorney fees, protest fees, and costs.

Who hears the claims in small claims court? The claim will be heard by a judge.

Claims over which the Small Claims Court has Jurisdiction:

The small claims court in the District of Columbia may hear any of the following claims if the amount in controversy does not exceed $5,000.00:

1. money debts
2. The above list is not exhaustive but does contain most of the common claims. Claims for items may not be heard in small claims court. The small claims division is not the proper forum for an interest affecting real property.

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 $5,000.00.

Must you be represented by an attorney? A party may represent himself or herself as long as the party is not an incorporated business.

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: According to the District of Columbia Code Annotated Chapter 39, Section 16-3902, actions shall be commenced in the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch by the filing of a statement of claim, in concise form and free of technicalities. The plaintiff or his agent shall verify the statement of claim by oath or affirmation in the form, or its equivalent, and shall affix his signature thereto. The clerk of the Branch, shall at the request of an individual, prepare the statement of claim and other papers required to be filed in an action in the Branch, but his services are not available to a corporation, partnership, or association, in the preparation of the statements or other papers. A copy of the statement of claim and verification shall be made a part of the notice to be served upon the defendant named therein. The mode of service shall be by the United States marshal, as provided by law, or by registered mail or by certified mail with return receipt, or by a person not a party to or otherwise interested in the action especially authorized by the Clerk of the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch or appointed by the judge for that purpose.

Who serves the Defendant with summons or process and how is the defendant served: In small claims court, the claim must be served by certified mail or by a process server. The court will notify the party by certified mail that he or she is being sued, or the process server will carry out the task.

Return of Summons: When receipt is returned, the clerk must attach it to the original statement of claim, and it will constitute prima facie evidence of service upon the defendant. When notice is served by a private individual, he or she must make proof of service by affidavit before the court clerk.

Removal to another Court: A claim will be removed from small claims court if the amount in controversy exceeds $5,000.00.

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: A party may appeal the judge’s decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals. If a party decides to appeal, he or she has three business days from the date of the judge’s decision to file an application.

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. In the District of Columbia, a judgment may be collected as follows: by Writ of Attachment of the losing party’s bank account or a subpoena for Oral Examination may be issued in order to question the losing party about his or her assets. According to the District of Columbia Code Annotated Chapter 39, Section 16-3907, when a judgment is rendered in an action pursuant to the chapter and the party against whom it is entered requests it, the shall shall inquire fully into his earnings and financial status and may stay the entry of judgment, and stay execution, except in cases involving wage claims, and order partial payments in such amounts, over such periods, and upon such terms, as seems just in the circumstances and as will assure as definite and steady reduction of the judgment until it is finally and completely satisfied.

Upon a showing that the party has failed to meet an installment payment without just excuse, the stay of execution shall be vacated. When a stay of execution has not been ordered or when a stay of execution has been vacated as provided by Section 16-3907, the party in whose favor the judgment has been entered may avail himself of all remedies otherwise available in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia for the enforcement of the judgment.

Other Matters:

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

Continuances: A continuance will be granted for showing of good cause.

Out-of-Court Settlement: If the parties reach an agreement prior to trial, the parties must notify the court clerk.

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: According to the District of Columbia Code Annotated, Chapter 39, Section 16-3904, if the defendant in an action pursuant to the chapter, asserts a set-off or counterclaim the judge may require a formal plea of set-off to be filed, or may waive the requirement. If the plaintiff required time to prepare his defense against the counterclaim or set-off, the judge may continue the case for that purpose. When the set-off or counterclaim is for more than the jurisdictional limit of the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch, as provided by Section 11-1321, but within the jurisdiction of the Superior Court, the action shall nevertheless remain in the Branch and be tried therein in its entirety.

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
Return of Summons
Abstract of Judgment


Inside District of Columbia Small Claims Law