The information below is to assist individuals in New York City Small Claims Court. If you are being sued and are in need of legal assistance or have questions about your case, please contact The Legal Aid Society’s Consumer Law Project at the Access to Benefits helpline at 888-663 6880 Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Common types of cases brought in Small Claims Court include Broken Lease Cases, Property Damage Claims, and unreturned security deposits.
Small Claims Court is a part of the New York City civil courts where you can sue or be sued for up to $10,000. A plaintiff can only sue for money in Small Claims Court—in other words, the judge in Small Claims Court cannot order someone to do something or stop doing something other than pay money if they win or settle your case. The benefits of Small Claims Court are that it is inexpensive, you may not need a lawyer, and evidentiary and procedural rules are relaxed.
Claims that can be brought in Small Claims Court are disputes where:
Examples of claims that can be brought in Small Claims Court:
What kinds of claims cannot be brought in Small Claims Court?
Examples of claims that cannot be brought in Small Claims Court:
You can tell if a case is a Small Claims Court case because the top of the court papers you have received will include “Small Claims”, or an “SC” in the Index Number.
Someone who is 18 or older who is not the plaintiff can serve notice of a lawsuit. Usually, the Court Clerk will serve by mail.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Small Claims Court has changed notice procedures. Unlike before, the initial notice of lawsuit will not include a court date and time. Instead, the summons will inform the defendant that they will be contacted by the court in the future, and request that defendant contact the court to provide email and phone number before a court date (also called a “hearing” or “appearance”).
Shortly after the case is commenced, the parties will most likely be contacted by a third-party mediation program about their interest in mediation. Mediation is entirely voluntary and either party can “opt-out” (choose not to mediate and instead go to trial before a judge) without the decision to “opt-out” having any effect on their case. It is up to each party whether they want to choose mediation instead of, or before, going to trial, but all parties must agree to mediation for it to go forward. If one party opts out of mediation, the case is then scheduled for a trial before a judge. If both parties agree to mediation, a court-sponsored mediator may then contact the parties to schedule an initial call with each party individually prior to scheduling a mediation session with both of the parties.
As of October 2020, all court appearances are being held remotely and virtually through use of Microsoft Teams. The Court will contact you with instructions and guidance on how to appear remotely. There are lengthy delays in scheduling court appearances, so you should contact the Court Clerk to check the status of your case.
Mediation is a form of “alternative dispute resolution” where the mediator, a neutral third party, tries to help the parties resolve their case. Mediation is an effort to see if the parties can come to a mutually agreeable solution or settlement without resorting to litigation. Instead of having a judge make a decision in the case, the parties ask a neutral third party—the mediator—to meet with them and help them come to a mutually agreeable settlement agreement to settle their dispute.
If the parties reach a settlement, usually called a Stipulation of Settlement, the settlement will be put into writing, signed by the parties, and then so-ordered by the judge. This settlement is then binding on the parties who signed it, meaning it is a legal contract that the court can enforce against them. You must therefore be very careful to read the agreement, understand it, and be certain that you will be able to do everything you have promised to do in it.
Mediation is voluntary and either party can opt out of mediation and decide to go to trial before a judge with no negative consequences to their case.
Mediation is confidential, meaning what is said during mediation is not allowed to be disclosed in court or to the judge. If a party decides to opt out of mediation, the judge is not informed about which party decided to opt out.
Mediation in New York City Small Claims Court is free. There is no charge to the parties to opt into or out of mediation.
The mediator does not decide the outcome of the case—the mediator’s role is to help the parties come to their own resolution, if possible. The mediator does not represent either party and cannot provide you with legal advice. Mediation in New York City Small Claims court is not “evaluative,” meaning the mediator cannot advise or inform the parties about the strength and/or weaknesses or the claims. You can contact The Legal Aid Society’s Consumer Law Unit by calling the Access to Benefits helpline at (888-663-6880) Monday through Friday 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for an evaluation of your settlement agreement, or to inquire as to whether mediation is appropriate for your case.
