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The Judge in Small Claims Court Was Wrong. Can I Appeal?

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In a Nutshell

Unlike other types of lawsuits, not everyone has a right to appeal a small claims case. This article will explore how small claims appeals differ by state. It is important to understand how your state deals with small claims appeals specifically, as rules vary significantly from state to state.

Written by Natasha Wiebusch, J.D..  
Updated October 1, 2021


Are you suing someone? Are you being sued? Is it for a small amount of money? If your answer to one or more of these is “yes,” then you’re likely dealing with a case that has been filed in small claims court. Unfortunately, not everyone wins their case at the trial, especially if you didn't prepare well. Maybe the judge didn't believe your side of the case, or maybe you missed a hearing date. 

If you're navigating this kind of challenge, you'll need to determine what, if any, appeal rights you have. Unlike other types of lawsuits, not everyone has a right to appeal a small claims case. This article will explore how small claims appeals differ by state. It is important to understand how your state deals with small claims appeals specifically, as rules vary significantly from state to state. 

Ways Small Claims Appeals Differ From State to State

Maximum Claim Value

Small claims are claims valued under a certain amount. They’re typically handled by a special division of a state court called small claims court. In most cases, small claims courts are located in the same courthouse as other kinds of cases being tried. 

For example, in California, small claims court is managed within the California superior courts. Superior courts are just the trial courts of California's state government. In other states, they're often called district courts. But federal courts are also called district courts. So, if you're suing someone in small claims court, make sure you don't try to file paperwork with the federal district court.

What is considered a “small claim” will depend on state law. For example, in Wisconsin, $10,000 is the maximum value a claim can be if it’s filed in small claims court. In Texas, it’s $20,000. In some states, claim limits are lower for personal injury claims than for other claims. Just as with the maximum claim value, small claims procedures differ among states.

Limited Appeal Rights

Some states don't allow appeals in small claims court. Other states allow an appeal by the defendant but not the plaintiff. The defendant is the person being sued. The plaintiff is the person who files a lawsuit.

In states where only the defendant can appeal, courts will usually allow the plaintiff to appeal a counterclaim if the court rules against them. A counterclaim is when the defendant decides to bring a lawsuit of their own against the plaintiff. It's called a counterclaim because it’s the defendant's claim filed in response to the plaintiff's claim.

In some states, only questions of law can be appealed. Questions of fact cannot be appealed. A question of law is a question about whether the lower court interpreted the law correctly. A question of fact is a question about whether the lower court interpreted and applied the facts correctly. In some states, you can get a completely new trial (a do-over) for questions of law and of fact.

Default Judgments

In small claims courts, you usually can't appeal a default judgment. A default judgment is a judgment made against you for a procedural reason. Courts usually issue default judgments when a party misses a court deadline or simply does not show up to their court date.

If the court issues a default judgment, you can still ask the court to vacate the judgment. You can ask for a new trial, often called a trial de novo. To do this, you would need to file a motion, which is a written request for a court order. In this case, the motion would be a request for the court to vacate the judgment and allow you to effectively “restart” the small claims process. The procedures to file a motion to vacate a default judgment vary from state to state. Some states will allow an appeal of a court’s decision to deny a motion to vacate a default judgment.

Filing an Appeal

The first step to take when appealing a judge's decision is to file your notice of appeal. The notice of appeal is just a document letting the court know that you will be appealing the decision. If you file an appeal, you're considered the appellant, and the other party is the appellee.

You’ll usually have 10-30 days to file your notice of appeal. The amount of time allowed depends on the state, so check your state’s rules. A few states have an appeal period of fewer than 10 days. Since appeal time limits are very strict, you must find out your state's procedure and act within the timeframe given. Find out when the period to file the appeal starts and ends. For example, does it start with the entry of the judgment or the date the clerk mailed it to you?

Jury Trials on Appeal

A jury trial usually only happens when you first file (or respond to) a small claims case. At a small claims trial, you can submit evidence and subpoena witnesses. A subpoena is an order by the court that requires a person to come to the court or to provide requested documents. A jury trial is one that is decided by a group of regular people from the community.

