Alright, everybody! It's been a wild ride, but it's finally time to wind down our Small Claims series. By now, you know what Small Claims is, what it's for, how to utilize it, and what you should expect in your Small Claims trial. By this point in the proceedings, we're going on the assumption that you're done with your trial and one of two things has happened; you either won or you lost. Anticlimactic, I know.
I won as the plaintiff! What now?
Congrats! The court agreed with you and gave you what's known as a judgment, which is essentially a sheet of paper that says, "So-and-so owes you money." That's great and all, but at the end of the day your judgment isn't worth the paper it's written on unless there's money to back it up. For some good background information on how to enforce your judgment, check out our detailed articles on judgment enforcement and judgment exemptions.
Now, if your judgment is for simple money owed, the defendant can either pay you directly or pay into the Clerk of Court's office, but must do so in any case within ten days after the judgment is entered. If the defendant pays you directly, then you have sixty days to file a Certificate of Payment in the clerk's office. Make sure that you do this, because if you don't, the defendant can sue to force you to do so, after which you'll most likely get stuck with the bill for the defendant's attorneys fees. If the defendant fails to pay you, you'll need to go through the enforcement process as discussed in the articles that we linked to above. Keep in mind that North Carolina is way stricter than most states when it comes to judgment enforcement, so you'll need to make sure you're minding your P's and Q's.
I lost as the defendant. What are my options?
Your options if you lost as the defendant are basically to (i) appeal, which is discussed below, or (ii) pay the judgment. Like I mentioned above, you can either pay the judgment directly to the plaintiff or into the Clerk's office. I highly, highly, highly recommend paying the Clerk's office as that will significantly lower the risk of complications arising. When you go into the Clerk's office, make sure that the judgment is recorded as having been paid; otherwise, you could see some damage to your credit score. If you can't afford to pay the judgment, it is absolutely crucial that you claim any exempt property, which is also covered in our judgment articles. If you don't properly and timely claim your exempt property, you could lose your house, your car, your retirement fund, and everything else that you own. Do not let that happen.
Civil judgments hang around for a minimum of ten years, and the plaintiff can renew it for another ten years if he or she chooses and if the judgment isn't satisfied beforehand. Therefore, we strongly suggest that you hire an attorney to protect you if you've got a judgment hanging over your head.
Appeals to District Court.
If you lose as either the plaintiff or the defendant, you have the option of appealing your case to the District Court in the county where the Small Claims action was heard. You can either appeal in open court or in writing, within ten days after the entry of judgment. If you appeal in writing, you'll want to file a Notice of Appeal to District Court.
If you appeal, you'll have to pay a filing fee of $150. Like we mentioned in our previous articles, you can try to file as an indigent if you qualify to do so. Be aware that the clerk/judge/magistrate can make an indigency decision on the spot or within 20 days after your petition, and you'll need to be diligent in checking back. If your petition is denied, you have to pay the filing fee within 20 days after the denial or you'll lose your right to appeal altogether.
If you owe money because you lost, you don't have to pay unless and until the District Court affirms the decision of the Small Claims court. If you're a tenant, you won't have to move out while the appeal is pending, but you do need to continue paying your rent.
Finally, your appeal in District Court will be heard de novo. That means that it's treated as an entirely new trial. It will be formatted much like the Small Claims trial as far as the testimony, witnesses, and evidence that you'll want to bring, but keep in mind that the strict evidentiary rules are adhered to much more closely in District Court than they are in Small Claims. If you're representing yourself and the other party shows up with an attorney, we highly recommend that you ask for a continuance and go get your own attorney. It's universally a bad idea to represent yourself in District Court, and it's a very bad idea to represent yourself against an attorney on the other side. We universally recommend that you hire a lawyer, hands down.
So now you know everything you need to know about Small Claims! Thanks for reading, and let us know if you have any questions!