Georgia Small Claims Court
Procedures for the Hearing
Some counties require you to go to mediation before a hearing in front of a judge. Mediation is a way for both parties to meet with an independent third party who can evaluate the case and try to reach a settlement that is agreeable to both parties. Even if the parties agree to settle the case out of court, the plaintiff may still ask the defendant to pay court costs (costs for filing the case, serving defendants, any subpoenas issues, etc.). If the parties cannot agree to settle the case, the the court will hear arguments presented by the plaintiff and the defendant. The court takes in evidence and provides for all parties for an opportunity to present their case. When both parties are done, the judge will issue a decision (or judgment). The judge may award damages to the plaintiff, defendant, or both depending on the facts of the case.
The court has several options if the plaintiff does not appear at the hearing:
- Allow the defendant to present evidence and render a decision without hearing from plaintiff
- continue the case.
- dismiss the case.
If the defendant does not show at the hearing, the court has the authority to grant a default judgment against the defendant. The name comes from the fact that because the defendant does not show, the plaintiff wins the case by “default.” The lesson to be learned is make sure you attent the hearing regardless of whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant.
Can the Defendant sue the Plaintiff?
The defendant is able to sue the plaintiff (this is called a counterclaim). The defendant can file this against the plaintiff’s original claim if the defendant’s claim is related to the plaintiff’s initial claim and the amount asked for by the defendant is less than $15,000. The counterclaim of the defendant is generally heard by the magistrate court at the same time as the plaintiff’s initial claim.
How do I pick a hearing date?
In Georgia, the court selects the hearing date after the defendant responds to the claim. Hearing dates are usually 15 to 30 days after the date the answer was filed.
How can I file a claim?
The case begins with the plaintiff filing a sworn statement with the magistrate court clerk in the proper county. The sworn statement describes the charges made against the defendant (the person or business that is being sued by the plaintiff). At a minimum, the sworn statement should include the following facts:
- The name, address, and telephone number of the plaintiff (and attorney if there is one)(Make sure this is correct as this is how the court will contact you if there are any issues)
- Name and strees address of the defendant
- The amount of money the plaintiff is requesting
- Explain why the defendant is being sued (and why the defendant owes the money)
- Copies of all documents relevant to the claims (Keep the originals for your hearing)
What’s a default judgment?
If the defendant fails to appear at the hearing or respond to the claim, the judge can issue a default judgment against the defendant. If a default judgment is granted, the plaintiff is entitled to what he or she asked for in the action and court costs. If the plaintiff is asking for non-monetary damages (like property), the court has to conduct a separate hearing to determine the dollar amount of the damages. The defendant has only thirty days to respond to the claim. Once this time period passes, the defendant is in “default.”
Georgia Small Claim courts may also be referred to as Magistrate Courts. If you are unable to settle a dispute with a person or business, the matter can be filed in magistrate court.
Small Claims courts handle cases where the amount in dispute is less than $15,000.00. Because of this, the disputes in this court are handled quickly and inexpensively.
Defendant’s Time to Answer
After the case is filed, the clerk of the magistrate court serves the defendant with a copy of the claim along with a summons. From that point, the defendant has thirty days to respond or answer.
Appealing a Judgment
If you are not happy with the court’s decision (and generally at least one party, sometimes both, are not satisfied with the judgment), the party may file an appeal (or ask a higher court to review the judgment). The appeal will be heard by either the state or superior court in the county. For the appeal, either party may request a jury trial (remember you aren’t entitled to a jury trial in magistrate court). The appeal needs to be filed within thirty days of the court’s decision.
Can I file my case in Georgia?
If you are suing a person, you must file the case in the County where they live. If the defendant lives in Georgia, you can file the case in this County. If you are suing a corporation, you must file your case in the County where the registered agent for service of process is located. (Contact the Corporations Division of the Secretary of State either online or at 404-656-2817 to find out if a business is a corproation and the name and address of the registered agent). If you are suing an unincorporated business, you must file the case where the business is physically located. If the business is in Georgia, you can file here.
Plaintiff has to also pay a filing fee which is submitted with the initial paperwork. This filing fee includes the cost for the clerk to serve one defendant. The filing fee varies by each county but is generally between $45 and $55. If an additional defendant is named in the action, there will be an extra charge for the court to serve the additional party. The extra charge could is usually between $25-$35 (to serve the added party).
The Clerk for the Magistrate Court can direct you to the necessary forms (and review them for completeness) but is prohibited by law from giving legal advice. For example, a clerk could review your forms to make sure there is a signature where it is required but cannot tell you who you should name as a defendant. The clerk will also not be able to tell you whether he or she believes you will win your case.
How should I prepare for the hearing?
We recommend taking the following steps to prepare for your hearing:
- Make sure you have copies of all the documents you need for your case. Prepare copies to provide to the opposing party and the court.
- Communicate with any witnesses you intend to call to prove your case. Confirm they are available on the day of the hearing.
- If you need to bring in a witness to prove your case and the witness is not being cooperative with you, prepare a subpoena.
- A subpoena is a command from the court for a person or documents to appear at a certain time and date to give testimony or produce evidence. A subpoena can be obtained from the clerk’s office.
Do I need to hire an attorney?
We cannot tell you whether or not you should hire an attorney. However, you may hire an attorney if you wish, but are not required to do so. You are able to file the case on your own, without the assistance of an attorney (again, the process was designed to be inexpensive). All cases are tried and heard before a judge, without a jury. You should remember that the procedures and rules for small claims court cases are designed so that a party should not need to have to retain an expensive attorney in order for their case to be effectively presented. Some courts utilize mediation as a tool to resolve a case without the time and expense of a trial. Some counties will even require a case to attempt to be settled at mediation prior to it being set for trial.
Types of Cases Filed in Georgia Small Claims Court
Here are examples of cases that are often found in small claims court:
- Renter does not or will not ay for damages to rental property
- Tenant fails to pay rent and landlord wants to evict tenant
- Tenant moves out and landlord refuses to return security deposit
- Failure of a merchant to deal with faulty merchandise
- A person who borrowed money refuses to return it
- A dry cleaner will not pay for clothing which was damaged or lost
- A mechanic charges for work not completed, unnecessary repairs, or poor workmanship.
Similarly, if you need additional documents that are not in your possession, you can issue a subpoena for the documents as well.