No. Mediation in small claims court is “presumptive,” meaning that small claims court cases will automatically be referred to or opted into mediation (or another form of alternative dispute resolution, such as arbitration) as an initial step in the case, rather than automatically going to trial before a judge. However, mediation is entirely voluntary and either party can “opt-out” (choose not to mediate and instead go to trial before a judge) without the decision to “opt-out” having any negative effect on their case. It is up to each party whether they want to choose mediation instead of, or before, going to trial, but all parties must agree to mediation for it to go forward. If one party opts out of mediation, the case is then scheduled for a trial before a judge.
No. If you do not reach a settlement agreement in mediation, you do not lose your right to have your case heard by a judge. Even if all parties initially agree to meditation and then, once in mediation, decide they no longer want to mediate their case because they cannot reach an agreement or for any other reason, any party can ask for a judge to hear their case instead of a mediator, provided the parties have not yet signed a settlement agreement.
Online dispute resolution (ODR), like mediation and arbitration, is a form of “alternative dispute resolution.” In ODR, technology is used to facilitate the resolution of disputes between parties
For now, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is not allowed in New York state courts.
If someone suing, being sued, or acting as a witness in court does not speak English, they can tell the Small Claims Court Clerk by calling them prior to the hearing and stating that they need an interpreter. See contact information below. The clerk can assign an official interpreter to the trial.
If you need accommodations for a disability, see the courthouse contact information below to find the phone number to your court’s contact person, or ask a Court Clerk in the courthouse.
If someone sues you but you have a reason to sue them too, you can still sue them back in the same case. You can do so by filing a counterclaim against them with the court clerk. In Small Claims Court, a counterclaim can only be for money. You should call the Court Clerk to ask how to file a counterclaim. See the contact information below. If you file a counterclaim on the day of the trial, the plaintiff can ask the judge to postpone the trial so they have time to prepare.
You may be able to add the responsible person or entity to the case. Ask the Court Clerk for information about a “third-party action.”
If you live, work, or have a place of business in New York City, you can be sued in the borough where you live or where the plaintiff lives, works, or has a place of business.
Yes. You can get free mediation services from your borough’s community dispute resolution center. Ask the Court Clerk or click here for more information.
You do not need a lawyer in Small Claims Court, but you may hire one to assist you. The Court will not give you a lawyer. If you are being sued in Small Claims Court for an alleged debt and think you might need a lawyer, you can reach out to the Legal Aid Society here.
Always show up to court when instructed to do so in court papers, or when told to by a judge, arbitrator, clerk, or attorney helping you with your case. When in court on your court date, you can ask the Court to postpone (or “adjourn”) your trial, but the Court may deny your request if you don’t have a good reason.
You can also send a letter to the Court and to the other side asking to postpone. If the other side agrees in writing, bring their letter to Court and give it to the Court Clerk. The Clerk can then mail you a notice with the new trial date. If the other side doesn’t agree to postponing, you should go to the Court on the trial date and explain why you need to postpone the case. If you or someone on your behalf cannot show up to court, the Court may read your letter but not postpone the case which means the Court may decide the case against you without you there.
During the pandemic, there is also the option to call the court to ask for an adjournment. See “Where is the borough courthouse?” above for phone numbers. During the pandemic, all hearings are being conducted virtually through the use of Microsoft Teams, so no in-person appearances are currently being held.
If you are the Plaintiff, you must prove the party you are suing owes you the money.
If you are the Defendant, you must defend yourself against Plaintiff’s evidence and witnesses. If you are filing counterclaims against the Plaintiff, you must prove the Plaintiff owes you the money you are claiming you are owed in your counterclaims.
Read all papers the court sends you. These papers may include instructions for both Plaintiffs and Defendants and you should read them very carefully and follow all instructions provided that apply to you. If you are unsure about what something in the court papers you receive means, contact the court clerk for clarification. But remember: the clerk cannot give you legal advice—he or she can only answer questions about the court’s procedures and how to fill out the forms.
