Minneapolis residents Jerry and Marge are at each others' throats. Marge rented a room to Jerry for two months, but Jerry refused to pay Marge for the last week. He claims he spent the last week in a hotel because Marge's coming and going late at night kept him awake. Jerry doesn't believe he should have to pay Marge for the week, but Marge insists Jerry owes her $500. Because they live in Minnesota, Marge has decided to sue Jerry for the money in Conciliation Court -- also known as small claims court.
Cases Heard in Conciliation Court
Minnesota law establishes conciliation courts in each county for people who have disputes over money or property worth up to $15,000. Conciliation courts have less formal procedures and lower filing fees than District Court and don't require attorney representation.
Even though she doesn't need an attorney to represent her, Marge consulted an attorney before she filed her claim to get advice on how the law applied to her situation and to see whether she had a legitimate claim. She didn't want to spend the money to file a claim only to have it thrown out.
Marge's claim represents a type of case commonly heard in conciliation court: disputes between landlords and tenants. Other examples of common cases include disputes over unpaid wages or sales of personal property.
Filing a Claim
Minnesota residents must fill out a Statement of Claim and Summons to file a claim in conciliation court. In most cases, that claim must be filed in the county where the defendant lives. If the claim is against a business owner, the claim should be filed in the county where the business is located. Because Marge's dispute with Jerry concerns his rental of a room in her house, however, she needs to file her claim in the county where her house is located.
The statement of claim must include the full names and addresses of both the plaintiff and defendant, along with a summary of the facts of the case and the amount the plaintiff believes she is owed by the defendant. The Minnesota Attorney General recommends including as many specific times, dates and places as possible in the factual summary.
When the claim is filed, the court charges a filing fee and a law library fee. Although the amount of these fees varies in each county, they usually are less than $100.
The claim must be signed in front of a court clerk or notary public, then served on the defendant. For claims such as Marge's that are under $2,500, the court administrator's office files the claim. If the claim is over that amount, it's the plaintiff's responsibility to serve the defendant using certified mail.
Date Set for Hearing
After a few weeks, both Marge and Jerry receive notice from the court that a date has been set to hear the claim. Both are expected to show up at the courthouse on the day and time listed on the notice unless they settle their case beforehand. If Jerry decides it's not worth the hassle and pays Marge her $500, Marge must notify the court in writing that her claim has been settled. But instead Jerry files a counterclaim against Marge for the $1,200 he spent on the hotel that week. Jerry reasons he wouldn't have gone to the hotel if Marge hadn't kept him up at night, so she should have to pay for putting him out. Conciliation court rules require counterclaims to be filed at least five days before the date set for the hearing.
At the Hearing
On the date of the hearing, both Marge and Jerry bring all documents related to their respective claims. For example, if Marge had Jerry sign a contract when he rented the room, she would need to bring that contract to show the judge. Jerry needs to bring receipts or statements from the hotel to prove his expenses. The hearing itself is relatively informal, with the judge giving both Marge and Jerry the opportunity to present their claims and defenses. Unless Marge and Jerry settle at the hearing, they must wait to receive notice of the court's judgment.
A few days later, Marge and Jerry receive notification that the judge has dismissed Jerry's counterclaim and found for Marge on her claim, ruling that Jerry owes Marge $500 plus her costs in filing the claim and collection. The decision doesn't become final for 20 days from the date on the notice's postmark. This stay period gives Jerry the opportunity to file an appeal if he believes the decision was wrong. Jerry doesn't want to file an appeal, however, because he's tired of the whole dispute.
Even though Marge has won her claim, she must collect the money from Jerry herself. If Jerry doesn't pay the total amount owed by the day the judgment becomes final, Marge must take additional steps to enforce the judgment.
Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.