Small Claims Matters
The following provides general information about small claims. You may want to consult an attorney for legal advice, but an attorney cannot represent you in a small claims matter. This means you must file court documents, appear in court, and pursue collection of any judgment without an attorney. For specific information about how to file a small claims case and what else you need to do, see the Small Claims Self-Help Center on this website.
Is the Small Claims Division Right for You?
Before you file a claim in the small claims division of the district court, you should decide whether it is the right "court" for you. There are a number of things to consider, from the amount of your claim to your ability to "represent" yourself in court.
The small claims division of the district court is a "court of limited jurisdiction." There is no small claims division of the municipal court. The small claims division of the district court cannot award more than $5,000, except for court costs and interest, even if your claim is worth more. If you do not want to waive your right to any amount over $5,000, you will have to bring your claim in the general civil division of the district court (for claims up to $25,000) or the circuit court (for claims over $25,000). In the small claims division your case may be heard by a district court judge or a district court attorney magistrate.
The small claims division can only handle certain kinds of claims, such as simple cases to recover money, perform a contract, set aside a contract, or change a contract. For example, the small claims division can hear a dispute between a landlord and a tenant about the return of a security deposit, or it can hear a case involving a car accident where insurance did not cover the damages to a car. The small claims division cannot hear cases of fraud, libel, slander, assault, battery, or other intentional wrongs. See MCL 600.8424(1). Although the small claims division cannot hear these intentional wrongs, it may still hear some intentional wrongdoing cases such as actions for insufficient funds (bounced checks) MCL 600.2952(6), Consumer Protection Act actions MCL 445.901 et seq., and recreational trespass MCL 324.73109.
In a small claims case, the parties cannot have attorneys represent them. You cannot have a jury trial. In addition, the district court judge's decision is final and cannot be appealed. However, if the case is heard by a district court attorney magistrate, the decision may be appealed to the district court judge for a new hearing in the small claims division. If either party objects to these conditions, the case will be transferred to the general civil division of the district court for a hearing.
If you take your case to the small claims division, you have to be able to tell the district court judge or district court attorney magistrate why you are entitled to the relief you are requesting. You have to be able to answer questions in court and you have to gather evidence to present your claim. You need to be able to speak in public with people watching you. Even if you are feeling uncomfortable or stressed by the situation, you must be calm and able to think and speak in court in front of the judge or magistrate and your opponent. If you cannot do this, you should consider filing your case in a different court and having an attorney represent you.
Either side can request that a small claims case be removed to the regular district court civil division. If that occurs, all parties may have attorneys. Processing of the case then follows the pattern of a regular civil case and the decision may be appealed to the circuit court.
Should You Try to Settle Instead of Going to Court?
Before you file a case in the small claims division of the district court, you should think about the person or organization you are suing and the likelihood of getting money from that person if you get a money judgment. Does the person or organization have money or is the person or organization likely to have money in the future? For example, a retired person on social security without savings has a limited income and will not have more money in the future. Social security benefits are exempt from garnishment, so you are unlikely to collect money in this situation even if you get a money judgment in your favor. Also, it is important to realize that if the district court judge orders a money judgment, the person or organization might not automatically pay the money and court costs. You may have to take additional steps to obtain your money. One of the ways to collect your money is to garnish wages, a bank account, or a state income tax refund.
You should consider the possibility of losing your case and that you may be ordered to pay a judgment instead. This may be hard to think about unemotionally because people often confuse what is fair or moral with what is legal. Before you go to court, you should look realistically at what happened and talk with other people about your case to see how they react. If it is possible you might lose your case, you have to think about how you will pay a judgment.
Going to Court
If you decide to go to court, the procedures for small claims are simple, but they have to be followed. For additional information about how to file a small claims case and what else you need to do, see the Small Claims Self-Help Center.