The end result of many tenant-landlord disputes is small claims court. Evictions and money suits for amounts under $10,000 are both handled in small claims court, making it the place where landlord-tenant arguments end up if there aren't any other negotiation options. Many people come in fearing the small claims process, but it doesn't have to be that way.
Small Claims Court is supposed to be for regular folks who are trying to get a judge or court commissioner* to make a decision about a money-oriented problem they are having. The courts have put together a guide for walking people through small claims court, and it’s a good one: Wisconsin Guide to Small Claims Court. It’ll tell you the steps, and it defines a lot of the legal terms. The State Bar of Wisconsin's "Small Claims Court" webpage answers a lot of typical questions and includes easy to watch videos.
People come to us with more basic questions than those answered in the guides above, and this is our attempt to give a list of tips. (Please note that we are not attorneys here, and that this isn’t legal advice. If the tips listed don’t feel right to you, ask for more information from a trusted source).
Top Tips from the TRC:
- You don’t have to have a lawyer to win in Small Claims Court. The court is set up so folks don’t have to have an attorney to be successful. (If you want legal advice, though, then no one can give that but a lawyer. The TRC’s attorney referral list is here.)
- You can figure out if you will win by watching other people go through small claims court. The clerk of courts is listed by county here. You can call the court for your county, ask the secretary when small claims cases are going to be heard, then go to the courthouse and sit in on those cases. The cases are public, and you’ll get a sense of how judges or court commissioners* handle things where you are. Then, it’ll be easier for you to know if you’ll win your own case.
- Before you go, make a list of things you want to say. Stick to the topic (for example, if a landlord is evicting house of tenants for not paying rent, the tenants will be more successful if they talk about how the landlord didn't calculate the amount correctly and less successful if the tenants say that they shouldn't have to pay because the landlord didn't give proper notice to come in and make repairs, which didn't have anything to do with the money owed).
- Bring three copies of the laws (sometimes the judges and court commissioners* aren't as familiar with them as they should be!) and three copies of all proof. One copy will go to the judge or court commissioner*, one copy with go to the person that you’re arguing against, and one copy will stay with you so that you can point to the page where they should be looking. It’ll be even smoother if you number the pages, and have all of them in order before you start.
- It doesn't take that much proof to win. The burden of proof in small claims court is 51%, which means you need just 1% more proof than a he said-she said kind of argument. It’s a great idea to get things in writing to make sure you have that proof, but it can be other things, too, like photos, or sometimes, when there’s not much to look at, who looks like the more believable person. A lot of recordings on phones and text messages are complicated in court (the laws on hearsay are here), so if you can find a different way to prove that the other person said something or promised something (like a statement from a witness), then it’s a good idea to have that, too.
- Look more believable than the guy next to you. Dress like you’re going to a job interview, and do your best to look clean and put together. Don’t shout or scream, even if it’s tempting. Turn off your phone, so you won’t interrupt the court proceedings. Be as organized with your proof as you can be.
- It’s okay to be nervous – a lot of people are nervous when they go to court. It’s okay to say that you’re nervous, to shake as you’re handing out sheets of paper, or for your voice to quaver. Try to stay as calm as you can, though, and go ahead with what you need to say.
If you have more questions, it’s always okay to send a question our way.
* Hey! Did you know that if you get a small claims judgment by a court commissioner, and you don't like that judgment, then you can ask for a full trial with a judge? It's like a do-over! You can present your same argument to that judge during the trial and see if you can do it better. Of course, the other guy gets that choice, too, so be aware that going in front of a court commissioner might lead to doing the whole rigmarole again in front of a judge. This is much different than appealing a Small Claims judge's decision - that goes to the Court of Appeals where they don't look at the same argument, but rather, they review the court record to see if there were errors in the Small Claims Court process or application of law.