Although it is best to attempt to settle disputes without the need for utilizing the court system, sometimes court action is necessary. Rather than spending a significant amount of money and being involved in a lengthy court battle for a minor dispute, Wisconsin’s Small Claims Courts provide an often simpler and less expensive method for bringing a lawsuit, as an attorney may not be necessary, and the rules are less stringent than in other court proceedings. Many types of cases can be pursued in Small Claims Court such as suits for property damage, personal injury, breach of contract, repossession of property, known as replevin actions; or where the amount claimed in a controversy is $5,000.00 or less. Garnishment actions, to enforce a judgment for $5,000.00 or less and to attempt to seize funds, wages or property; and evictions by a landlord against a tenant, regardless of the amount of rent owed, can be brought in Small Claims Court. Other less common actions may also be pursued in Small Claims Court.
Small Claims Courts are located at each county courthouse; however, it is important to know which county is the appropriate county to file a lawsuit. Usually the correct county is the one where your claim arose or the property involved is located; however, the correct county may also be where the person, corporation or business being sued resides or does a substantial amount of business.
Starting a lawsuit in Small Claims Court involves filing a Summons and Complaint. Individuals, corporations and businesses can file suit or be sued in Small Claims Court. The person starting the lawsuit is the plaintiff, and the person(s) being sued is the defendant(s). It is important that the names and addresses of the parties are listed correctly. Many Small Claims Court forms are now available on-line; otherwise, they can be obtained at the county courthouse small claims department. Also, each county courthouse will usually have a pamphlet available to explain the rules and procedures, as they may vary from county to county.
To start the lawsuit process in Small Claims Court, you will need to pay a filing fee of approximately $100.00, and you will then be required to pay a fee to have the Summons and Complaint served on the other parties, which means having a sheriff or private process server deliver the Summons and Complaint to the defendant(s). Sometimes service can be accomplished by mailing, however, you will need to review the county Small Claims Court procedures.
Upon filing the lawsuit, a “return date” will be set for the first appearance. Both you and the defendant(s) must appear in court on the scheduled date and time. You will need to provide the court with proof that the defendant(s) was served. If the defendant(s) does not appear or respond at the first appearance, you may receive a default judgment for the amount of your claimed damages. If you do not appear at the first appearance, you may have your case dismissed. If all parties appear, an attempt will be made to have the parties resolve the claim.
If the claim cannot be resolved at that time, a hearing will be scheduled, usually for a future date, and often to be conducted by a court commissioner. Although attorneys are not required in Small Claims Court cases, attorneys may be helpful, depending upon the complexity of the case. Also, if the defendant(s) hires an attorney to represent him/her, you may want to consider doing the same. At the hearing, the parties may present evidence and witnesses. The hearing is somewhat informal and the court commissioner will assist the parties. The normal court rules and procedures are not usually strictly enforced. The commissioner will usually issue a decision following the hearing, but sometimes it will be issued at a later date.
If you win your case at the hearing, in addition to the amount or property awarded by the commissioner (the judgment), the commissioner may order the defendant(s) to pay a portion of your attorney’s fees, in addition to some of your out-of-pocket expenses in filing the lawsuit and serving the Summons and Complaint. If you lose your case at the hearing, you will not receive the money or property which you requested; however, you may take the commissioner’s decision to a Circuit Court judge. The Small Claims Court will provide instructions on the method of challenging the commissioner’s decision. Either party will have the right to challenge the decision and request a trial before a judge or a jury. There are time requirements for filing the trial request, and there will be an additional filing fee for requesting a jury trial.
If you challenge the commissioner’s decision, and if the case proceeds to trial before a judge or a jury, the original court commissioner’s decision will not be considered by the judge. If you lose your case at trial, you may appeal the judge’s or jury’s decision to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. There will be additional costs required in order to pursue the appeal. If you win your case at trial and are entitled to money or property, the court may order the defendant(s) to fill out a financial disclosure form and return it to the court clerk. The defendant(s) will be required to list property, employers, financial institutions, and other assets or sources of income. If the defendant(s) does not pay the amount of the judgment, you may docket the judgment at the county courthouse. The judgment will then be a lien on the defendant’s real estate. You may also start a garnishment action in an attempt to obtain payment from the defendant’s earnings or bank accounts, subject to exemptions pursuant to Wisconsin law.
Our friendly and professional staff can assist to help you find an experienced attorney who can help you in representation in your Small Claims Court case. Our attorneys have the experience and dedication necessary to assist you with all of your legal needs and understand the complexities of legal proceedings. Call us at (414) 274-6768, or submit your case information any time using our online form.