Palm Beach County attorney Lloyd Comiter presented a small claims lawsuit and mediation clinic at the Wellington library on Wednesday, May 8 on behalf of the Palm Beach County Bar Association.
The purpose of the presentation was to give an overview of how to navigate small claims court without having to hire an attorney and to provide contact information for resources to help in that effort.
Comiter, who has been an attorney since 1991, has been conducting these clinics for more than a decade. The bar association offers other lectures and a lawyer referral service. They can be reached at (561) 687-3266, or visit www.palmbeachbar.org.
The Florida Bar has a “find a Florida lawyer” link on its web site at www.floridabar.org. It also provides links to the rules of small claims court, which Comiter said is “must read” material.
Comiter said the most important first step is to select the right venue in which to sue the defendant. He said that you must sue in the place where the defendant lives, in the case of a corporation, at the address where the corporation is registered.
Small claims cases in Wellington and the western communities are heard at the Belle Glade courthouse.
Comiter offered tips on avoiding the need for a lawsuit. He said in a transaction, always communicate clearly.
“Say what you want to say and listen. Document clearly the date, time, name and what was discussed,” he said. “Read everything you are going to sign, and if you do not understand something, do not sign it.”
There are other ways to settle situations before filing a suit.
“Mediation is the best way to resolve a dispute,” Comiter said. “But everyone needs to agree to go to mediation and comply with the decision.”
If the parties can’t agree to settle the dispute by mediation, then the plaintiff, the one filing suit, can choose to move on and walk away, as pursuing the matter will cost more money, and if one did hire an attorney, the cost could easily exceed the loss that caused you to sue in the first place.
Finally, there is the choice to litigate, Comiter highly suggested the plaintiff read the rules of small claims court. These can be found at www.floridabar.org.
“Read rules 7.010 through 7.300, which isn’t as long as it sounds,” said Comiter, who also recommended locating forms 7.310 through 7.350 while on the site.
Other web sites with valuable information are www.mypalmbeachclerk.com with instructions and forms, www.15thcircuit.com where judges have a page with information about them and instructions on how they conduct business, and www.leg.state.fl.us where one can read the Florida state laws.
Comiter also said to read Florida Statues Chapter 47 for a clear understanding of the venue.
“File suit in the wrong place and the first thing that happens is the defendant asks for and receives a change of venue, and you have to file again and pay the filing fee again,” he said.
“Service is just as important,” said Comiter who explained that informing the defendant correctly that they are being sued is how the judge acquires jurisdiction over the case. “Serve the correct person. For an individual, that has to be a person 15 and over who lives at the address. For a corporation, you serve the registered agent, and you find out who the registered agent is by using www.sunbiz.org.”
If all this do-it-yourself work finds you needing someone to talk to, there is a self-service center in the courthouse open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. that can answer general questions. “But they can’t answer legal questions about your case,” Comiter said. “That would be practicing law without a license.”
While small claims court only handles suits for the principal up to $5,000, this is not including court costs, attorney fees and interest.
“In your court papers, keep it short and simple, just tell who did what to whom and when,” he said, adding that last year, each of the nine judges heard some 4,757 cases.
For your evidence, have clear, complete copies of the entire contract. Remember, hearsay is not allowed. “Don’t bring in a letter from an expert, bring in the expert and make sure you have quality experts,” Comiter said.
All this work, and e-filing, can be done online by yourself.
Usually, a judge hears the case. “You can request a jury trial, but last year, out of 26,000 small claims cases, there were two jury trials,” Comiter said.
You should also be sure that all the correct people get the paperwork.
“When mailing to the court or the judge, you must mail a copy to the other side,” Comiter said.
The court proceedings begin with a pre-trial conference. “Be in the right place at the right time. Be early,” he said, suggesting half an hour so you could be relaxed, relieved and ready.
Comiter recommended bringing copies of all the right material, all organized, a list of witnesses — not the actual witnesses — and your calendar, so when they go to set up a future court date, you don’t have to change it later.
Bring someone for moral support if you think you’ll need them, and an interpreter if you don’t speak English fluently. In a civil trial, you have to supply your own interpreter.
The action begins with mandatory mediation but be prepared for your trial.
You should have your subpoenas ready for your witnesses and observe other trials, so you know what’s going on, where to sit, how to act and dress. Be early and focused. Be prepared, keep it short and simple. Be respectful of everyone in the room. Be organized, professional and civil. Speak when spoken to and listen. The plaintiff goes first, then the defendant.
If you are the plaintiff and you win your case, remember that a judgment is only a piece of paper. Make a demand for payment, certify and record the judgment so it becomes a public record.
Comiter continued his tips saying after the judgment to contact the defendant, let them know you’re not going away.
He said to file a judgment lien after 30 days for a lien on personal property.
“It is more effort,” Comiter said. “But do it. You’ve gone this far.”
If you do not have an attorney, you can have a “hearing in aid of execution.” This is an information sheet that has to be filled out with financial records. Defendants also often get in trouble for not complying with court orders, Comiter said. They can’t get in trouble for not paying, but they can go to jail for not complying with court orders.
If and when the judgment is satisfied, record a satisfaction of judgment, or as the plaintiff, you can get in trouble for not recording this paperwork.