Small Claims Questions and Answers:
1. What types of cases are generally heard in Small Claims Court and what are the financial limitations of what can be awarded?
Claims for the award of money damages are heard in Small Claims Court, including loan repayment claims, car repair claims, car accident damage claims, and landlord claims for damages to the unit and back rent. The monetary limit is $5,000. In addition, all claims by a tenant for the return of a residential security deposit are heard in Small Claims Court, and there is no monetary limit for those cases.
2. How much does it cost to file a claim, where on Oahu do you file and how soon after you file will the case be heard?
The current filing fee is $35, and the case will be scheduled within 30 days. Cases must be filed in person at the District Court Legal Documents Branch. To find the location of the District Court on your island, go to the Contact Us section and click on the island or circuit where you intend to file the complaint.
3. Is it advisable to send a “demand letter” to the defendant seeking what is owed to prove to the court that an attempt was made to collect the funds?
Depending on the type of case, it might be a good idea to send a demand letter before filing a claim, but it is normally not necessary to prove that previous attempts to collect the funds were made.
4. What types of evidence need to be presented to the judge to prove a case?
What should be presented to the judge is proof of defendant’s liability and of the amounts claimed in damages. This may include the testimony of witnesses, especially the parties; evidence of the agreement or debt, signed documents, written contracts, paid bills or unpaid invoices, repair estimates, copies of texts, emails or letters, and photos. Parties should bring copies of documents for the opposing party and the judge to review. The court will return all documents to the parties when the trial is over.
5. You talk about how evidence proving your claim needs to be presented to the judge. Should a plaintiff wait to do this at the hearing or can the plaintiff attach copies of the evidence when initially filing the claim so that the judge can review it beforehand?
Evidence should be presented at the trial and not included with the complaint.
6. Can cases go to mediation as part of the hearing?
Mediation at court is mandatory in small claims cases on Oahu. Mediators from the Mediation Center of the Pacific are at court and the mediations are usually conducted at the first court date at which both sides are present. During mediation, trained mediators will assist the parties in resolving the dispute themselves. Only if mediation does not resolve a case does the case go to trial before the judge, either that same day or on a later date.
7. How is the defendant notified that a claim has been filed?
The plaintiff serves the complaint on the defendant, by certified mail restricted delivery, in person or on a resident of the defendant’s home, by a civil process server, by any person who is not a party to the case and is over the age of 17, or by the plaintiff with a witness.
8. What happens if a plaintiff or a defendant doesn’t show up on the court date?
If no one appears for plaintiff, the claim will be dismissed. If a properly-served defendant doesn’t show up, a default judgment will in most cases be entered against that defendant, upon plaintiff submitting proof of the amounts claimed.
9. How soon after the hearing will the judge issue a verdict and can it be appealed?
The judge will decide the case at the end of the trial, in court. There is no right to appeal a small claims court decision.
10. If the plaintiff wins, how does the plaintiff collect the judgment?
If the plaintiff wins, the judgment must be prepared in written form and filed with the court. Methods to collect judgments are governed by state and federal laws. The court cannot act as a collection agency; however, the plaintiff, with the help of court forms for collection proceedings, can garnish a defendant’s wages and/or bank accounts to collect the judgment.
11. Will court costs, such as filing fee, be added to the amount of the judgment?
Yes, the judgment will include the principal amount, interest if applicable, the filing fee, service costs, and any out-of-pocket costs that are awarded by the judge.
12. Will the case go on an individual’s record and, if so, will it be visible online for someone doing a background check on that individual?
A civil judgment does not create a “record” like a criminal conviction. However, small claims judgments are public and can be found on on the Judiciary’s website by going to “Search Court Records” and clicking on Ho’ohiki. There are search options that include entering a case number or a party’s name. A judgment against a party can adversely affect their credit rating.
13. Can a party be represented by an attorney, even in security deposit disputes, and can attorney fees be awarded depending on the verdict?
A party can be represented by an attorney in small claims court, but generally attorney’s fees cannot be awarded. Attorneys cannot appear for the landlord or the tenant in security deposit disputes, unless the attorney is the landlord or the tenant and is representing themselves.