Counsel’s Corner ~ Small Claims Court
Counsel’s Corner ~ Small Claims Court
SMALL CLAIMS COURT FOR “PAST DUE” RENT
Small Claims Court is set up to be simple, informal, and inexpensive and is the most cost-effective way for Owners to pursue a judgment for unpaid rent from tenants who have breached/defaulted under their lease and left with a balance due. Owners can represent themselves in Small Claims Court and do not have to hire a lawyer. To qualify as a small claim the amount of damages sought must not exceed $5,000.00 (Florida) or $6,000.00 (Alabama). Note: An action for eviction/return of possession against a tenant does not preclude a separate legal (money damages) claim/action for breach of contract/lease.
SUMMARY OVERVIEW OF “HOW TO” FILE A SMALL CLAIM
- Individuals file a small claim case by completing a “Statement of Claim” Form (herein referred to “SOC”) in the Clerk of Court’s office. The SOC Form is available online or at the local Clerk of Court’s office and can be filed online or in person at the Clerk of Court’s office. The recommended practice is to file the SOC Form in person to insure all requirements are met and that questions can be answered by the Clerk of Court.
- Note: Copies of the lease, notice of default, and accounting ledger showing past-due rent should be included/attached to the completed SOC Form. Southern will provide these documents upon request.
- Note: A copy of the signed SOC Form and a copy of all supporting documents must be provided to the Clerk of Court (at the time of filing) for EACH Defendant named in the SOC Form.
- Request the Clerk of Court serve the signed SOC Form on the Defendant(s). Service can be Sheriff’s Department or by Certified Mail and the Clerk of Court will instruct you on how service of process is handled in their jurisdiction.
- Once the SOC Form is filed and served on Defendant(s) the Court will issue a pre-trial order setting the time for the initial hearing in the case. In Alabama, the Defendant has 14 days to answer/respond to the Complaint before a pre-trial order will be issued by the Court. In Florida, a Summons/Notice to Appear is issued by the Clerk of Court and served along with the SOC Form noting the date/time of the initial pre-trial hearing.
- The first hearing is generally an opportunity for the parties to meet and attempt to settle the dispute. If the parties cannot settle the dispute the Court will then either proceed to hearing or set a second hearing/trial date and the Clerk will provide notice of the date/time of the final hearing/trial to the parties.
- At the final hearing/trial, the parties will have an opportunity to have evidence of their claims and defenses heard by a judge, after which the judge will render a decision in the case.
- If a Defendant fails to answer (in Alabama) or fails to appear at a designated pre-trial/mediation hearing date (Florida or Alabama), then the Owner will be entitled to a default judgment.
- If the Owner is successful in the case (whether by default or by the judge awarding a judgment for damages at the conclusion of the case), the Plaintiff must provide the Court with evidence of the amount of money damages claimed for the judge to review. The lease and accounting ledger showing past due rents are valuable evidence in proving damages.
- The Clerk of Court is available to assist individuals to insure the required forms are filed completely and correctly. Note: the Clerk of Court cannot and does not offer legal advice.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended as legal advice. If an owner has a question involving Small Claims Court or any specific procedure, the owner should contact their local Clerk of Court or seek the advice of a licensed attorney.