Small Claims Court / Magistrate Court

What is Small Claims Court? What is Magistrate Court?

These are two different ways to describe the same court system. Magistrate Court is the proper term, though it is commonly referred to as simply “small claims court.” Here, we’ll just refer to it as Magistrate Court.

Magistrate Court in Georgia has a cap or ceiling. That means that you cannot sue for more than a certain amount. Here, that sum is $15,000.00. So, you cannot sue anyone in Magistrate Court for even a single penny more than $15,000.00. If you sue for $15,000.01, your case will be transferred to State or Superior Court. That transfer will likely occur without your input and can be initiated by the clerk, the judge, or the opposing party.

Magistrate Court is really a great place to bring your case initially for a variety of reasons – so long as that claim is under $15,000. One reason to bring your claim in Magistrate Court is because the basic rules of evidence and trial presentation are relaxed. What do we mean by relaxed? We simply mean that you won’t see the typically strict rules enforced aggressively. You must still present your case and you must still “meet your burden of proof”, but you’ll be given much more flexibility in the presentation of the evidence. Sometimes that means the judge will just ask questions to get to the heart of your case, sometime that means you just sit at the tables to tell the judge your case, sometimes you just stand in front the judge and tell your side and then the defendant tells their side. It might also mean that “getting evidence in” will not be as difficult or that the judge will simply review evidence, he or she might not otherwise be allowed to see in say State or Superior Court.

Another reason – and possibly the most important reason – to bring your case in Magistrate Court is because the process will move much, much more quickly. One strict bit of the legal process you’ll still have to follow is the filing, service and answer period. Despite the relaxed atmosphere in Magistrate Court, you will still need to properly file your case, cause the defendant(s) to be served, and an Answer must be filed within 30 days of being served with the Complaint. However, once that Answer is filed, most Magistrate Courts will move your case on to a trial calendar relatively quickly – usually you’ll be called in for trial within about 90 days after that answer has been filed.

Here’s a comparison of how certain courts in and around Atlanta move cases along in Magistrate Court. This is based solely on our experience and there is nothing concrete about this timeline or these processes:

  • Gwinnett: Trial usually set for a date within about 90 days after the answer was filed.
  • Cobb: Trial usually set for a date within about 75 days after the answer was filed.
  • Dekalb: Dekalb is slower, and trials are about 3 to 4 months after the answer is filed.
  • Fulton: Fulton always requires mediation before trial; mediation is set about 90 days after the answer. If mediation is unsuccessful, trial is usually about 4 months after the mediation date.
  • Walton: Trial is usually within about 60 days after the answer is filed.
  • Rural Counties: Most rural counties (those that are not in Atlanta or are not considered “metro Atlanta” counties move much quicker (and the people who work there are typically very kind!)

One strategic reason to file your case in Magistrate Court typically requires a clever Small Claims Court Lawyer or Magistrate Court Lawyer. We have used this tactic several times successfully in the past and I’ll share it with you here. You see, a judgment from Magistrate Court can be appealed very, very easily. When appealed – literally for any reason imaginable – the case simply goes to State or Superior Court for a brand-new trial (it’s called a “De Novo” appeal) and the Magistrate Court judgment is essentially “deleted” as though it never happened.

Many litigants (defendants and plaintiffs) know that the judgment can be easily appealed, so they’re just waiting to see what the judgement will be so they can appeal. These “easy appellants” also know that Magistrate Court is not a court of record (there’s no transcript of what anyone said under oath), so they use Magistrate Court merely to draw out the testimony of the other party, review the other party’s evidence, and gauge how a judgment might turn out. They do this so they can modify their own evidence and testimony on appeal and try to change the outcome of the case. This is commonly referred to as a “focus group” trial – because they see the first trial as merely a “focus group” that will give them a lot of information.

But here is how we turn this around on them – you can hire a court reporter for your case! It is as simple as that. Most court reporters charge reasonable fees to appear at court, and you will have to pay them. But if you suspect that the other party is litigious or likely to appeal, you should consider hiring a court reporter. They’ll type out literally everything that is said during trial and create a transcript – you can buy that transcript and use it against the other party in the appeal should they try to change their testimony. This is VERY effective and we think more Magistrate Court litigants should do this.

