The New York Small Claims Court is a special part of the court system. The legal process in small claims courts is simplified and informal so that anyone can access it without needing to hire a lawyer. Only individuals can use small claims courts in New York, and you can only use the court to sue for money. The amount of the claim you can bring ranges from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on where you live in the state.
Written by Lawyer John Coble.
Updated April 10, 2023
If someone owes you money and keeps telling you they’re going to pay you back, but you’ve received nothing, what can you do? Hiring a lawyer to sue them may cost more than the amount you’re trying to get back. The answer may be to take them to a small claims court, which is designed for just this type of case.
This article explains what a small claims court is, where to file your case, and what to expect in court. After reading this article, you’ll have the resources to file or respond to a New York small claims court case.
What Is Small Claims Court?
In New York, Small Claims Court is a docket within the civil court system. Small claims cases are heard in the city, town, and village courts. In the small claims part of the court system, you can only recover money damages. These courts can’t be used to order someone to do something. For example, you can’t use the small claims court to evict someone. You also can’t sue someone for pain and suffering in small claims court.
Small claims courts are less formal than other courts. This is why it’s possible for individuals to represent themselves without hiring an attorney.
The formal procedures in other types of courts in New York usually require a trained attorney. And attorney fees add up fast. When there’s less money at stake — such as in small claims cases — the cost of hiring an attorney is often more than the contested amount. If hiring an attorney was required, many people couldn’t use the courts to resolve controversies. That’s why we have small claims courts to settle cases where there’s less money on the line.
In New York, individuals can sue businesses but business can’t sue individuals in small claims court. Businesses can sue other businesses in the Commerical Small Claims Court, but they can’t sue individuals.
Anyone 18 or older can sue in a small claims court. You can use an attorney or you can represent yourself. If you sue someone in small claims court, you’re called the claimant or plaintiff. If you’re the one being sued, you’re called the defendant.
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How Does Small Claims Court Work?
In most states, there’s one claim limit for all small claims courts throughout the state. For example, in Rhode Island, you can use the small claims courts for claims up to $2,500. New York is much more complicated than that. Claim limits vary depending on where you live.
Monetary Limits on Small Claims Cases in New York
In New York City, small claims cases are brought in the New York City Civil Courts for each of the five boroughs (counties). You can use this court if your claim is $10,000 or less.
In Nassau County, small claims cases are heard at the Long Beach City Court, Glen Cove City Court, and the Nassau County District Court. Western Suffolk County has small claim dockets in each of its six district courts. The courts in Nassau and Suffolk counties hear cases for claims up to $5,000.
In the far eastern part of Suffolk County — including Riverhead, Shelter Island, the North Fork, and the Hamptons — only town courts hear small claims cases, and claims are limited to $3,000.
In the rest of the state of New York, the limit is $5,000 if the small claims case is brought in a city court. If the case is brought in a town or village court, the limit is $3,000.
Type of Cases Filed in Small Claims Courts
Small claims cases can only be used to collect money damages. They can’t be used to address pain and suffering or to make someone do something. Small claims courts are used for everything from suing a neighbor to recover the cost of medical bills from a dog bite to an individual suing to have car expenses reimbursed after a car dealer refused to fix a motor vehicle that was under warranty.
Cases often involve damaged items, damage to personal property or real property, and other property damages. The small claims courts can be involved in almost any type of case as long as the goal is to recover monetary damages that aren’t more than the allowed amount for small claims cases.
How To Bring a Small Claims Case in New York
You’ll need to file your claim in the small claims court where the defendant lives, works, or has a place of business. If you and the defendant are both NYC residents, you can sue in the county where you live or in the county where the defendant lives if you live in different boroughs. New York City and Long Island residents can find the addresses and phone numbers for all the small claims courts in the court’s Small Claims Handbook. Residents in the rest of the state of New York can use the court locator on the Small Claims page for the New York State Unified Court System.
To bring a small claims case, you'll fill out an application form and pay a $10–$20 filing fee. You can get the application from the small claims court clerk's office where you're filing the case. You'll need the defendant's contact information so the court knows where to mail notice of the lawsuit. Be aware that the person you're suing may file a counterclaim against you. This is the same as being sued by the other party.
You can have witnesses appear for your case. If a witness doesn't want to appear, you can ask the clerk to issue a subpoena. A subpoena can be used to force a person to appear or to produce documents or records.
If you get sued in New York Small Claims Court…
If you get sued in small claims court, you’ll receive the first notice of the case by first-class, certified mail. You'll need to defend yourself. Start by answering the lawsuit. If you have a reason to sue the person who sued you, you can include a counterclaim with your answer. You must file your counterclaim within five days of receiving the notice of the claim against you.
For further information on how to bring your case or defend a case in New York City or Long Island, it’s a good idea to study the New York City/Long Island Small Claims Handbook. For more information about bringing your small claims case or defending a small claims case in the rest of New York state look at the NY State Unified Court System Small Claims Handbook.
What To Expect in Small Claims Court
Small claims cases in New York City are automatically set for night court, so your court date won’t interfere with your work schedule. If night court conflicts with your schedule, you can ask to have the case placed on a daytime docket. In other parts of New York state, you’ll need to request night court if it’s available.
Your case may be heard by a volunteer arbitrator instead of a judge. These arbitrators are attorneys who’ve been members of the New York State Bar for at least five years and who’ve completed special training. In New York City, you have a choice of an arbitrator or a judge. In some New York small claims courts, you don’t get to choose. You’ll either get an arbitrator or a judge.
New York’s town court judges and village court judges aren’t required to be attorneys. So, if you’re assigned a small claims arbitrator in these courts, the person hearing your case may have more legal training than the judge.
You can’t repeatedly file claims against a defendant to harass them. If you do, you may be barred from using the small claims courts.
Small claims court is a special docket within New York’s local courts. It’s more like “The People's Court” than the court in “A Few Good Men.” Small claims court can only be used to collect money damages. You can’t bring a claim to force someone to do something.
Small claims court procedures are streamlined so individuals can bring their cases without a lawyer. You can hire a lawyer if you want, but lawyers are often an unnecessary expense. Still, it may be a good idea to seek legal advice from an attorney before appearing in small claims court. The maximum amount for a monetary claim is from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on the court.