If you're involved in a legal dispute in Florida, and the value of the matter in contention is less than $5,000, your best bet may be to take your case to small claims court. These cases are heard in county courts, in either the small claims or summary procedure divisions.
Filing a Claim
First, head to the local office of the clerk of the court and fill out the appropriate forms for beginning a case in small claims court. You'll need two basic forms -- the statement of claim and the notice, or service of process. After filing the statement of claim with the court, you, as the plaintiff, must ensure that the defendant receives a copy of both the claim and the notice:
- Send the material to a Florida resident defendant via the U.S. Postal Service by certified mail.
- For a non-Florida defendant or a Florida corporation, it's necessary for the county sheriff in the defendant's county of residence or location to serve these papers. This is also necessary if the Florida defendant refused to accept the papers sent by certified mail.
- You can hire a legal process server to serve papers.
It's crucial that these papers are served correctly. If done improperly, your suit may be dismissed.
The Plaintiff's Case
You must provide documentation proving:
- the defendant owes the money
- the exact amount owed
- the plaintiff -- either an individual or a business -- owns the debt.
If the plaintiff can't prove any of these claims, it's likely the case will be dismissed.
Once the papers are served, all parties must attend a pretrial conference. If the defendant doesn't show up, it's likely a judgment will be entered against him. At this meeting, the judge reviews all documents. It is possible that, at this point, the parties may settle the case, or it can be referred to mediation.
In mediation, the opposing parties attempt to work out an agreement of the dispute through the services of a mediator, usually a professional, neutral third party. If the mediation process doesn't work, the case may proceed to trial.
Although you don't need an attorney to represent you at the trial, it's advisable to get some form of legal advice. If the defendant fails to appear, it's likely the judge will enter a default judgment against him. If there is a trial, both parties must follow all the rules of law and provide relevant documents and witnesses. After hearing the case, the judge makes a decision and enters a judgment. If the case is decided in favor of the plaintiff, the judgment will record the amount due, which may include fees accrued by the plaintiff in pursuing the case.
Even if you win the case, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll get your money immediately. The court doesn't make the defendant pay per se when issuing the judgment -- it's up to you as the plaintiff to collect. However, after you receive a Writ of Possession or Writ of Execution from the court, you may be able to freeze the defendant's bank account, garnish his wages or place a lien on his property to satisfy the judgment.