Magistrate Court is small claims court in the State of Georgia. One of the purposes of Magistrate Court is to provide a venue for dispute resolution that can allow a party to litigate a dispute without hiring a lawyer. This page and others subordinate to it will hopefully outline the process and answer most of your questions for pursuing a claim in Magistrate Court.
The jurisdictional limit of the Magistrate Court is $15,000.00. This means that if your claim is for less than $15,000.00 you can file your claim in Magistrate Court. Beware that you are limited to that amount forever. In other words if you file in Magistrate Court for $15,000.00 and the other side counterclaims for more money and you later realize you claim has more value than $15,000.00 you are probably stuck claiming only the $15,000.00 for the rest of the case even if according to the facts and the law you could have gotten more. The best advice here is very carefully analyze the maximum about you could pursue and file in Magistrate Court only if that amount is below $15,000.00.
You cannot file in Magistrate Court if the value of your claim is more than $15,000.00 and all you want is $16,000.00. Better put, if the defendant moves for a transfer of your case from Magistrate Court to State Court or Superior Court the defendant will likely prevail if the facts are such that your claim is really for a higher number and you are just pursuing it in Magistrate Court to avoid the higher costs of higher courts.
Lastly if the defendant counterclaims and the counterclaim is for an amount in excess of $15,000.00 then the Magistrate Court judge will transfer the case to State or Superior Court.
Be careful about the parties to your case. A party is a plaintiff or defendant. Lawyers are typically very careful about whether they are suing on behalf of a corporation or a person and about the exact identity, name, and spelling of the person or entity they are suing. When pursuing your own claim in Magistrate Court you must be exacting about the names, addresses, and other information identifying the parties.
It is common practice to confuse or be casual about whether your relationship is with a person or his corporation. If it is a corporation that actually owes you money then sue the corporation. Use the exact name of the corporation as it appears in the records of the office of the Secretary of State. The records of the Georgia Secretary of State may be accessed at http://www.sos.state.ga.us/. Go to the corporation search page at this website get the exact name of the corporation. Also note the officers, their addresses, make sure you have the right entity if there are several with similar names, and note the name and address of the registered agent for service of process.
If you are incorporated and the money about which you are suing is money owed to your corporation then use the exact name of your corporation as the plaintiff.
Jurisdiction in this context refers to the county in which you file your lawsuit. Generally you sue people where they live. In other words you must file in the county in which a defendant resides. Once you have an address study a map and if you are still not sure then call the Sheriff's Department in that county, ask for the civil section and inquire if the specific address is in the county.
If you are suing a corporation then the most reliable practice is to sue the corporation in the county in which its registered agent is located. As mentioned above the Secretary of State's website will tell you who the registered agent is and the agent's address for service of process.
To file a lawsuit in Magistrate Court the most straightforward way is to go to the Magistrate Court Clerk's office. Phone numbers are in the blue pages at the back of the business section of the phone book. You get the forms and you fill them out with a pen and file them on the spot. You will need to have done your jurisdiction homework first and you will need cash to file. Bring $100.00, it won't cost that much but you'll be safe that way.
There are three basic documents that you will need to fill out, a Summons, a Statement of Claim, and an Entry of Service. The Summons and the Statement of Claim are combined on many of the Court forms. Click here to see a sample combined Summons and Statement of Claim form. The Summons is basically a piece of paper that tells a defendant that he has been sued and that he has 30 days to file an Answer to the suit or face a default judgment which means the plaintiff wins by default without a trial. The Statement of Claim is piece of paper on which you get to outline why the defendant owes you money. The Entry of Service form in a piece of paper that is primarily filled out by the sheriff's deputy that serves the defendant. It sets forth the manner of the service of the Summons and Complaint, and the date of service. Click here to see a sample Entry of Service form.
The Summons and the Entry of Service forms are straightforward fill in the blank type forms. Read all the words on every page and the forms should be self explanatory. Filling out the Statement of Claim form may require a bit more thought. You want to be extremely brief but you also want to convey the substance of your claim. For example if you did automobile repair work for a person and they did not pay you, your Statement of Claim might read: "Performed automobile repair work per agreement and defendant failed to pay." If you have two related claims you should describe them separately, e.g. "Defendant's misrepresentations caused me to sign the contract and I should get my $1,000.00 up front money back. In addition through Defendant's negligence I suffered $2,000.00 damages to my hardwood floor.
