How to Sue in New York City's Small Claims and Commercial Claims Courts

Litigation has become a part of ordinary business life. As a business owner, you may need to resort to the courts in order to settle disputes. Unless you are very experienced, legal counsel is recommended for most limitations. For smaller claims, however, hiring an attorney may not be the most cost-effective solution. Individuals may sue in New York City's Small Claims Court, while corporations, partnerships and associations may sue in Commercial Claims Court, without an attorney, for claims up to a maximum of $3,000.

I. Filing the Claim

Claims for both Small Claims and Commercial Claims Court are filed at the New York City Civil Court Building, 111 Centre Street, New York City in Room 322 from 9:00 -- 4:30 pm from Mondays through Fridays. On Thursdays, the office is open from 5:00 -- 9:00 pm, in Room 118. In order to file a claim, the person or entity you are suing must live or work or have a place of business in New York County.

The cost of filing an individual claim is $10 for an amount of $1,000 or less and $15 for amounts over $1,000 to a maximum of $3,000. The fee for a commercial claim is $22.84, cash only. Exact change is required. While there is no limit to the number of claims an individual may file, commercial claims are limited to a maximum of five per calendar month. In addition, both individual and commercial claims are limited to a maximum of three claims filed in any one day. The forms require the name and address of the party that you are suing, a brief description of the claim, and the dollar amount of the claim. A sample description may state "claim for unpaid invoices" or "breach of contract".

Once you have paid the fees and submitted the form to the clerk, you have filed the claim. The court clerk will then send out notices of the trial date to the person or entity that you are suing by regular and certified mail. The clerk will give you the trial date when you file the claim. Usually, it will take approximately 5 weeks from the date of the filing.

II. Court Appearance

On the date of the trial, you must answer the calendar call. During the calendar call, the clerk of the court reads the list of cases scheduled for that evening and notes if the parties have appeared. If the person you are suing does not show up, then you have won by default and can go immediately for an inquest, which is a trial to determine damages.

The calendar call starts at 6:30 pm promptly and defaults are taken if you are not present. The notice sent out by the clerk will state 6:10 pm as the time to appear and it is a good idea to get there early to check the list of cases posted outside the courtroom. This list will tell you where your case will be on the calendar for that evening.

The clerk will read the instructions in both English and Spanish. The list is only read once. If you do not hear your case called, you may have an opportunity at the end of the calendar call to explain to the clerk that your case was not called and to determine the status of your case.

When your case is called, stand and say your name, for individual claims, or the name of your company, for commercial claims. If you want to see the judge, also add "By the Court" after your name or the name of your company. If either party requests "By the Court," then the case will go before the judge. The judge may not hear all the cases that evening, in which case, you will have to come back another day. Cases heard before the judge must conform to evidentiary rules such as hearsay. If arbitration is acceptable, then just stand and say the name you have filed under. Arbitrations are heard that evening by volunteer attorneys. Although arbitration is a shorter process, an arbitrator's decision is not appealable.

Regardless of whether you decide to go before the judge or an arbitrator, bring your witnesses, original copies of all contracts, invoices, documents, and all other evidence with you to court. You will need the evidence to present your claim or to prove your damages at inquest. If you cannot obtain the evidence in time or you cannot go forward for any reason on that evening, you may ask for an adjournment.

III. Adjournment

Only the judge may grant an adjournment. So if you are not ready to go before the judge on the trial date, state "Application" after your company name when answering the calendar call. You will be called before the judge to explain your need for an adjournment.

IV. Settlement

If both parties appear and come to a mutually satisfactory agreement while waiting for the case to be heard by either the judge or the arbitrator, then the parties may fill out a stipulation of settlement. Stipulations of settlement forms are available from the clerk. Give a copy to the clerk who enters the settlement in the court records and copies to each party.

V. Judgments

The judgment is mailed to the plaintiff by the court. If the defendant does not pay the amount of the judgment within thirty days, the plaintiff may then contact a marshal or sheriff to enforce the judgment.

This article is merely intended as a general guide. Any inquiries concerning specific matters should be addressed to the Court or an experienced attorney. The information line is for both Small Claims and Commercial Claims Courts is 212-374-5779.

Judy J. Kim is an attorney specializing in commercial litigation with the law firm of Leitner & Getz LLP. She received her B.A. from Columbia University and J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. This article may be reprinted only by written permission of the author. (The views expressed by the author does not necessarily express the opinions or views of Asian Women In Business)

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