What is the “burden of proof” in Magistrate Court?

A burden of proof is a fancy way of saying you have to prove your case. The analogy often given is the old adage you hear sometimes when two people argue and one says, “oh yea, well prove it!” You see, it is never, ever enough to simply show up to court. You cannot persuade a judge in Magistrate Court by simply telling him or her what you want or what happened. You must prove your case. In civil cases in Magistrate Court, the person who filed the lawsuit (or a counterclaim) must prove that claim. This often falls to the Plaintiff because the Plaintiff brought the lawsuit.

The actual burden of proof in Magistrate Court is “preponderance of the evidence”. In very general terms, that simply means that you tip the scale ever so slightly in your favor based on the evidence you present. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Presenting a case in Magistrate Court and meeting this burden often requires a clever Small Claims Court Lawyer or Magistrate Court lawyer, and because we’ve tried literally hundreds of cases in Magistrate Court, we can usually sift through the evidence quickly and find the best evidence to help you prove your case.

What Evidence Do I Need to Help Win My Magistrate Court Case?

Every case is different, but it’s best to compile every bit of evidence you have and let a Magistrate Court lawyer sort through it to figure out what is best. Nonetheless, you should look for written documents that you can touch and feel. Those are better than simply telling a judge what someone else said. Remember, you have to prove your case, not simply talk to the judge about what happened. So, print emails, print text messages, print photographs, type up a timeline of event, make copies of leases, and so on. If it relates to your claim, it is possibly important and may be needed at trial in Magistrate Court.

Often, clients ask ‘what about’ questions, like “what about the text messages’ or ‘but what about that email’. The answer is simple – if you’re asking about, it’s important. So, hang on to it and give it to your lawyer.

Many clients also often feel that they don’t have enough evidence. That’s fine. You don’t have to fill a binder full of evidence a foot thick in order to prove your case. But there is usually some evidence available. For example, when there is no binding contract for, say, the repayment of a loan, clients often have text messages from the debtor promising to pay. That is sometimes enough to prove the existence of an agreement to repay, so print the texts!

A few words about text and email evidence:

Picture a huge dump truck full of debris and pretend that debris is all of the texts or emails you have from someone. You simply cannot back that dump truck up to the judge’s bench and dump it all out for the judge to sort through. You are practically guaranteeing a loss if you do, because no one will sort through that evidence for you. You must sort it yourself – find the evidence that best supports your claims – the ones that directly discuss the matter or that direct demonstrate an agreement. Information dumps do not win cases – evidence does.

Also, print the documents, print the texts, print the emails. NEVER expect a judge in Magistrate Court to look at anything on your laptop or mobile phone – it simply will not work. You must bring the evidence to trial. We have seen countless times a party who is present at trial say to the judge “well, it’s on my computer, I can print that and get it to you.” Without hesitation, nearly every judge will say: “Hey, this is your trial date, right now is the time for that evidence. If you don’t have it today, it doesn’t exist and [the judge] will not consider evidence that is not here at this trial.”

ALWAYS print photos IN COLOR. It’s best if your print these in large format, like the size of a typical sheet of paper, but if all you can get is a 3x5 photo, at least print it in color.

AS TO TEXT MESSAGES: do not print screen shots and hope to piece those together at trial. Download an app for your specific phone that will download the texts and display them in chronological order.

For iPhone: you can click here for a good article about downloading texts.

For Android: click here for an android specific article about saving texts.

Do I Need To Bring Witnesses to Magistrate Court? / Can I Bring A Witness to Magistrate Court?

Yes, absolutely. Witnesses are often crucial to a successful case. You must consider ‘hearsay’ problems that would arise if you fail to bring a witness. Here’s a quick overview of hearsay so you’ll understand, hopefully, why a witness is critical:

Hearsay is a fun legal term that most people don’t understand, including some lawyers. What is hearsay? Hearsay is any statement or evidence you want to use at your trial that was said by someone else or created by someone else. That’s a broad statement, isn’t it? That covers practically everything, doesn’t it? That’s right – that’s why hearsay objections can be so harmful to your case. But knowing what hearsay is, how do you beat it?

