Consumer Counseling

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Since 1977, NYPIRG has offered help to New Yorkers with consumer problems and complaints, such as the purchase of defective goods, shoddy services, unreturned security deposits, property damage or falling victim to deceptive business practices. For many, New York’s Small Claims Courts – the original “People’s Court” – is the place for them to seek justice. NYPIRG’s sister organization offers assistance with consumer problems and in using the courts through Small Claims Court Action Centers located across the state.

Please call our toll-free number (800-566-5020), and one of our Small Claims Court Action Center counselors will contact you shortly.

While the Action Centers don’t provide legal advice or courtroom representation, they can help you resolve consumer problems and boost your chances of success in the small claims courts and with collecting a judgment. The service is free of charge and is open to everyone. The counseling includes dispute resolution tips and information on how to navigate New York’s small claims system at each step, from assistance before a case is filed, to court preparation, to judgment collection.

One note – it’s often a good idea to speak with an attorney whenever you’re considering going to court. This is particularly true in cases involving a physical injury. Free or low cost consultations may be available to you, including through community law offices, bar associations, union legal plans, nonprofit legal services provider offices for qualified individuals and for students and staff on college campuses.

COVID-19: Alert on New York State Courts

During the COVID-19 pandemic, New York’s state and local civil courts – including the small claims courts – responded by limiting access to the courts and taking steps to protect visitors and court personnel in various ways, such as reducing courtroom occupancy and social distancing. While the courts are moving to fully open up again, court operations typically reflect the number of local COVID-19 cases and specific courthouse conditions, so check with your local city, town or village small claims court for operation hours, building access and other rules on using the local courts.

For updates from the New York State Unified Court System, visit: http://www.nycourts.gov/index.shtml

To find contact information for your local court, visit: http://www.nycourts.gov/courts

Note that NYPIRG’s Small Claims Court Action Centers continue to provide assistance on small claims court and consumer matters. Please contact (800) 566-5020 and leave a message if you need assistance.

5 Steps to Get You Through Small Claims Court

This section provides step-by-step basic information for New Yorkers with consumer disputes, from help before you file a small claims court action, through collecting your judgment – information you will need in order to effectively use the Small Claims Court.

The Small Claims Courts in New York operate under uniform laws. However, the day-to-day rules and procedures (e.g., clerks' office hours and times for hearings) may differ somewhat among the local courts across the state.

While this information provides a basic overview and some tips, you should consider speaking with an attorney about your case to get legal advice. You can also contact NYPIRG’s Small Claims Court Action Center (800-566-5020) to get information, assistance and counseling from non-lawyer counselors.

Tips for Defendants

1. Settlement: There are many opportunities for the defendant and the claimant to come to some sort of a settlement agreement. The defendant may not realize there is a dispute until they actually receive the Notice of Claim in the mail. However, they will probably be contacted by the other party regarding the dispute before they are sued. Defendants should correspond in writing to the claimant and try to come to a settlement. If they can reach a settlement, they should draw up a written settlement agreement and have it signed and notarized by both parties. If they pay out money, repair items or repeat services, they should document that in writing and have it signed and notarized as well. If they reach a settlement agreement after they are sued, then they should file the agreement with the small claims clerk. Payments should be made by check or some other form that creates a paper trail; if payment is by cash, be sure both parties get a dated receipt that describes the reason for the payment.

2. Counterclaim: If the defendant believes the claimant owes them money – whether or not related to the small claims case – the defendant can bring a counterclaim. Up to five days after the defendant receives the Notice of Claim in the mail, the defendant can file a counterclaim with the small claims clerk by filling out a Notice of Counterclaim and paying a small fee. After five days have passed, the defendant can file a counterclaim on the court day or night for a small fee. If the counterclaim is filed on the court day or night, the claimant (or counter-defendant) will most likely ask for and be granted an adjournment so they can prepare a defense to the counterclaim.

3. Preparing and Presenting a Good Defense: The burden to make out a small claims case is on the claimant. If the claimant fails to meet this burden, the defendant could say nothing and still be found not liable for any damages. However, it is prudent for defendants to anticipate the claimant's case and to gather evidence and witness testimony to counter the claimant's argument. Defendants should also prepare a narrative and practice the presentation of their defense. If the defendant brings a counterclaim against the claimant (or counter-defendant), the defendant or counter-claimant has the burden of proving the counterclaim.

4. Vacating Default Judgments: Default judgments are typically entered against a defendant who has either arrived too late (after second roll call) or has failed to appear for a hearing at which he/she is being sued. If a default judgment has been entered against the defendant, the defendant can request that the court vacate the default judgment and set a new date to re-hear the claim. To vacate the default judgment, the defendant generally needs to file an Order to Show Cause form with the small claims clerk and demonstrate in an attached Affidavit that there is a "meritorious defense" and an "excusable default." Courts often restore default judgment cases to the calendar if the motion is made within a year of the default. Court clerks can provide assistance in this process.

5. Satisfying Judgments: Defendants (and Judgment Debtors) who are willing to pay judgments that have been awarded against them are often concerned that they will have no "proof" that they satisfied their small claims judgment. Clients in this situation should obtain an Affidavit Upon Payment of Judgment form, fill it out, have it notarized, keep a copy for their records and file the form with the Small Claims Court.

An individual may contact NYPIRG’s Small Claims Court Action Center (800-566-5020) for additional information and assistance.

Other Important Information About Small Claims Court Cases

If you need to ask the court for some other type of formal help with their case, these requests may be made by filing an Order to Show Cause as a generic way of petitioning the court for an appearance in order to ask that the court grant a specific request, including disclosure of the judgment debtor’s assets and with requests to amend the judgment. Speak with the court clerk about how to proceed with these requests.

There may be resources available to you if you want to file an appeal, seek legal advice, prefer to have a lawyer handle your case, or have a case that is outside the realm of the Small Claims Court. You can seek assistance from local service providers including local legal referral services, the local Bar Association, the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, community legal services organizations, the Legal Aid office, Attorney General's Office, Better Business Bureau, Department of Consumer Affairs, and Landlord/Tenant organizations. An individual may contact NYPIRG’s Small Claims Court Action Center (800-566-5020) for additional information, assistance and referrals.

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