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.
Before filing your claim you should concentrate your efforts on three main areas.
First, organize your records and document your actual or projected financial losses. In Small Claims Court, claimants must show dollar amounts for actual out-of-pocket losses for whatever amount they are claiming. Keep all receipts, estimates for repairs or replacement items, canceled checks, pictures, damaged items, etc., that will help establish your loss in the event you go to court. It’s a good idea to keep notes as you go along on what happened, when it happened and who you speak with.
Second, identify potential defendant(s), that is, those businesses (a corporation, partnership, association, agency) and persons who may be responsible for your loss. Keep all receipts, warranties, contracts, leases, written correspondence, etc., that you have had or have with the other party.
Third, attempt to settle your claim with the other party while at the same time establishing a paper trail and case log. In an effort to settle, make phone calls, visits and send letters to the other party and be persistent. It is often a good idea to write a complaint letter to the other party. You should communicate in writing whenever possible with the other party to create a “paper trail.” You can increase your chances of settling by enlisting the help of public and private agencies that have some influence over the other party – like state licensing and regulatory offices – and visibly “copying” these entities on your complaint letter so the other party knows you’re bringing their conduct to the attention of others. You can send the letters by certified mail, return receipt requested to ensure you have proof of mailing and receipt.
Claimant – Party who files the small claims court case (called the "plaintiff" in higher courts).
Defendant – Party against whom the action is filed.
What kinds of claims can be brought?
Claims must be for monetary damages only – that is, to recover money or the dollar value of something that is lost or damaged. Typical cases involve recovering money for shoddy services (like home contractors); return of apartment rental and other types of security deposits; property damage claims, such as to a car or home; failures to pay wages or contractor fees; and defective products.
Who can file a claim?
Individuals must be at least 18 years old to bring cases in Small Claims Court. If the claimant is under the age of 18, a parent or legal guardian can file and appear on behalf of the minor involved in the claim. Corporations cannot sue in Small Claims Courts, but they can file claims in a similar court called the “Commercial Claims Part.” You do not need to be a citizen or even a New York resident to file a claim.
Who can be sued?
Claimants can file claims in Small Claims Court against other individuals who are at least 18 years old, businesses, associations or municipalities (but not the state or federal government).
How much can you sue for?
In Small Claims Court, a claimant can sue for up to $10,000 in New York City and $5,000 in the District Courts serving Nassau and Suffolk Counties, as well as in the city courts in other areas of the state. In the rest of the state, Small Claims Courts in towns and villages (where justices are not required to be lawyers) set the maximum amount that can be claimed at $3,000.
Where do I bring my small claims case?
New York’s Small Claims Court rules require that you sue a party where they live, work or have a place of business. This means you can’t sue someone who lives and works in Canada for example, or sue a purely online business based in California in the local small claims court since they have no “bricks and mortar” presence in New York.
Outside of New York City and Long Island you can also bring a small claims case in any city court that’s located within the county where the defendant lives, works or has a place of business – allowing you to sue for up to $5,000 even when the defendant is located in a town or village, but not that city. (The top amount you can claim in a town or village court is $3,000.)
How much time do I have to file a claim?
The claimant should file the claim as soon as possible after efforts to settle out-of-court have not been fruitful. The amount of time you have to file a claim varies based on the applicable statute of limitations set in state law. Generally speaking, the shortest statute of limitations in New York State is one year. A transaction or incident that occurred more than one year ago might raise a statute of limitations problem. If you have any doubts, you should speak with an attorney to get legal advice or file your claim as quickly as possible. Note that if you plan to sue a local government (like a town, village or school district), you should file a “notice of claim” with the appropriate municipal office within 90 days of the incident that led to the claim.
How do I file a small claims case?
In most areas of the state Claimants must file their claims in person with the Small Claims Court clerk's office (some courts allow online filing for an additional fee). Certain courts may allow Claimants to file their claims by mail – ask the Small Claims Court clerk for more information. At the court, the claimant will fill out a simple form called a Statement of the Claim and pay a filing fee. You need to provide the name (correctly spelled) of the defendant, their street address (not P.O. Box), the amount you’re suing for and a brief description of why you are filing the claim. The fees run from $15 to $20 depending on the amount that is being claimed. Claimants should pick up the Guide to Small Claims Court and Stipulation of Settlement and Affidavit upon Default form when they file their small claim. Note that if the claimant needs an interpreter for their court date, they should request one when they file their claim. If a claimant resides outside of the area of the court in question and cannot come into the city, village, town or county to file and then pursue the claim, the court may allow a relative or close associate to file for the claimant and represent the claimant during the hearing – check with the court clerk to use this provision.