An email you sent that you created is not hearsay. That email would be admissible. If the Defendant is IN COURT and you have emails that defendant sent you, those emails would be admissible (set a proper foundation though by asking the defendant ‘what is your email address’ and ‘did you send this email to me’). The point is – that person is PRESENT in court and can be asked questions about the emails or statements. And that’s the clearest, easiest way to defeat hearsay – ‘the person is here, judge, and can be cross examined about these statements or evidence.’

Now we circle back to witnesses. If that witness can help your case, get that witness to court. You may have to subpoena that witness, or you may be able to offer payment (be sure to clarify that you are paying for their time and appearance and that you are not paying for particular testimony (ie: you’re not trying to offer money to force them say something they otherwise would not say)). So, say for example you have an estimate for car repair. That estimate is hearsay, plain and simple – it’s a piece of evidence that would be helpful to your case, you want to use it at trial, but it was created by someone else who is not you. That’s hearsay.

But, if you can get the person who created that estimate to come to court and talk about it, then it comes in as evidence and the judge can consider it. The reason the law forbids hearsay is simply because that evidence would otherwise be far too easy to fabricate or falsify, and the law seeks to protect against that. So, when the witness shows up and testifies about the estimate, that person will likewise talk about their experience (in this example) of working on cars, the value of labor, the common costs of parts, how the estimate was compiled and much more. That gives everyone more assurance that the estimate is accurate and will help everyone understand the case better.

Affidavits or signed statements will NEVER be admitted at trial – do not try it, do not rely on it. The person who signed the affidavit must appear and testify.

What Things Can You Sue For In Magistrate Court?

Practically anything, as long as the law allows you to do so. In Magistrate Court, we routinely represent clients who have car damage from body shops, car washes, collisions, vandalism, botched repairs, and the like. We represent clients who loaned money without signed contracts and even those who got a signed contract from the debtor promising to repay. We represent clients who bought a car and the dealer failed to provide a title. We represent clients who had an oil change and then their engine seized because little or no oil was put back in the car. We represent homeowners who hired shady contractors who ran off with the money, and homeowners whose contractors just did bad work. We have defended clients who have been sued to return an engagement ring when the wedding didn’t go forward. We represent clients whose furniture was damaged during a move. We represent people being sued by the State for receiving unemployment benefits when the State claims the client wasn’t owed anything.

Simply put, if you’re concerned about it and want to file suit, we can help in Magistrate Court. But there are a few examples of cases we cannot help with, and these are just examples: you likely cannot sue solely because someone hurt your feelings or said nasty things to you. Many callers incorrectly believe that falls under an “infliction of emotional distress case” but it does not. Likewise, in contract cases, we will not make up or fabricate an inflated bill for clients simply so the client can try to get ‘more money’ from the Defendant. That is fraud on the court and we won’t be part of that (yes, we were recently told by a prospective client to falsify our bills for that client so they could get more money at trail – we refused to represent that client). We likewise cannot sue for “personal injuries and pain and suffering” in a contract case; in contract cases, you sue for the contract matters, and contract law does not allow you to recover for pain and suffering (if you are physically injured some other way, though, then you would have a Magistrate Court case for those personal injuries and you could claim compensation for pain and suffering).

What Does it Cost to Hire a Magistrate Court Lawyer? / What Does it Cost to Hire a Small Claims Court Lawyer?

It always depends on a variety of factors. In most cases, our minimum retainer is about $2,500. This retainer can vary, though, depending on a variety of factors.

Say for example that you have been sued and are the defendant in a small claims magistrate court lawsuit. The retainer for you may be a bit less because there is a little less work to do filing an Answer compared to filing a complaint. This obviously presumes that you have not yet filed your answer (see paragraph below). We’ll draft and file the Answer and go to court with you to try your case.

Conversely, if you are a defendant and have already filed your answer and now seek to have a Magistrate Court lawyer go to court with you, your fees could be a bit higher. That sounds strange at first, though, doesn’t it? Why? That’s because a proper legal answer requires that you preserve proper defenses (typically founds in 9-11-12(b)) and if you didn’t put those in your answer, we’ll have to file an Amended Answer and clean up the answer for you to make sure your rights are protected.

