A Guide to Small Claims Court in North Carolina

The legal system can often be difficult to understand and navigate if you aren’t a lawyer (and sometimes even if you are).  However, there is one venue where, in certain cases, filing a lawsuit yourself or defending yourself in a lawsuit without legal representation makes sense.  If you are owed money or have been damaged $10,000 or less, Small Claims Court in North Carolina can be a good way to get justice on your own.  We get a lot of questions about small claims court, and there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding out there about how it works.  So we’ve outlined the key information you need to know about the small claims process and provide links to the forms and resources you may need to get started. 

WHAT IS SMALL CLAIMS COURT?

In North Carolina, Small Claims Court is a division of District Court where individuals and businesses can litigate claims in which they are seeking to recover $10,000 or less.  All cases in Small Claims Court are heard by a magistrate judge, which means there is no jury.  Typically, a small claims hearing is held within 30-60 days of serving the complaint, which is a significantly quicker time frame than litigation in either District Court or Superior Court, where even minor lawsuits can drag on for more than a year.  The most important distinguishing feature of Small Claims Court is that, unlike District Court or Superior Court, the proceedings are very informal and designed to be handled by regular people. 

WHY SMALL CLAIMS COURT?

Given the amounts in dispute, it may not make sense to pay a lawyer to handle the case if you can do it yourself.  You may find that other lawyers aren’t willing to take the case on because of the smaller payouts.  Whatever the reason, bringing a claim in Small Claims Court doesn’t mean your case is unimportant or not worth pursuing.

WHO CAN SUE IN SMALL CLAIMS?

Anyone that is at least 18 years old, or an emancipated minor, may bring a claim in Small Claims Court.  If a minor has been injured, a parent (or a specially appointed guardian ad litem) may bring the action on their behalf.   Corporate entities, in most cases, can also bring claims in Small Claims Court, though they are required to be represented by a lawyer. 

WHAT KIND OF CASES CAN YOU BRING IN SMALL CLAIMS?           

Small Claims Court primarily focuses on recovery of property, summary ejectment (evictions), and lawsuits seeking monetary awards.  That includes issues like breach of contract, if someone owes you money, if someone has damaged your property, or if you’ve been injured.  Claims for other issues, such as child support or divorce, must be brought in District Court.    

HOW DO YOU FILE A CASE IN SMALL CLAIMS COURT?

Filing a small claims action is relatively easy and only requires three things: a complaint, a summons, and filling/service fees.  The complaint is the document that outlines your allegations (as the plaintiff) against the at-fault or responsible party (the defendant or defendants) and requests relief (money) from the court.  The summons is a document ordering someone to come to court. 

While you can try drafting your own complaint, North Carolina provides sample complaints that can be downloaded and filled in for basic claims like personal injury, breach of contract, and civil conversion (theft).  You can also download a sample fill-in-the-blank summons.  Both can be found here.

In preparing your complaint, you need to include enough information to give the defendant(s) “notice” of the claims against them.  This includes the date of the injury or breach of contract, the kind of the injury or damage, how the injury or damage occurred, and the amount of damage (up to $10,000). 

Your case must be filed with the clerk of court in the county where at least one defendant lives.  If the defendants are businesses, then you would file it in the county where they do business or have a business location.  To find the right courthouse, just Google “clerk of court” for the county where the defendant lives.

Finally, you will need to pay the court’s filing fee, which is currently $96 for small claims cases.  There is only one fee per lawsuit, regardless of how many defendants you are suing in each.  You should bring at least two copies of the complaint and summons with you to the courthouse.  The clerk will “file-stamp” both copies to make them official, keep one copy for the court file, and give you a copy to serve on the defendant(s). Before doing anything else, it’s a good idea to make a photocopy of the file-stamped summons and complaint the clerk gives back to you just in case.

HOW DO YOU SERVE A SMALL CLAIMS LAWSUIT?

When you serve a small claims lawsuit, it must include a copy of the file-stamped complaint and summons.  There are essentially two ways to serve the lawsuit; (1) by sheriff; and (2) by mailing it through the post office using certified mail, return receipt requested.  Service by sheriff is the easiest to do; you just request “service by sheriff” to the clerk of court while you are filing the complaint.  There is an additional $30 charge for such service, but the sheriff will take care of informing the court that service was achieved. 

