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District Court vs. Small Claims Court – It’s Not Just the Amount at Stake

In the movie Sliding Doors, the simple act of catching or missing a particular train led the main character’s life down two drastically different potential paths. While certainly not as dramatic, a similar divergent path can appear when considering whether to file your claim in small claims court or district court. The recent increase in the maximum amount that can be sought in small claims court may make this decision even more difficult. The ability to file a claim on your own, without an attorney, is certainly appealing. However, there are certain drawbacks that may make the decision harder than it might initially appear. What follows are two tales of the same lawsuit – one filed in small claims court and the other in district court. To make things interesting, we will examine what can happen in small claims court to slow things down and what can happen in district court to do the opposite.

Small Claims Court
After filing in small claims court, the trial is scheduled for some time within the next thirty days. Unfortunately, for the trial to move forward, the defendant must be served in advance. If, for whatever reason, the defendant cannot be served, then the hearing must be postponed. Once the defendant is served, he or she may appear and defend the suit. Even if the defendant does not appear, however, the decision of the small claims court can be appealed to the district court within ten days following the judgment. At that point, the plaintiff must continue the case in district court and will probably need to hire an attorney. Obviously, it can be extremely frustrating to start a lawsuit in small claims court, hoping for a swift conclusion, only to find yourself starting over in district court a few months later.

District Court
Any delay in serving the defendant will obviously also delay the proceedings, but there is no impending hearing date that must be postponed. Once the defendant is served, there are two possible options: he or she will either respond timely or will default. If there is not a timely response, then obtaining a default judgment is ordinarily a quick process. If the defendant responds and essentially admits the allegations, then a judgment based on those admissions takes slightly longer, but can still be relatively fast (of course, these options are also available if the defendant appeals a small claims decision).

There are other factors that obviously come into play as well. One of the most overlooked is that a small claims action can only be started in the county where the defendant is located, while there is often more flexibility in a district court action. The filing fees for small claims court are slightly smaller and, of course, there is the possibility of avoiding paying an attorney. The purpose of this discussion is not to advocate for one court or the other, but only to highlight the possibility that just because a claim can be brought in small claims court does not automatically mean that it should be brought in small claims court.

About Joe Davies

Joe’s practice focuses on construction law, landlord-tenant disputes, business and shareholder disputes, and employment matters. Joe practices throughout the state trial and appellate courts of North Carolina, and is also admitted to each of the Federal District Courts in North Carolina. Joe is also admitted in Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia, although he is currently inactive in both jurisdictions.
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