Our suggestion for Defendants in Magistrate Court is that you hire a Magistrate Court lawyer first before you file an Answer. That may help keep your costs down a little bit. The fee for Plaintiffs is often a bit more simply because there is a good bit of work that goes into filing suit and getting a defendant served; the Defendant, on the other hand, typically does not have to worry with those issues.

Simply put, the fees for a Magistrate Court Lawyer vary, but we tend to charge very reasonable retainers for representation in Magistrate Court and Small Claims Court.

Can I Ask for Attorney’s Fees in Magistrate Court?

Absolutely – and you always should, so long as you actually hired a Magistrate Court Lawyer. The law allows for the Judge in your Small Claims Court case to award attorney’s fees, but doing so is always at the judge’s discretion. This means the judge may award attorney’s fees, but it also means the judge may not award attorneys fees. In our experience, though, the judge will typically grant attorney’s fees to the Plaintiff if the Defendant had no real defenses. This happens a lot in cases we try.

For a Defendant, a claim for attorneys fees against the Plaintiff is more difficult. Essentially, you’d have to prove that the Plaintiff’s claim had no basis in law or in fact and was brought solely for the purpose of harassment. That is easier said than done, so be aware that if you are a defendant in a small claims court suit, you may not be able to recover attorneys fees, but will typically always request that they be paid by the opposing party.

How Does a Defendant Learn that they’ve been Sued?

The defendant must be served by legal means. That means the sheriff or marshall must hand deliver the paperwork to each named defendant. You’ll need to provide a valid address for that defendant so that the sheriff can find that person and get the paperwork delivered. Occasionally there are alternative methods for proper service, but you must be able to show that you diligently tried to serve the defendant before those alternative methods can be allowed.

Often if the sheriff cannot make good service, you may need to hire a private investigator or private process server to find the Defendant and a good address. This can take time and it always costs additional money. But if you have not served the defendant, you have no case. So finding and serving the defendant is always necessary in your Small Claims Court case.

We have seen several defendants dodge or avoid service in the past. That can be frustrating to everyone. But remember that without service on the defendant, there is no case. Period. So you will need to take all the necessary steps to find and serve the defendant in order to preserve your case.

How do I Hire a Lawyer in this Firm to Represent Me in My Small Claims Court Case?

We offer a variety of ways to make this process very easy. We accept payment through Paypal, Venmo, and Cashapp, and can simply email a contract to you to print and execute. Alternatively, if you wish to meet in person, we can arrange an in-person consultation, though sometimes a fee is required for in-person consultations, typically about $100.00.

Does a Small Claims Court Lawyer Go to Court With Me?

Once you hire a lawyer from our firm in a Small Claims Court or Magistrate Court matter, that lawyer will absolutely go to court with you and will help you try your case. That means that the lawyer will do most of the talking, will sort through your evidence, and will put up the appropriate witnesses that will help make your case. The lawyer will also cross-examine the defendants. You may be placed on the witness stand as well, but your lawyer will ask you questions aimed at helping you prove your case.

Do I Have to Go to Magistrate Court or Can I Just Send the Magistrate Court Lawyer For Me?

In Magistrate Court (really, in all courts), you – the client – must be present. You are the key witness to your case and no one else can make the case for you. Since there is no such thing as a “slam dunk” case, we always require our clients to attend trial and to be prepared to testify. We will, however, offer you advice about testifying and what you can expect. The answers, though, will always come from you. But we will make sure you are prepared to testify.

What Happens in Magistrate Court? What is the Procedure?

Most Magistrate Court courtrooms operate on a ‘calendar’ basis. That means that as cases become ready (complaint filed, defendant served, defendant filed their answer), the courts place the case (Smith v. Jones, for example) on a calendar. They then notify everyone, including their Small Claims Court Lawyer, about the calendar, the trial date and time, and the assigned courtroom numbers.

