What Is a Small Claims Court in Massachusetts?
In Massachusetts, Small Claims Courts are courts where litigants may resolve claims worth $7,000 or less. Due to this cap, these courts have limited jurisdiction. In the Massachusetts Court System, the District Courts, the Boston Municipal Court, and Housing Courts are responsible for hearing small claims cases. For this reason, the Small Claims Courts are not independent: they operate as subdivisions of other superior courts.
Cases that can be filed in the Small Claims Court include:
- Contract default
- Loan repayment default
- Personal injury
- Consumer protection, e.g., product liability
- Security deposit recovery
- Back-owed rent
- Default on tax obligation
Litigants cannot bring the following cases to a Small Claims Court:
- Damage to reputation and character defamation (slander or libel)
- Non-monetary damages
- Defaults on non-monetary contracts
- Cases involving claims above $7,000
Court statistics from Massachusetts' District, Housing, and Boston Municipal Courts reveal that in 2020, 84,340 small claims suits were filed in the state.
In a typical small claims lawsuit, the suing party (known as the plaintiff) may file a claim against another (the defendant) in a court located where either of them lives, is employed, or does business. For landlord-tenant cases, the plaintiff may bring the lawsuit to the court where the building is situated. However, it is generally easier for a plaintiff to attain a favorable disposition when the hearing court is in the same location as the defendant's residence or place of work.
How Does the Massachusetts Small Claims Court Work?
In Massachusetts, the small claims procedure allows the litigating parties to present their case before a clerk-magistrate, answer the clerk-magistrate's questions about the matter, and await a decision. It provides a simplified, cheap, and relaxed option for resolving claims worth $7,000 or below.
Clerk-magistrates, rather than judges, hear small claims cases in Massachusetts. Litigants, who do not have to hire an attorney, can speak in layman's terms without using technical legal terms. Generally, the Massachusetts Small Claims Courts enter decisions faster and typically schedule a hearing once plaintiffs file complaints.
Small claims plaintiffs cannot typically appeal a Small Claims Court ruling when unfavorable except in specific circumstances. However, within ten days of receiving written notice of the judgment, a defendant who wishes to contest the judgment may do so. A general condition for a defendant to file an appeal is that such a defendant must have appeared at the first hearing. The defendant must complete and file a Defendant's Claim of Appeal with the court clerk's office and choose an appeal hearing before a trial judge or jury.
An appeal application requires a non-refundable $25 filing fee. In addition to this fee, the appellant must also submit a $100 appeal bond, which the court only repays if the judgment is overturned. Otherwise, the court will deduct this deposit from the amount it initially awarded against the appellant. The appeal bond is greater if the appellant is a landlord that a residential tenant sued because of the return of a security deposit.
In all small claims cases and regardless of whether or not a person appeared at the court hearing, defendants may request to cancel a judgment that a Small Claims Court made against them. However, their reasons must be good enough to merit a favorable outcome.
A defendant may file a Motion to Vacate Judgement within one year of the case's conclusion. This statute of limitations is removed if the reason for filing the motion is that the defendant was not notified of the small claims case in the first place.
How to Take Someone To Small Claims Court in Massachusetts
Before suing anyone in a small claims court in Massachusetts, the plaintiff must send a demand letter to the defendant detailing a chronological account of what transpired between both parties regarding the debt. The suing party should be as specific as possible by mentioning exact dates, specific contracts, discussions, and the exact amount in contention. Plaintiffs must also include a statement informing the defendant(s) that the matter will proceed to a small claims court if they do not pay within 30 days. Once this timeline expires, then the plaintiff may petition to small claims court.
In Massachusetts, small claims plaintiffs can file their cases online, in-person, or by mail. Plaintiffs must know the court location to file a case before embarking on the filing process. Certain conditions determine which of the three eligible small claims courts will hear the case.
To bring a small claims lawsuit to the District or Boston Municipal Court, at least one of the plaintiffs or defendants must live, work, do business, or be employed in that location. Similarly, the Housing Courts will treat the case if the rental property is located within the court's jurisdiction. This same condition applies when filing a small claims case concerning a landlord-tenant issue in a District or Boston Municipal Court.
The easiest medium to file a small claims case is online, using the Massachusetts judiciary's guide and file program. The web-based application guides prospective plaintiffs through the process of completing the necessary forms. However, it should not be taken for legal advice. In addition to generating forms and assisting the plaintiff in completing them, the program also allows users to file electronically for a $7 eFiling fee.
Users who prefer to file in person may print out the forms and take them to the appropriate courthouse. To file by mail, the suing party can print out physical copies of the completed forms and mail them, along with the supporting documents, to the applicable clerk-magistrate's office.
Prospective plaintiffs must take note of the following key points:
- They must correctly state the legal name and proper addresses of the parties involved in the case. Nicknames are not allowed.
Plaintiffs may write the name of an individual, a person doing business under a fictitious name (d/b/a), a corporation, or a trust. They may verify a defendant's fictitious business name by contacting the city or town authorities where such business is located and registered. As for corporations, plaintiffs may obtain their legal names and addresses from the Secretary of State's Corporate Records Division or call (617) 727-2800.
For cases involving a trust, the plaintiff must list the title of the trust and the proper name, phone number, and address of the recognized principal trustee.
- The plaintiff must provide information and documents that can support their claim. These include the dates of incidents, copies of signed contracts, the specific value of resulting damages, and details of the bank accounts involved.
