Access to Justice: How to file a small claims case in the District of Columbia

Initiating a lawsuit without an attorney can be a daunting task. There are several procedural rules and processes that a litigant (i.e., the person suing or being sued) must strictly follow throughout the proceedings to ensure the merits of the case make it to a judge or jury. Fortunately, all jurisdictions recognize the need to have a less formal venue for individuals to adjudicate low-dollar disputes without the need for legal representation—let’s face it, attorneys’ fees can often be higher than the amount of money being sought. To that end, each state (and the District of Columbia) has established a small claims court that is less formal in nature and much easier for those representing themselves (also known as a “pro se” party) to navigate.

Quick Definitions:

  • Plaintiff - the person suing or initiating the lawsuit.

  • Defendant - the person being sued or defending against the lawsuit.

 

Restrictions for filing a small claims court case in DC

In the District of Columbia, an individual or business can initiate a lawsuit in small claims court only if:

(1) They’re seeking money as the relief; and

(2) The claim is for $10,000 or less.

Because the small claims court procedures are relatively simple, most litigants can represent themselves rather than pay an attorney to represent them. Note, however, a business cannot represent itself in a small claims case, it must be represented by an attorney.

 

What documents are required to start the case?

To start the case, you must complete or include the following:


1) A Statement of Claim

  • You must provide a copy of the original Statement of Claim for EACH defendant you intend to sue.

  • The Statement of Claim must list the addresses for all plaintiffs and defendants.

Practice Tip: Each allegation you make in the Statement of Claim should be short, clear, and concise. You should clearly articulate to the court the nature of your suit (e.g., breach of contract, negligence, trespass, etc.) and why you believe you’re entitled to the relief being sought. This is where a quick Google search can also go along way if you do not have legal representation. For example, if I intended to represent myself in a negligence claim against my neighbor for damage caused to my property, I may turn to Google to look up the elements (or tests) to prevail on a negligence claim in DC. I would then include a short sentence in my Statement of Claim for each element that ties the law to the facts of my case.


2) A copy of the contract, promissory note, or any other important document

  • You are required to include any important documents that support your claim. For example, if you’re alleging that someone failed to pay you for services rendered (i.e., a breach of contract claim), then you should include a copy of the contract.

Practice Tip: If you have several supporting documents, be sure to clearly mark each as its own exhibit. So, if you had a copy of the written contract and then an email that confirms the person refused to pay the agreed upon price, then you would mark the contract as “Exhibit 1” and the email as “Exhibit 2”.


3) An Information Sheet


Practice Tip: Only select ONE box in the “Nature of Suit” section on the Information Sheet. The very last question on the sheet (i.e., the 90-day notice question) is only applicable if you are filing a medical malpractice claim.

 

Where and how do I file the required court documents?

Individuals representing themselves must file the documents in-person at the Small Claims Clerk’s Office located inside Court Building B at 510 4th Street NW, Room 120. Attorneys, on the other hand, are required to electronically file the documents through the court’s online case management system.


Attorney Practice Tip: Attorneys must electronically file the documents in the following order (or the clerk will likely reject the filing):

  • Statement of Claim

  • Instructions to Defendant

  • Notice Sheet

  • Exhibits (including any addendum to the statement of claim)

  • Application for Approval of Special Process Server, if applicable

  • Information Sheet

Do I need to pay fees to file the documents with the court?

Yes, there are always court fees that must be paid when initiating a case. In small claims court, the fees are relatively low compared to cases initiated in the other branches of the court. You can find an itemized fee list on the court’s website (scroll down to the “Small Claims Filing Fees” section). Note also that all filing fees must be paid by cash, certified check, credit card (America Express, Discover, Visa or MasterCard) or money order made payable to: Clerk, DC Superior Court.

 
About the Author

Attorney Jordan D. Howlette is the founder and managing attorney of JD Howlette Law, a civil litigation and business law firm focused on delivering high-quality legal services to individuals and businesses in a timely, cost-efficient manner. Prior to establishing JD Howlette Law, Mr. Howlette worked as trial attorney in the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he successfully litigated dozens of civil tax cases on behalf of the United States in federal courts around the country, securing millions of dollars in favorable judgments while also advocating for equitable justice. He is intimately familiar with the procedures, strategies, and processes of litigating cases from start to finish in court and with resolving multi-faceted civil disputes involving high-dollar amounts, complex statutory and regulatory provisions, and diverse parties from different jurisdictions.


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