County and Small Claims Court – Pinellas and Pasco County
Organization of the County Courts in Florida
- The Constitution establishes a county court in each of Florida’s 67 counties. The number of judges in each county court varies with the population and caseload of the county. To be eligible for the office of county judge, a person must be an elector of the county and must have been a member of The Florida Bar for five years; in counties with a population of 40,000 or less, a person must only be a member of The Florida Bar.
- County judges are eligible for assignment to circuit court, and they are frequently assigned as such within the judicial circuit that embraces their counties.
- County judges serve six-year terms, and they are subject to the same disciplinary standards, and to the jurisdiction of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, as all other judicial officers.
Jurisdiction of the County Courts in Florida
- The trial jurisdiction of county courts is established by statute. The jurisdiction of county courts extends to civil disputes involving $15,000 or less.
- The majority of non-jury trials in Florida take place before one judge sitting as a judge of the county court. The county courts are sometimes referred to as “the people’s courts,” probably because a large part of the courts’ work involves voluminous citizen disputes, such as traffic offenses, less serious criminal matters (misdemeanors), and relatively small monetary disputes. (Source, Florida Courts.org)
Available to Represent You in the County Court and in the Small Claims Court
Numerous articles over the years over the have been written concerning ways in which the members of The Florida Bar can enhance their image and improve their relationship with the public. Many of the discussions have centered on implementing programs which would increase the delivery of legal services to the poor by Florida lawyers. All of these proposals are indeed noble ones and have no doubt provided an avenue for greater representation to those in need of representation, and improved the image of attorneys with the public.
In addition to an attorney’s pro bono and public service activities, daily contact with the public provides an additional opportunity in which to enhance the public’s perception of attorneys. Considering that in 2010 there were over 236,310 cases filed in Florida’s small claims courts, it goes without saying that one particular type of contact we have all had from time to time is a telephone call from a prospective client concerning a potential small claims matter. In instances when it is apparent that the potential cost of legal representation could equal or exceed the amount in controversy, it is important to take a moment to explain the small claims court process to the individual who may elect to appear pro se. An abrupt, “It would cost too much for me to represent you on such a small claim,” although possibly realistic in light of the facts, would be insensitive.
Attorneys should remember that no matter the monetary amount in controversy or the issues involved, any potential claim is of utmost importance to the individual seeking advice. A few moments spent discussing the small claims court procedure will result in the individual being better informed about the small claims court process and available options.
THE SMALL CLAIMS COURT PROCESS
The following outline has been prepared to provide an overview of the Florida Small Claims Court in order to assist the practitioner, who sooner or later, will be contacted by an individual concerning a potential small claims matter.
The small claims court, which is sometimes referred to as the people’s court, hears all actions at law in which the claim for damages or property involved does not exceed $5,000.00 exclusive of costs, interest, and attorneys’ fees.
An action in small claims court is commenced by filing the initial pleading, which is called a statement of claim, with the clerk of the county court, small claims division. The statement of claim informs the defendant of the specific claim being asserted against him or her by the plaintiff.
The potential pro se litigant will be nervous and uncertain about preparing the statement of claim. Reassure the individual that under the small claims court rules enacted by the Florida Supreme Court, the small claims court clerk is instructed to assist in the preparation of a statement of claim and other papers to be filed in a small claims action. However, this does not mean the small claims court clerk will draft the statement of claim or provide legal advice. In addition, you may want to mention that there are approved statement of claim forms contained in the rules. An excellent source for information about the small claims court process and forms can be accessed at the Pinellas Clerk of Court website at the following address: http://clerk.co.pinellas.fl.us. In addition, the Clerk of the Court’s website contains videos that can be viewed online explaining the small claims process and procedures.
Statement of Claim
The caption of the statement of claim should identify the plaintiff and the defendant. If the individual is unsure of the status of the defendant, suggest contacting the secretary of state in Tallahassee to ascertain if the defendant is a corporation. The secretary of state maintains corporate and fictitious name information. Because each claim is different, it is important for the individual to set forth in the statement of claim the specific facts and type of relief being sought.