The other option is mailing the summons and complaint using certified mail, return receipt requested at your local post office.  It’s cheaper (usually around $5-$7 per letter), and the clerks at the post office will help you fill out the special green cards if you’ve never done it before.  If you serve the defendant(s) by certified mail, you will also need to file an “affidavit of service” with the court to prove that you served the defendants appropriately.  An additional detailed walk-through of the service process, including what an affidavit of service is, can be found here on page 3.

WHAT HAPPENS AT A SMALL CLAIMS HEARING?

Once you’ve filed and served the complaint and summons, you will be set for a hearing date by the court.  If you can’t attend on that date, let the court know immediately that you want a “continuance.”  Otherwise, you should immediately work on collecting any evidence that may be helpful at the hearing (such as documents, emails, pictures, text messages, videos, etc.) and lining up any witnesses who may need to testify. 

On the day of the hearing, arrive early and assume you may be called first as the magistrate (judge) may rearrange the order on the calendar based upon how long each hearing is projected to take.  Once your case is called, both parties will be sworn in and then the plaintiff gets to present his or her case first.  There is no rigid format for this process, and the magistrate may ask questions or request to see evidence as you go along.  The defendant then gets the chance to ask the plaintiff questions (think cross-examination) as well as any witnesses the plaintiff called.  Once the plaintiff is finished, the defendant gets the opportunity to put on its side of the case and call witnesses.  The plaintiff then gets the chance to ask the defendant questions as well as any witnesses the defendant called.

Magistrates hear hundreds of these cases every year and have heard it all before. They will often give you hints and cues about what they want to hear or, more importantly, if you should stop talking.  Remember to be respectful and attentive to the magistrate at all times because he or she will decide the case. Dressing nice and looking prepared for the hearing go a long way to helping your case.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE SMALL CLAIMS HEARING?

Typically, the magistrate will make his or her ruling from the bench once both sides have had the chance to present their evidence.  However, if it is a complicated matter or there was a lot of evidence to consider, the magistrate may take up to ten (10) days to decide.  Once the magistrate rules, either party has a right to appeal the decision to District Court. 

If the magistrate rules in your favor and there’s no appeal, then the defendant(s) has ten days to comply with the ruling.  A magistrate’s ruling remains on the record for ten (10) years and can be renewed for and additional ten (10) years.  Once a defendant has paid you, you must notify the clerk’s office and fill out a Certificate of Payment to confirm that the judgment has been satisfied. 

WHAT HAPPENS IF THE LOSING PARTY DOESN’T PAY?

If the defendant loses and fails to pay, then you may initiate a collections proceeding by having the clerk of court issue a Writ of Execution, which is the first step in a sheriff seizing assets to pay for your judgment.  However, if the defendant is an individual and not a corporation, you must first have the clerk issue a Notice of Rights to Have Exemptions Designated and serve it on the defendant. 

HOW DO YOU APPEAL A SMALL CLAIMS RULING?

Regardless of whether you are the plaintiff or defendant, you can appeal a ruling against you from small claims court to District Court.  An appeal can be made regardless of the reason or for no reason at all.  The losing party can announce on the record at the hearing that they intend to appeal.  If not announced in court, the losing party has ten (10) days from the date of the ruling to file a Notice of Appeal to District Court with the clerk of court.  If you do a written Notice of Appeal, it must be mailed to the other party within ten (10) days of the ruling.  To file an appeal, there is a $150 fee that must be paid within twenty (20) days of the ruling for the appeal to be effective. 

Once an appeal has been successfully made and the fee paid, the case is transferred to District Court, where it starts over from the beginning as if small claims never happened.  District Court is where claims that are worth less than $25,000 are litigated, and it is a much more formalized process that includes discovery, multiple hearings, and a trial (by jury, if requested).  A case in District Court may take many months and sometimes more than a year to reach trial, and you should speak with attorney to determine whether you should continue to represent yourself pro se

FINAL THOUGHTS ON SMALL CLAIMS IN NORTH CAROLINA.

  1. You can handle this!  There are a lot of great resources out there that can help you through the small claims process.  We recommend starting with the Judicial Branch’s website on Small Claims Court, which can be found here.

  2. If you are unable to afford the filing fees or any costs associated with the process, it may be possible to have the court waive the fees and costs.   

  3. Every magistrate judge is different and there is no formalized process for how every hearing should go; be prepared to be flexible and responsive to the magistrate.

  4. Be early to the hearing and come prepared with your arguments, witnesses, and evidence; the magistrate will appreciate a composed and streamline case.

  5. When in doubt, contact a lawyer. The clerks of court are very helpful and will do everything they can to assist, but they are not able to give you legal advice. But we can and are happy to help.

Justin Osborn