What Is a Small Claims Court in District of Columbia?
The District of Columbia (D.C.) small claims court is a branch of the superior court designed to handle civil disputes amounting to $10,000 or less in damages. As a result, any resident who has a claim against another—perhaps for a bad check, unpaid wages, auto repair cost, contractual breach, or any other claim to recover money—can use the court to collect their money.
Formally known as the superior court's Small Claims and Conciliation Branch, the court offers a simplified means of resolving minor non-criminal disputes without spending too much money.
How Does the District of Columbia Small Claims Court Work?
The operations and practices of the District of Columbia small claims court are directed by Section §16-3901 et seq. and Title 11, Chapter 13 of the D.C. Code. Under these regulations, any person or business involved in a minor disagreement over money can file a lawsuit in court. The party who initiates the claim is the "plaintiff," and the opposing party is the "defendant."
Most often, natural persons (actual human beings) who have reached the age of majority (18 years or older) and are mentally competent do not need an attorney in the small claims court. The court's proceedings are less formal; therefore, case parties can file, serve defendants, and present their cases without legal representation. However, if the suing or sued party is underage (below 18 years of age) or an incompetent person, that party must have a representative or next friend (see Civil Rule 17) who can act on their behalf. Furthermore, if the plaintiff is a business, the law mandates legal representation.
Cases in the D.C. small claims court are filed with the small claims clerk's office and decided by a magistrate judge. However, sometimes an associate judge may conduct proceedings. Litigants who want a jury trial can file a written request with the small claims court and pay the $75 filing fee, but the case will be transferred to the superior court's civil division as the small claims court does not have the authority to hold jury trials. Likewise, persons who want to file claims over $10,000 must either use the general civil division or forfeit parts of their claim to meet the small claims court's jurisdictional limit.
The losing or unsatisfied party in a small claims case has a few options to obtain relief after judgment:
- The party can appeal the case to a higher court. The appropriate appellate court is determined by the judicial officer who heard the case (a magistrate judge or associate judge).
- If the party lost because of a default or default judgment, they could file a motion to vacate that judgment.
- Lastly, the party can file a motion for a new trial or to alter/amend a judgment.
There are specific deadlines, court fees, and forms that apply to these actions. More information can be obtained from the Small Claims Handbook.
Generally, anyone appealing a small claims judgment entered by a magistrate judge will have to file a motion for judicial review at the small claims clerk's office. This petition must be filed no more than 14 days from the judgment's entry on the court's docket. An associate judge will review the appeal; it will not be handled as a new trial. However, suppose an associate judge made the original ruling. In that case, the appellate court is the D.C. Court of Appeals, and parties will have less time (3 business days of the docket entry of the associate judge's decision) to file an allowance of appeal with the Court of Appeals.
Aside from reading the laws, court rules (the D.C. Superior Court Rules - Small Claims), small claims pamphlet, and FAQ page of the D.C courts, a prospective small claims litigant can consult a lawyer to ensure they understand the legal processes involved and their rights in the D.C. small claims court.
How to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in the District of Columbia
In the District of Columbia, someone can take a person or business to court by filing a Statement of Claim and Small Claims Information Sheet with the small claims clerk. Below is the clerk's office address:
Court Building B
510 4th Street, North West
Washington, DC 20001
Phone: (202) 879-1120
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Wednesdays: 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Saturdays: 9:00 a.m. to 12 noon
Note: Filings can also be submitted in the after-hours filing box located in the Moultrie Courthouse's lobby.
The information that the Statement of Claim form must contain includes:
- The full name, address, phone number, and handwritten signature of the plaintiff.
- The full name, address, email, bar number, and phone number of the plaintiff's attorney (if any).
- The defendant's full name and address. If the defendant is a corporation, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs can be contacted to obtain the name of the agent authorized to receive lawsuits on the corporation's behalf.
- A simple but detailed description of the claim/statement of claim (i.e., why the plaintiff believes the defendant(s) owes him/her).
- The claimed dollar amount.
Note that the Statement of Claim form must be signed before a notary public or clerk. The clerk will require the petitioner’s photo ID before verifying the claim.
The petition forms (Statement of Claim and Information Sheet) can be downloaded online or collected in paper form from the clerk's office. There is no fee charged to obtain forms from the clerk's office, but the plaintiff must pay a filing fee to submit the forms and other supporting documents. This fee is as follows:
- $5 for claims $500 or less
- $10 for claims $500 to $2,500
- $45 for claims above $2,500 but no more than $10,000
The fee can be paid by certified check, money order, credit card, cash to the "Clerk, D.C. Superior Court." However, D.C. bar members can pay by personal check. Plaintiffs who cannot afford the filing fee can request a fee waiver. The form for this motion can be obtained from the clerk's office.