Check List for Statement of Claim
i) Are all proper plaintiffs named?
ii) Are all proper defendants named?
iii) If the claim is based on a written document, a copy must be attached to the statement of claim.
iv) Is the claim for less than $5,000 exclusive of costs, interest, and attorneys’ fees?
v) Has the proper claim been asserted? (breach of contract, account stated, worthless check, etc.)
The individual should also be informed that the statement of claim is to be filed in the county with proper venue. The criteria for determining proper venue is set forth in Fla.Sm.Cl.R.7.060.
Once the statement of claim is completed and filed, a summons entitled notice to appear, stating the time and place of a hearing, is issued by the small claims clerk. The summons is provided to the defendant along with the statement of claim, notifying the defendant that he or she is being sued and when the first hearing, called the pretrial conference, will take place. There are three methods for serving the summons and statement of claim on a defendant as set forth in Fla.Sm.Cl.R.7.070.
The summons, notice to appear, along with the statement of claim, advise both the plaintiff and defendant of the first date that they are to appear in court. The first court appearance is called the pretrial conference. Both parties must appear at the pretrial conference. If the plaintiff does not appear, the statement of claim may be dismissed. If the defendant does not appear, the plaintiff may be entitled to a default judgment against the defendant. In the event both parties appear at the pretrial conference, the judge or hearing officer will discuss with the parties the possibility of settling the case. In the event the parties agree to settle the case, then a settlement stipulation will be signed by the parties. If it does not appear that the case can be settled at the pretrial conference, the case will be set for trial no more than 60 days from the date of the pretrial conference.
The defendant is entitled to bring a counterclaim against the plaintiff, if such a claim exists. The individual should be advised of the two types of counterclaims – compulsory and permissive – and the time limits for filing such claims. A counterclaim must be filed with the clerk of the small claims court. Unlike the statement of claim, which receives a summons issued by the clerk, the counterclaim must be served on the opposing party. Papers that are to be served on a party must include a certificate of service.
On the day of the trial, all parties must appear. In order to properly present the case, the individual should be advised that organization and proper preparation are the keys to increasing his or her chance to prevail. The parties should make sure that any documents to be used at trial are marked as exhibits and that copies are available for the judge. Witnesses should arrive early and be prepared to testify. It should also be pointed out that at the discretion of the judge, testimony of any party or witness may be presented over the telephone. In addition, an attorney may represent a party or witness over the telephone, if permitted by the judge. In order to secure substantial justice, the small claims court rules also require the judge to assist each party not represented by an attorney with regard to the procedures to be followed, presentation of material evidence, and questions of law. The rules of evidence are also to be liberally construed. Although the trial is to be conducted informally, it still takes place in a court of law. Therefore, the individual should be reminded to use a courteous and respectful manner.
If an individual successfully prevails on the statement of claim or counterclaim, the judge will enter a judgment in the individual’s favor. Collecting a judgment may be a difficult and complex matter. The small claims rules address the limited collection procedures available under those rules. The Pinellas Clerk of the Court’s website also contains helpful information on how to collect a judgment. However, the individual should be cautioned that it may be necessary to consult with an attorney when it comes time to collect the judgment.
In reviewing the small claims process, the prospective pro se litigant should be cautioned to carefully review the applicable rules. Finally, he or she should be reminded that in order to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome, significant effort should be spent by the pro se litigant in preparing the case for court.
+Footnotes deleted (See, Florida Small Claims Court Rules of Procedure 7.010 to 7.350).
*This article originally appeared in the Florida Bar Journal and has since been updated and published in The St. Petersburg Bar Association’s Paraclete in 2011 by its author, Brian Battaglia of Brian Battaglia, P.A.
PLEASE NOTE: This article does not constitute the giving of legal advice but is for educational purposes only. A lawyer should be consulted for your particular problem or issue.