Who notifies the defendants about the claim?
The Small Claims Court will notify the other party through the mail. Typically, the court date is set for about a month after you file the claim.
Subpoena – A court order issued by the court clerk or judge and served to a party to appear in court to give testimony under oath (witness subpoena) or provide documents (subpoena duces tecum or document subpoena).
Affidavit – A notarized statement sworn under oath made outside of the courtroom by a party that is not available to appear in court.
Claimants (and defendants) should use time between case filing and the court date to prepare their case, to gather evidence, and to write out and practice their presentation. Of course settlement is always possible up until the moment the hearing takes place. The threat of going to court may be effective in prompting a settlement. If the parties come to a settlement agreement, then neither the claimant nor defendant has to appear at the scheduled hearing. They should, however, file a Stipulation of Settlement and Affidavit Upon Default, available from the court, with the Small Claims Court clerk. If payment has not been received in full, the claimant should appear on the court date and ask for an adjournment pending receipt of full payment.
Evidence can consist of paper/electronic records, physical evidence and witness testimony. Paper/electronic record evidence includes documents such as contracts, leases, warranties, receipts, canceled checks, credit card billing statements, estimates (note that the Courts require at least two estimates); physical evidence includes damaged or defective items, photographs, and diagrams. Witness testimony includes the in-person testimony of the claimant, as well as experts and other people or Affidavits. (Note that affidavit testimony should be used only as a last resort, because courts may decide not to consider affidavits under the rules of evidence or may give them less weight.) Paper evidence and witnesses can be subpoenaed if necessary. After gathering all the evidence, to prepare for your court date, write out a clear, concise, chronological narrative of what happened. It is important to practice the presentation, including introducing and describing the evidence. A key thing to remember is that judges and arbitrators are likely to make their decisions on the spot, so giving them a clear, easy-to-follow understanding of your case and making a strong presentation will increase your chances for success.
Prima facie case – Enough evidence to support a favorable judgment without considering defenses from the other party.
Inquest – A brief questioning of the claimant by a judge or clerk to determine whether a claimant has made a prima facie case to support a judgment in their favor.
The parties should arrive promptly for their day or night in court in time for the first “roll call,” which is when the court takes attendance for all litigants. There are real consequences for showing up late to small claims court, so don’t be late! If you want your case heard by a judge, be prepared to say “by the court” or otherwise indicate that’s what you want when your case is called. If you need an adjournment for some reason, say “application” when your case is called to let the court know you’re asking for something other than having your case go forward.
There are several possible outcomes for the court day or night including: dismissal, default judgment, adjournment, arbitration, and trial. The claim is dismissed when the claimant does not show up for the first roll call. The claimant is awarded a default judgment if the defendant does not show up by the second roll call and the claimant presents a prima facie case during the inquest. An adjournment, or postponement, will be granted upon the request of either party (or their representative) if they need more time to prepare an effective presentation. In arbitration, the case is heard by a volunteer lawyer in an informal hearing where no transcript is kept and both parties give up their right to appeal. (Note: arbitration is primarily used in the New York City courts.) Arbitration hearings are held on the same day or night as the original scheduled date. In a trial, the case is heard by a judge in a courtroom and the proceeding resembles TV court shows, like the “People's Court.” If the docket is too full and there are not enough judges available, the hearing may be adjourned to a later date. A court stenographer or audio tape records all statements made by the parties before a judge; no record is made of statements made in an arbitration proceeding.
In the NYC Small Claims Courts, there also is an option to go through a mediation process in which an outside independent mediator helps the parties come to mutually acceptable resolution. This is voluntary and there’s no obligation to do it or accept the mediator’s recommendation at the end of the process. But it can be quicker, more efficient and less formal that going before a judge or arbitrator.
Typically, judges and arbitrators make their decisions on the spot, but don’t inform either party of how they will rule to avoid confrontations and arguments. The court mails a notice of the small claims judgment to both the claimant and the defendant within a few days to a few weeks after the hearing. The small claims judgment usually includes the costs (filing fees) for bringing the claim to court and the cost of one typical collection attempt by a sheriff or marshal. The judgment is enforceable for 20 years, accrues interest and should be enforceable outside the county and even outside New York State, with some exceptions.
