Each district court in the State of Washington contains a “Small Claims” division for the settlement of civil disputes in which damages claimed total less than $10,000. Small Claims Court was established to provide a low-cost, user-friendly alternative to litigation.
The following information was taken from the Small Claims Court Guide produced by the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts. This guide is designed to answer only basic questions regarding the use of small claims court. Employees of the Attorney General’s Office are forbidden from interpreting the law or providing information that could be interpreted as legal advice to any individual that is not representing a state government agency, board, or commission.
|In This Section||
|Who Can Sue and Be Sued|
|Cost and Fees|
|Statute of Limitations|
|Collection of Judgment|
For more detailed information regarding jurisdiction, court rules, or filing procedures please review Chapters 3.66, 4.16, 4.28, and 12.40 of the Revised Code of Washington. If you should have any additional questions, please contact your county district court small claims division.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who Can Sue And Be Sued?
Any individual, business, partnership or corporation (with a few exceptions) may bring a small claims action only to recover money; a "natural person," meaning a human being, may file a claim up to $10,000; the limit is $5,000 in all other cases. In general, the claim must be filed in the district court of the county in which the defendant(s) reside. Exceptions and specific rules can be found at RCW 3.66.040. The State of Washington may not be sued in Small Claims Court. Unless a judge grants permission, Attorneys and paralegals are excluded from appearing or participating with the plaintiff or defendant in a small claims suit.
How Much Does It Cost?
You must pay the court clerk a filing fee at the time the suit is filed. The filing fee will be either $35 or $50 depending on whether the county in which you file the lawsuit supports a dispute resolution center. You may have some additional fees payable to the sheriff or process server to have the Notice of Small Claims served on the defendant. As an alternative, you may serve notice on the defendant by registered or certified, return receipt mailing. If you win your case, you are entitled to recover your costs of filing and service fees.
How Do I Get Started?
Contact your local district court; contact information may be located in your local phone book or at www.courts.wa.gov. First you will prepare a Notice of Small Claim form that is provided by the clerk. You are required to sign the Notice in the presence of the clerk, unless otherwise instructed by the court. On the Notice form a hearing date, trial date, or response date will be entered by the clerk. It is the plaintiff's responsibility to accurately identify the defendant, provide a proper address and, if possible, provide a phone number.
Serving the Notice
The clerk will assist you with forms and general information about the process. The clerk is not allowed to give legal advice. Service of the claim form can be accomplished by any of the following:
- The Sheriff's Office;
- A process server;
- Any person of legal age (18) who is not connected with the case either as a witness or as a party; or
- By mailing the copies to the defendant by registered or certified mail with a return receipt requested.
The Notice of Small Claim must be served on the defendant not less than ten (10) days before the first hearing. A return of service, or mail return receipt bearing the defendant's signature, must be filed at or before the time of the first hearing. You cannot personally serve the claim. See RCW Chapters 4.28 and 12.40, and CRLJ 5 for more detailed information.
What If We Settle?
In most cases, neither party is one hundred percent right or wrong. You are encouraged to try to settle your case before trial. If you settle the dispute before the hearing, you must inform the court so the hearing can be canceled and your case dismissed. If the other party agrees to pay at a later date, you may ask the court for a continuance. If the other party pays before the postponed date, ask the court to cancel the hearing. If you do not receive your money by the time of the continued hearing, proceed with the case in court. If you drop the suit, your filing fee and service costs are not returned.
Once the judgment is issued, the clerk will enter it into the civil docket of the court and will provide a certified copy of the judgment to the prevailing party for no additional cost. A money judgment in your favor does not necessarily mean that the money will be paid. The Small Claims Court does not collect the judgment for you. If the debtor does not pay right away, the court may order a payment plan. If the losing party fails to pay, the judgment shall be increased by amounts intended to cover the cost of enforcing the judgment.
If no appeal is taken and the judgment is not paid within 30 days, or in the time set in a mediation agreement or payment plan, the prevailing party may seek to enforce the judgment through the collections process, which could include garnishing the defendant's wages or bank accounts; or seeking to obtain personal property of the debtor.
Remember, the clerks cannot give you legal advice so you may need the assistance of an attorney or collection agency, whose fees may be paid by the debtor.
Either party may appeal a judgment when the judge has decided against them. However, no appeal is permitted if the amount originally claimed was less than $250. Also, if a party who brought a claim or counterclaim wants to appeal a judgment, the amount originally claimed must have exceeded $1,000. If a party loses a default judgment, an appeal may be taken under the district court rules for setting aside default judgments. A party who appeals a judgment is required to follow the procedures set out in chapter 12.36 RCW. The party who wants to appeal must take the following steps within 30 days of the entry of judgment: 1. File a written Notice of Appeal with the district court. 2. Serve a copy of that Notice on the other parties. 3. Pay the district court a $20 transcript fee. 4. Deposit at the district court the $230 superior court filing fee either in cash, money order or cashier's check payable to the Clerk of the Superior Court, and pay a $40 appeal preparation processing fee to the district court. 5. Post a cash or surety bond in a sum equal to twice the amount of the judgment and costs or twice the amount in controversy, whichever is greater, at the district court. When the appeal and bond are transferred to superior court, the appellant (person appealing the decision) may request that the superior court suspend enforcement of the judgment in the district court until after the appeal is heard. Within 14 days of filing the Notice of Appeal, the district court clerk will transmit the court record to the superior court clerk. All further proceedings will be in the superior court.
Who do I Contact with Further Questions?
Your local district court. Contact information can be found at www.courts.wa.gov.