The rules for filing cases in small claims court are the same in every U.S. state. The rules are not conveniently consistent when you need to appeal a judgment, though. The appeals process varies from one state to the next – some do not even have an appeals process. There are states where you can appeal the decision by a judge but not one by an arbitrator. In some states, only the defendant (the accused party) has the right to appeal – the plaintiff (the aggrieved party who brings the lawsuit in the first place) does not.
There are other ways in which the law restricts your right to appeal a decision by a small claims court. In every state, the law only allows the right to appeal to parties to a lawsuit who have actually shown up and participated in the case. No one who defaults (fails to show up) has the right to appeal. If you need to appeal a case in which you lost after having failed to show up, you need to rush and file paperwork to gain the right. If you do not do this immediately, the decision becomes set in stone.
Many people hesitate to appeal small claims court decisions because they’ve heard rumors that the higher courts consider such cases a nuisance. This rumor is not true, though. If you go in well prepared and present a good case, a fair hearing is a certainty. If you have been victimized by an unfair decision in small claims court, there is no reason why you should not appeal.
You also need to learn what kind of appeal the laws of your state permit. Some allow appeals that look at cases in their entirety (or a trial de novo, to use the legal term). Since small claims courts do not keep records of hearings, cases granted appeal start from scratch as if the hearing in the lower court never happened. In other states a small claims court appeal is only allowed if a question of law is at the center of the appeal.
What exactly is a question of law?
There are two parts to any case – the facts of the case as presented by both party, and the laws that govern the issues in question. For instance, in a case where you sue an airline for kicking you off a flight for unruly behavior, all evidence brought to determine if you did actually get drunk and dance in the aisles, are the facts of the case. The question of law here would be whether the airline was indeed authorized to kick you off the flight if you did do the act you were accused of.
Appealing on a question of law can be a difficult matter for anyone who is not trained in the law – you need to present to the court a written outline of what specific misinterpretation of law(s) were made in the original hearing. If you do not know the conventions used to present questions of law in writing, you could be at a disadvantage. The good news, though, is that most judges will cut you some slack. All you need is a well thought-out argument written down in clear language.
Filing your small claims court appeal
Your first step putting in a small claims court appeal would be to find a copy of the laws that govern the small claims appeals process in your state and to read through them.
In nearly every state, your time window to appeal is a small one – between 2 and 30 days, usually. The rules for when they start counting those days can vary. In some states the countdown starts the day the court clerk sends the judgment out. If you make the mistake of counting from the day you receive your copy, you could be in trouble (fortunately, no state counts holidays or weekends).
To actually file your appeal, you need to get an appeal form from the court (or you could download it from the court’s website). The form will tell you what the appeal fees are to be, too. Usually, an appeal is costlier than an all-new filing. Depending on the state, you may also need to post a cash bond (or at least a guarantee by someone who is financially stable) to guarantee that you will pay what you owe in the event that you lose.
You do not need a lawyer
People don’t usually hire a lawyer for a small claims court hearing because there is only a little money at stake. You do not even need to hire a lawyer if your opponent has one. The judges who hear these cases can be lenient with untrained parties. All you need to do is to prepare by sitting in on a few appeals cases to see how it’s done.
Often, people lose simply because they do not take the time to prepare a well thought out presentation. No hearing stands on the facts of the case alone – a great presentation that drives points home is very important.
Preparing for your appeals hearing can be a difficult matter. You need to read the judgment by the lower court in its entirety and look up any laws mentioned. You could look up online forums for a few pointers as well.
Some states require that hearings be done strictly according to the law – that questions be presented in the specified format and so on. You do not need to feel lost and ill prepared while doing this – if you do not understand something, you only need to ask the judge for help. You could also ask the judge in advance to allow an informal hearing to help your lack of experience.