At the point of filing, the clerk will review the forms to ensure they have been completed appropriately and assign a case number, which will be written on both forms. The clerk will also return the originals to the plaintiff after scanning them into the Integrated Justice Information System. These original documents will be required at the court hearing.
Serving the Defendant
When the claim has been filed, the plaintiff must serve the defendant(s) with a copy of the claim and any supporting document (contracts, receipts, bills, photographs, etc.). This service must be performed within a few weeks of filing the statement of claim. This deadline is typically within 60 days of filing a statement of claim (90 days for subrogation and collection cases). The plaintiff can also request an extension of this period by filing a motion with the court. Failure to serve the defendant within the given period will result in the case being dismissed.
Small claims defendants can be served in two ways in the District of Columbia:
- Registered/certified mail (restricted delivery and return receipt requested), or
- Process server
More details on service procedures (including obtaining proof of service) can be found on pages 9 to 12 of the Small Claims Handbook. Generally, for a process server, this proof is an affidavit of service filed with the court (download the form online or get it from the clerk's office). In contrast, for service by registered/certified mail, it is the green return receipt card carrying the defendant's signature.
How Much Can You Sue For in the District of Columbia Small Claims Court?
The District of Columbia (D.C.) law designates the small claims court to hear civil cases to recover money not above $10,000 (D.C. Code § 11–1321). Claims over this amount cannot be handled by the court. Instead, litigants whose claims pass the court's jurisdictional limit must petition the civil division of the superior court.
How to Defend Yourself in the District of Columbia Small Claims Court
Any person or business served with a small claims lawsuit must appear in court on the date stated on their Statement of Claim copy. In D.C., there is usually no need to file a written answer with the court.
Failure to attend court can lead to the entry of a default judgment, where the court will grant the plaintiff the amount requested in the claim. Therefore, it is in a defendant's interests to show up to contest or admit the claim on the set date, even if what the party seeks is more time to pay the plaintiff.
At this pre-trial hearing, litigants will most likely meet with trained mediators. If unable to settle by mediation, the case will move to trial at a later date.
Litigants who settle before trial must inform the court in writing by filing a praecipe. By submitting this form, the case parties ask the court to dismiss the case and close the matter. The praecipe form can be obtained from the small claims court clerk's office or downloaded from the D.C. courts' small claims forms page.
How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in the District of Columbia?
The time limit to take someone to the District of Columbia small claims court ranges from one to a few years. Section §12-301 of the D.C. Code defines these limits. It is important to check this law as it can change, or consult an attorney once a cause of action arises to determine the period that one has to file a small claims action. The D.C. civil statutes of limitations include:
- Damage to personal property - 3 years
- Personal injury - 3 years
- Simple contracts, express or implied - 3 years
What Happens if You Don't Show Up for Small Claims Court in the District of Columbia?
All parties in a small claims case are mandated to appear in court on their hearing date. Litigants must gather all evidence, including witnesses, before this date and ensure to show up on time, or at least some minutes early, to present their case before the judge. The winning party is most often the one who has the strongest case. It is advisable to attend a small claims proceeding beforehand to learn how trials are conducted and prepare a strong defense.
Any party who fails to appear on the scheduled trial date can have a default judgment entered against them. If the defaulter is the plaintiff, the court can dismiss the case. If a defendant of that case filed a counterclaim, the plaintiff may receive a default judgment and become liable to pay the damages.
However, D.C. law allows persons who have received a default judgment to file a motion with the small claims clerk to vacate or set aside the judgment upon showing good cause for the nonappearance. They can also file a motion to stop a writ of attachment if their property was seized by court order.
What are Small Claims Court Records in the District of Columbia?
Small claims court records encompass all documents filed, submitted, or created in small claims proceedings, and information regarding case activities. These records are accessible to the residents under the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act. Therefore, interested parties can ask to inspect the records or obtain plain/certified copies from the courthouse, except in cases where disclosure is prohibited by federal or state law, or court order.
Where Can I Find District of Columbia Small Claims Court Records?
Much like most District of Columbia court records, District of Columbia small claims court records are maintained at the office small claims clerk's office:
Court Building B
510 4th Street, North West
Washington, DC 20001
Phone: (202) 879-1120
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m
The clerk can be contacted during office hours for public records request procedures. Note, however, that requests to inspect a record at the courthouse will not attract any court charges, but persons requiring copies will need to pay for them.
State residents and other parties can also view these records on the superior court's Online Case Search System (eAccess) or access the information via a third-party public access database.