Volumes could be written and have been about how try a case, even a Magistrate Court case. The following will only represent some hopefully useful tidbits.
After you file the defendant will be served with the Summons and Statement of Claim. Typically the defendant files and Answer and sometimes even follows the law and mails you a copy of the Answer. After an Answer is filed the Court will schedule a trial. You must show up, no excuses! Show up early.
Bring your witnesses. If your car has sustained a diminished value you must bring a used car salesman or some other person that can testify as an expert on the diminished value of a vehicle that has been in a collision despite later repairs. Unless you are a used car salesman you better show up with one that can testify as an expert. An expert is a person that has specialized knowledge, training, and experience. You may have learned how much it will cost to fix something or what it will take to remedy some problem but only an expert can testify about these things in court. If there was an eyewitness make sure they will be present.
If you are not sure about the attendance of any witness the Magistrate Court Clerk's office will provide a subpoena form, you fill it out and send it to the witness certified mail, return receipt requested. Keep the white certified mail receipt and have it stamped at the post office window. Keep a copy of your cover letter that you will send with the subpoena. If a subpoenaed witness does not show up you should be able to get the judge to continue your case as a result.
Bring your documents. Almost all cases involve some documents. Bring them. Organize them. Make copies for yourself, the judge, and the other side. The Court may end up with the originals.
Tell your story. Tell it very efficiently. Provide only relevant facts. Magistrate Court judges do not want the soap opera. They are busy and will give you less money if you annoy them. Frequently can present your case in only a few sentences, e.g. "The electrician said he could do the job. I gave him $1,000.00 up front. He took 3 weeks. A lamp shorted out the first night we attempted to use one of the new outlets. Mr. Jones the electrician I have with me here tonight has examined the wiring installed by the defendant and it going to cost me $5,000.00 to repair what the defendant said he would do for $2,000.00.
Do not use hearsay such as "she said", and "I was told". Bring your witnesses, they can say what they said, you can't repeat it.
When you personally present your case you can just tell the judge in a narrative form what happened. When you call witnesses however, you must proceed with questions and answers. In other words you ask a question, get an answer and proceed to the next question. You should not talk over or talk for your witness. It is many times a good strategy to call the defendant as a witness while presenting your case. Ask only straightforward yes or no questions of an adverse witness. Use leading questions such as, "Isn't it true that...," with an adverse witness in your case or on cross examination. Be prepared with documents, photographs, etc. to back up your version of events.
Dress well, do not interrupt the other side even if they are lying, observe the proceedings before you, be polite but don't be afraid to be aggressive or confrontational. If someone on the other side lies, say so when its your turn. Good luck!
Now for the bad part. A judgment in the Magistrate Court is appealable to the State Court or the Superior Court (I'll call them "Big Court") de novo. That means that both side get a fresh start in the appellate court, they get to try their case all over again, this time to a jury if they want. Worse yet the procedures in Big Court are complex enough that you probably will need a lawyer to navigate the system.
Despite the appeal rights proceeding in Magistrate Court can be effective. You may arrive at a settlement. The defendant may default and you get a judgment. The defendant may not appeal an adverse verdict. You may identify flaws in your claim of which you were not aware and may have saved potentially thousands on attorney fees in Big Court on your learning experience.
Any thoroughgoing discussion of how to collect on a judgment once you get one is beyond the reasonable scope of this website, the following will only offer a few hopefully helpful thoughts.
There are three main way to collect on a judgment, continuing garnishment, garnishment, and levy. Continuing garnishment is used to collect over a period of months out of the wages of the judgment debtor. Garnishment is used to collect from the bank account or other person or entity that is holding assets of the judgment debtor. The Clerk's office can provide forms for garnishment or continuing garnishment.
Levy is the process of actually taking possession of someone's stuff and selling on the courthouse steps, pocketing the cash generated at the auction. Levy can be effective but is fraught with potential liability and it can be difficult to get what is the necessary cooperation of the authorities.
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