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Judge's View: Small claims court can be great option

In Minnesota, claims of up to $15,000 may be filed in conciliation court, sometimes called small claims court. The process is designed for people without attorneys, although attorneys may appear with the court's permission. It is intended to be a fast and simple way to handle minor disputes.

The most common type of case is breach of contract for goods or services. This could arise from a sales contract, a residential rental lease, or a business venture that went badly.

However, certain types of cases cannot be heard in conciliation court, such as actions involving title to real estate, libel, slander, or medical malpractice.

Court administration has standard forms for conciliation court with detailed instructions. They're available at the courthouse or online at mncourts.gov/GetForms.aspx. If a claim is for $2,500 or less, the serving of the summons and complaint may be accomplished by first class mail. For amounts larger than that, service is by certified mail, and an affidavit of service must be filed with the court. Different rules might apply for out-of-state defendants, so be sure to check before filing. The filing fee in conciliation court is $75.

Once a claim is filed, the defendant has a right to answer and also could file a counterclaim. If the counterclaim is below the $15,000 limit, the court administrator would then set the case for trial and notify the parties of the date and time. Both parties would be expected to be ready to go. If the counterclaim exceeds the $15,000 limit, the case would be transferred to district court.

At the court hearing, the rules of evidence apply but typically are not enforced as strictly as in district court. Parties can call witnesses, introduce exhibits such as photographs and documents, and have the opportunity to argue their case. Parties should have three copies of all exhibits and provide a copy to the other side before court. Things like emails or text messages should be printed out in advance, and any audio or video evidence should be burned to a CD. There is no court reporter in conciliation court, so there is no verbatim record of the proceedings.

The judge or referee presiding over the court will try to get to the heart of the matter as quickly and efficiently as possible, as there are usually multiple cases set on the same calendar. You might get a decision that same day, but often the court will take the case under advisement and issue a written decision some time later. If a party fails to appear for court, a default judgment can be entered against that party, including for the costs of bringing the action, such as the filing fee.

Either side may appeal a conciliation court decision to the district court without cause. This is called a "removal" and means the entire case starts over and will be heard by a different judge with all the formal rules that apply in district court. For that reason, having a serious discussion with the other party about possible settlement is always a good idea.

Conciliation court can be an excellent option to address smaller claims without the delay and expense of an ordinary civil action in district court.

Judge Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife Barbara now live in Hermantown with their four children.

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