If the plaintiff in a small claims lawsuit is a business suing to recover the money owed directly by the defendant or through debt assignment, there are additional requirements. Such plaintiffs must also complete and include the following information in their Statement of Small Claim form:
- The legal name of the original creditor if the debtor initially owed the debt to someone else.
- The final four digits of the account numbers that the original creditor assigned.
- The most recent payment details, including the amount paid and payment date.
Plaintiffs must also accompany their claim with a completed Verification of Defendant's Address form to prove that they have verified the correct mailing address of the defendant. Not doing this makes it impossible for the presiding court official to enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor and dismiss the claim.
Specific fees come with filing a small claims suit and are determined by the amount of the claim. The fees that apply in Massachusetts are outlined below:
Size of Claim Filing fee for each case
- Claims of $500 or less $40
- Claims between $501 and $2,000 $50
- Claims between $2,001 and $5,000 $100
- Claims between $5,001 and $7,000 $150
- Claims over $7,000 $150
- Service charge for electronic filing $7
How Much Can You Sue For in Massachusetts Small Claims Court?
The base amount for small claims cases filed in a Massachusetts Small Claims Court is $7,000. However, claims involving damage to property resulting from a vehicle accident may exceed this amount. Similarly, cases that involve consumer protection and special landlord-tenant matters may necessitate attorney fees and statutory damages that will culminate in an award above $7,000. Yet, the base claim in such cases may not exceed $7,000.
As for consumer protection cases, Consumer Protection Laws allow the court to award an amount double or triple to the actual value of the damages.
How to Defend Yourself in Massachusetts Small Claims Court
Once an individual or business files a small claims lawsuit in Massachusetts, the defendant(s) will be served a copy of the Statement of Claim together with the Notice of Trial through first-class mail. The court will notify defendants who live outside Massachusetts via certified mail. This service is necessary for the case to proceed. If the post office cannot serve a defendant for some reason and returns the documents to the court, the case cannot proceed. If the post office does not bring back the documents but delivers them to the wrong address or fails to serve the defendant, whatever judgment entered against the defendant is void.
After receiving a Notice of Trial and Statement of Claim, a defendant may decide whether to file an answer to the claim or not, but this is not compulsory. To file an answer, the defendant may use a Small Claims Answer form or send a signed letter to the court. This answer must state which of the claims the defendant denies and the defendant's grounds for requesting the dismissal of the case. If the plaintiff owes the defendant some money, then the defendant must state this in the answer. The defendant must also serve the plaintiff a copy of their answer.
The court may hear the plaintiff's claim and the defendant's opposing claim (known as the counterclaim) on the day of the hearing originally scheduled for the plaintiff's claim. In this case, the defendant must have filed the counterclaim at least ten days before the fixed hearing date. A magistrate may also order that the claims be treated as such even if the time limit is not satisfied.
A defendant may also file the counterclaim using a separate form but must also serve the plaintiff with a copy. However, this claim must relate to the issue at hand and be within the jurisdiction of the presiding court.
If a defendant agrees to their indebtedness, they can contact the plaintiff to settle either by paying the plaintiff or arranging a mutual payment schedule. Upon reaching a mutual agreement, the plaintiff and defendant must jointly sign and submit an Agreement for Judgment and Payment Order before the hearing date. If both parties reach this agreement on the hearing date, they must complete, sign, and submit the form on the same day.
If the defendant agrees to the plaintiff's claim but cannot reach an acceptable payment arrangement with the plaintiff for one reason or the other, the defendant must submit a Financial Statement of Judgement Debtor form. This form explains to the magistrate why more time is needed to settle the plaintiff.
Note that the law exempts certain incomes from the court's payment order.
How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Massachusetts?
Usually, there is a deadline on when a person may bring a small claims case against another party to the Massachusetts small claims court. This is called the statute of limitations. These time limits are affected by factors that include the time of discovery, advance notice of claim, and other reasons to delay the time limit.
Chapter 260 of the Massachusetts General Laws outlines the Commonwealth's civil statutes of limitations. Even though most civil cases fall under these laws, the circumstances surrounding a case may necessitate a unique statute of limitation.
- For contracts and judgments, the statute of limitations is six years
- For torts and personal injury, the statute of limitations is three years
- For consumer protection cases, the statute of limitations is four years
What Happens If You Don't Show up for Massachusetts Small Claims Court?
If the plaintiff does not show up for the trial and the defendant does, the presiding clerk-magistrate will enter a ruling for the defendant based on the claim they made. If both parties fail to show up at the hearing, the court will dismiss the case. If only the plaintiff shows up for the hearing, the clerk-magistrate may enter a default judgment ordering the defendant to pay the damages. The clerk-magistrate may ask that the plaintiff present evidence of the claim to arrive at a decision.
What are Massachusetts Small Claims Court Records?
Small Claims Court records in Massachusetts are just like every other court case record, containing essential case information and accessible to members of the public. A small claims case record may only be inaccessible if the parties involved have secured a court judgment to seal it or if it contains sensitive information that the courts deem inappropriate for public consumption.
Small Claims Court records typically contain information on the parties involved, claim amount, and case judgment. These documents are accessible online and in person.
Where Can I Find Massachusetts Small Claims Court Records?
Interested persons may request a Small Claims Court record in person by visiting the courthouse where a case was decided. Alternatively, a person may obtain Massachusetts court records electronically by searching a court's docket. Case details that a user will typically require to search for a record include the first and last names of parties involved in the case. However, other search options are available to narrow down search results.
As an alternative, persons who desire to obtain small claims case records may use renowned third-party sites. Users may conduct records searches using the names of parties to the case or the location of the court that heard the case.