A few states allow jury trials in small claims court appeals, though this is uncommon. A court of appeals usually just holds an appeal hearing. The process of submitting evidence and issuing subpoenas to have witnesses come to court is a long process that doesn't usually happen on appeals in other kinds of lawsuits. 

It’s important to confirm how the appeal process works in the state where you filed your lawsuit or one was filed against you. If you don't understand the rules for appeal, you need to consult with an attorney for legal advice. If you consult an attorney, be aware that you might have to pay attorney's fees if you don't qualify for legal aid.

Filing Fees

Filing fees are court costs. These vary greatly, depending on your state, and so do the requirements to ask the court to waive filing fees.

When you lose a lawsuit, you can ask the court to wait until all appeals are complete before actually enforcing the judgment. In legal terms, this is called a stay of execution of the judgment. Some states require that you pay a bond to not enforce the judgment while waiting on an appeal. A bond is another type of court cost. Bond amounts vary greatly from state to state.Other states automatically stay judgment enforcement while the appeal is pending without requiring a bond.

Examples of How Small Claims Appeals Differ Among the States

Below are a few examples of how the process for appeal in small claims court works in different states.

King County, Washington (Seattle)

In King County, appeals are not available for a defendant unless the plaintiff's claim was filed for at least $250 in damages. For an appeal by the plaintiff, the amount must be at least $1,000. If an appeal is available, the notice of appeal must be filed with the District Court within 30 days after the small claims judgment is entered. A copy must also be served on the other party within this same 30-day time period. A declaration of service must be filed with the court. Serving the other party means making sure that the other party receives formal notice of the appeal.

Appellants in King County have to pay a filing fee of $230 unless the court waives the fee. Fee waivers are usually available to low-income appellants. But, no matter what, only the judge can waive the fees.King County also requires that appellants post a bond of at least $100 to make sure the court doesn’t enforce the judgment. The bond must be twice the judgment if the appellant is requesting a stay pending the appeal.

King County has provided instructions for those who are looking to appeal a decision in their small claims case.

Nevada

When a party appeals their small claims action in Nevada, the judge reviews the entire case on appeal to look for an error of law. As stated above, this means that the appeal judge can only decide whether the judge in the lower court misinterpreted the law. They must accept all the facts of the case that the lower court came to. The trial court judge, on appeal, can “set aside” the small claim judgment and make their own judgment, modify it, or set for a new trial.

In Nevada, appellants need to pay a filing fee of $97. Like King County, they also have to pay a $250 bond. If they want the court to wait until the appeal is over to enforce the judgment, then the bond has to be in the amount of the judgment. This bond can't be waived like the filing fee.

Similar to King County, the state of Nevada has provided instructions for those who are looking to appeal a decision in their small claims case.

Orange County, California

In Orange County, if you are eligible to appeal your case, you’ll get a new trial with a new judge and a new hearing. This is a complete do-over. Typically, only defendants can appeal. The plaintiff can't appeal unless they lose on a counterclaim.

Unlike in Nevada and King County, judgments are automatically stayed, pending appeal. Those appealing have 30 days to file their notice of appeal from the date the clerk mailed a document called the Notice of Entry of Judgment to the parties.

Regardless of whether there is an appeal, defendants aren’t allowed to enforce a judgment for these 30 days because of the automatic stay.

In Orange County, the judgment on appeal is final. There are no further appeals available to parties in small claims. Because there is no other opportunity for appeal, there is also no waiting period for judgment enforcement following the appeal.

Orange County’s court website provides information about what happens after the trial.

Let’s Summarize…

Where you live and which kind of litigant you are will determine your appeals rights. Regardless, if you want to appeal your small claims case, make sure to learn about the rules that apply to your situation as soon as possible. 

If you can't access an attorney, check out your state's small claims website. Many states have court forms available and some even have a self-help center for small claims litigants.



Written By:

Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.

LinkedIn

Natasha started her career as a lawyer representing labor unions and other investors in multi-state class action lawsuits. Passionate about the civil rights elements of her cases, she moved into practicing employment law to represent employees against discrimination of various ki... read more about Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.

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