Either party can appeal a judge's decision to a higher court on the basis that “substantial justice” was not done. While appeals are possible, meeting the legal standard of showing that “substantial justice” was not done is difficult. The notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days of receipt of the judgment.
Judgment creditor (JC) – Party that is owed money; can be either a winning claimant or a defendant successful in pursuing a counterclaim.
Judgment debtor (JD) – Party that owes money.
Information subpoena – A court order contained in a form signed by a court clerk or judge that directs an individual or entity to provide information to aid in collecting a judgment, including information about a judgment debtor’s assets.
After receiving a favorable judgment in the mail from the court, the party who is awarded the judgment should write a Demand of Payment Letter to the other party and enclose a copy of the judgment. The party who loses the small claims case has thirty days to pay the other party. After 30 days has passed the parties are no longer claimants and defendants, they become JCs and JDs (see definitions above).
In preparing to collect the small claims judgment, the JC must first ascertain the JD's exact legal name and address. Then, the JC must find the JD's assets. The typical types of assets that the JD may have that are available to the JC as possible sources of payment for an outstanding judgment include the JD's checking or savings account and the JD's wages or salary. If the JC has little or no information about the JD's assets, the JC must still find out that information in order to collect the judgment. It’s up to the JC to do the detective work of identifying some asset that is suitable for collection.
The Information Subpoena and Restraining Notice are the JC's best tools for investigating and uncovering specific, detailed information about the JD's assets. The Information Subpoena is a legal document that becomes a court order when signed by a judge or stamped by a court clerk. Once served, the Information Subpoena requires the recipient to answer certain specific questions about the JD's assets within seven days. For example, an information subpoena sent to a utility company, such as an electricity company or a phone company, requires it to respond to questions about whether the JD has an account and if so what bank they use to pay their bill. The Information Subpoena can be combined with aRestraining Notice, which is also a court order. The Restraining Notice forbids the recipient from selling or otherwise transferring any of the JD's recoverable assets that might be in their possession or under their control until the judgment is satisfied. So a restraining notice served on a bank would require the bank to hold on to money in the Judgment Debtor’s account up to the amount sufficient to cover the judgment.
Once the JC has the JD's exact legal name and address and the exact details on the JD's assets, the JC can begin the process of collecting on the judgment. To collect the judgment, the JC should seek the assistance of the sheriff (or the marshal in New York City) in the county of the JD's residence or place of business or employment. When preparing to collect from the JD's bank account, the JC should make sure that they have sent a Restraining Notice to the bank that houses the JD's account. The JC initiates a levy (collection) on the JD's bank account by filling out an Execution Against Property with Notice to Garnishee form and filing it with the sheriff or marshal's office. The JC should also provide to the sheriff or marshal the name of the JD's bank, the JD's account number (information obtained through the Information Subpoena described above), a copy of the judgment and the JD's exact name and address. The sheriff or marshal can help you fill out these forms.
In order for the JC to garnish the JD's wages, the JD's gross earnings must be above a certain minimum set by federal law and certain assets, pensions, and Social Security funds cannot be seized for judgment collection. The JC initiates a wage garnishment by filling out a form called an Income Execution and filing it with the sheriff or marshal's office. The JC should also provide the sheriff or marshal with the name and address of the JD's employer (information obtained through the Information Subpoena described above), a copy of the judgment and the JD's exact name and address. The JC can also intercept other monies owed to the JD – like rent owed to a landlord – by garnishing the payments owed to the JD and using those payments (for example from a tenant) to satisfy the judgment.
If the JC cannot locate the JD's assets, the JC can still put pressure on the JD to pay the judgment. In some cases, the JC may be able to have the JD's license to do business suspended, driver's license suspended, and put liens on the JD's personal property (such as their vehicle) or real property (such as a building or real estate they own). The JC can also levy the JD's personal property or real property and have it auctioned off. These collection methods are more complicated and have up-front costs, but are available to enforce Small Claims Court judgments. There are also some special collection tools available to JCs in Small Claims Court cases, which include filing a claim for treble damages and getting additional fees. Check with the Small Claims Court clerks and NYPIRG’s Action Center counselors (call 800-566-5020) to see if any of these special rules apply.
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.