NOTE: If you have hired a Small Claims Court Lawyer to represent you, you should always notify that lawyer by text and email when you receive a court-date or trial notice. Sometimes the court clerks mess up and only send the notice to one person. To avoid confusion, always let your lawyer know that you have received a court date or trial notice

Once at court on your assigned date and time, you will see a number of other parties and litigants in the courtroom. Magistrate Court judges often bring in about 10 cases per trial date, and all of those other cases will be listed on the judge’s trial calendar. When the judge enters, he or she will make a few brief remarks and will read the case names from the calendar, typically in the order listed. So they’ll call the first case, Smith v. Jones, and the parties are expected to stand and let the judge know that they are present. So Smith would stand and say, “I am Smith, I am here”, and Jones would likewise stand and say, “I am Jones, I am here.” The judge then will likely ask how many witnesses each party has, the length of time their case will require (be realistic here, no case takes merely fifteen minutes, so say 1 hour), and may ask if you are interested in mediation. Then those parties will sit and the judge will go on through the calendar in the same manner.

Concerning mediation, if you do not have a lawyer, you should always take the option to try mediation. It is often free, paid for by the court. And it often occurs just outside the courtroom. That means that if you can’t resolve it, you simply go back in and try your case when the judge is ready for you.

Why try mediation? Often, it is a very good method to resolve your case. It is informal and a neutral mediator will hear all the evidence very quickly. Good mediators will often tell you what a likely trial outcome will be, too, based on what evidence they hear, so that sometimes can persuade a party to resolve the case rather than take the risk of trial.

Also, mediation gives you still another chance to hear what arguments the other party is likely to make, though they likely will not realize they’re doing so. That means you’ll gain some insight from mediation and can plan your case accordingly so you can better try your case. If you have hired a Small Claims Court Lawyer, the lawyer will decide whether to mediate.

When the judge is ready for your case, you and your lawyer will sit at one table, and the other party will sit at the other table. Opening arguments can be made, but should be very short. Then the Plaintiff will present evidence and testimony. When that is completed, the defendant gets to ask questions that the Plaintiff must answer under oath. When the Plaintiff has no more evidence to present, the process repeats for the Defendant, and the Plaintiff gets to ask the Defendant questions that the Defendant must answer.

At the conclusion of the evidence, the judge will make a ruling, though they may “take the matter under advisement” and issue a ruling in the following days.

Can a Magistrate Court Judgment Be Appealed?

Yes, but only within thirty days of the date the judgment is issued. To do so, you must file a notice of appeal and pay the appropriate costs to the clerk. If you miss the 30 day deadline to appeal, then you cannot appeal at all, period. Neither party needs a reason to appeal from a Magistrate Court Judgment (whereas when appealing from State or Superior Court judgments, one must articulate proper, legal reasons for the appeal and the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court of Georgia can deny the appeal). That means you can appeal simply because you want to for whatever reason. Many defendants will appeal simply to drag the case out and hope to win through attrition (reducing your willingness to fight by prolonging the battle).

When appealed, it is important to know that you have only 30 days to request a Jury Trial and to request that you be permitted to conduct discovery. If you fail to do this, the State or Superior Court Judges and their staff are legally obligated to place your appealed case on the next available bench trial (no jury, just a judge) calendar. Be mindful that once your case comes on for trial in front of a State or Superior Court Judge, you are now in ‘big boy court’, so all the rule of evidence and the rule of law apply – gone then are the relaxed methods you may have encountered in Magistrate Court.

I Just Have a Question About My Case – Can You Just Answer Those for Me For Free?

If you have already hired a Small Claims Court lawyer from this firm to represent you in your Small Claims case, we are happy to answer questions by email, text or telephone any time.

If, however, you are calling to ask generic questions about procedure or how to fill out documents, we cannot answer those questions for free. We are a private law firm and we routinely represent people from all walks of life, and we do all we can for our clients. But we are not legal aid and cannot tell you how to handle your case or how to file your paperwork or what evidence your need for your case or what you need to do next.

The best way to get answers to those questions is to simply:

A) retain a small claims court lawyer from our firm to represent you and to do the work for you; or
B) pay a small consultation fee ($50.00) for a 30-minute telephone conversation and ask all of the questions you can think of.

Alternatively, there may be clinics or legal aid available to you at no out of pocket cost, and they may be able to give you a great deal of information and advice specific to your case.