DIFFICULTY: Legal assistance is not usually necessary
Initial Filing Fee: $40-$100 filing, $25-$30 Marshal service, varies per county and type of case
Georgia uses the Magistrate Court as the small claims division in each county. You can take a case worth up to $15,000 to the Magistrate Court, much more money than other states. The goal is the same as with other states: a quick, inexpensive process to resolve complaints. You can file a claim without an attorney and the case will be heard by a judge, without a jury. Some counties of Georgia do require that mediation happen before a court will hear the case, other counties just strongly recommend it. Small claims court is all about money and not punitive damages, but rather just actual monetary amounts for goods or services provided. It can also be used to return personal property or solve disputes regarding ruined or destroyed items by a business. It is not a place to bring about lawsuits for “pain and suffering” or other immeasurable amounts of money.
Step 1: Determine if Your Claim is Right for Small Claims Court
You may file a small claims case in Georgia as long as you are 18 years or older, the defendant is 18 years or older and your claim is for $15,000 or less. The claim should be something that has a clear paper trail or verification of property so you can show that you have a right to the monies or the personal property. Things that qualify as small claims in Georgia include:
• Merchants refusing to replace or repair faulty merchandise
• Persons refusing to repay money or return property
• Non-payment of any invoice
• A driver refusing to pay for repairs after causing damage
• A mechanic charging for services not rendered
• Tenants refusing to pay for repairs above and beyond the security deposit
• Attempting to evict a tenant
• Landlords not returning security deposits
• Unpaid contracts
• Landlords suing for back rent
Step 2: Find Out Where to File Your Claim
Your claim must be filed in the county where the person you are suing lives. If you are suing a business, you need to find out if it is a corporation. Corporations have to be sued in the county where the corporate headquarters are, otherwise the business can be sued where the business is located. You will have to file the claim in the right county or it will be void.
Step 3: Attempt to Mediate the Claim
It is recommended in most counties and required in some that you attempt mediation. The Justice Center of Atlanta, Inc offers free mediation services to those who attempt to settle before filing suits. You can contact this company at: 404-523-8236. This type of mediation is usually done by conference call.
Step 4: File the Claim
If you do not wish to mediate the claim or if mediation was unsuccessful you must file your claim. The Magistrate’s office will give you the statement of claim. It will require the following:
• Complete name and address of the plaintiff (attorney if you have one)
• Complete the name and address of the defendant
• State the damages being sought
• Include a brief statement of why the defendant is being sued including any relevant dates
• Attach copies of all relevant documents such as contracts, receipts, and checks. (You should attach copies and keep any originals.)
You need to provide the Magistrate court with the original and a copy to serve the defendant with. You should keep a copy for your records.
Step 5: Serve the Defendant
The Magistrate Court will serve the defendant with a copy of the claim and a summons. In other states you have options as to how to serve the defendant but in Georgia it is always done by the Marshal service, taking the responsibility out of your hands once you have filed.
Step 6: Wait for the Answer
Georgia, unlike other states, requires that the defendant answer the claim either in written form or orally within 30 days. This is a longer time frame than most civil courts give and you are not granted a hearing date until the answer is issued. In other states your hearing date is set and the person either shows up or does not. The hearing date is set within 15 to 30 days after the answer was filed and the court will notify both the plaintiff and the defendant as to the time and date. If the defendant does not answer the claim you can request a default judgment.
Step 7: Hearing and Appeals
Prepare all your documents and subpoena other documents as necessary. You will also want to gather any witnesses who can lend weight to your case. You can get a subpoena from the clerk at the Magistrate Court and the fee for servicing subpoenas is between $5-$25.
You will be allowed to present evidence, ask questions and answer any questions the defendant or the court have for you. After the decision is made you have 30 days as does the defendant to file an appeal if you are unhappy with the decision. This requires a new filing fee.
Step 8: Renumeration
Once all the appeals have been run out if you have won damages you are responsible for collecting those damages in Georgia. You can request a hearing with the court to set up a payment plan should the defendant be unable to pay. You would have to pay any clerical and accounting costs associated with such a plan. You can also place a lien on property or seek to garnish wages. In other states these actions are handled by the sheriff, but in Georgia it is your responsibility to file all the paperwork and collect your own claim.