Know your case. It is important to be prepared. Before your trial, think about:
Make notes about what you want to say at the trial.
Make sure you have organized any evidence that supports your defense, including the lease, communications between you and your landlord, itemized bills, checks, bank statements, receipts, invoices, proof of payment, photographs, etc.
You can have witnesses at your trial. A witness can be you, someone who knows something about the dispute, and/or someone with a lot of knowledge about the underlying issue of the lawsuit (i.e. an expert witness). All witnesses must swear and affirm to tell the truth before the Court. If a witness does not want to testify or give records to help with the case, you can ask the court for a subpoena.
If you or one of your witnesses will need an interpreter at the trial, you can tell the Small Claims Court Clerk by calling them prior to the hearing and stating that you need an interpreter. The clerk can assign an official interpreter to the trial.
A subpoena is a court order that orders someone to bring information to the Court A subpoena must be properly served. Like being served for the trial, no one involved in the trial can serve a subpoena, and the server must be at least 18 years old. You can also hire a process server or sheriff to serve a subpoena.
Sometimes, you have the choice to have an arbitrator decide your case. An arbitrator is an experienced lawyer trained to hear small claims cases. Arbitrator hearings are much less formal than when a judge oversees the case. If you choose arbitration, it may be a faster process overall, but whatever the arbitrator’s decision is binding (final) and cannot be appealed, unlike a judge’s decision.
You must show up on your court date. In some courts, the Clerk will check names as you arrive and will inform you when the Court is ready for you. In other courts, you must wait until the clerk calls your case and your name, at which point you must stand up and say your name; unless you want to postpone the trial, say, “Ready”; and if you want to postpone your trial or make another request, say “Application.” The trial will begin when you and the plaintiff are both ready.
Bring evidence or witnesses to help prove your case, if possible. Arrive at the courthouse at least 30 minutes early. You will need to go through security and sometimes the lines can be long. If one side does not appear on the day of the trial, then the Court will dismiss your case. As a defendant, if you are not present within one hour from the time the case is scheduled, the Court will hear the case without you (this process is called an inquest).
If you cannot show up due to your age, mental, physical, or other disability, someone else can testify on your behalf. This person should bring proof of their relationship to you, and must ask the Judge to let them testify for you.
Currently, there are no in-person appearances being held at the Small Claims Court and all hearings are being conducted remotely through Microsoft Teams. The Court will contact you to provide guidance on remote hearings, prior to any appearance you may have.
When it is your turn to speak:
The judge will listen to the parties and witnesses speak and review the evidence the parties submit. After that, the judge may decide the case in a number of different ways:
If the judge doesn’t decide in your favor, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the judge didn’t believe what you said. The judge’s decision may be based on a law that must be applied to the facts of your case.
If the other side wins, they get a money judgment from the court. They are called a judgment creditor and you are called a judgment debtor. The judgment is generally enforceable for 20 years and accrues interest at 9 percent per year. The other side may try to enforce the money judgment via an enforcement officer. Enforcement officers are individuals who are authorized to take money or property from you, and are often sheriffs or a local police officers. The judgment creditor will sometimes hire a collection agency to get the help of enforcement officers. Enforcement officers may garnish your wages or freeze your bank account (certain money, like social security or veteran’s benefits, is exempt from garnishment), and seize, sell, or get a lien on property.
If you are sued in small claims court and lose, the court will enter a civil money judgment against you. If a civil money judgment is entered against you, you have NOT been found guilty of a crime. You cannot be sent to jail for a civil money judgment. Judgments used to appear on credit reports, but that’s no longer true. Judgments no longer impact your credit.
If you failed to appear for the first or subsequent appearances for a valid reason, you can seek to vacate the money judgment that was entered against you and reopen the case by filing an Order to Show Cause. Contact the Court Clerk for instructions and forms for filing an Order to Show Cause.
Under Federal and New York State laws, judgments cannot be enforced to collect certain types of income that are exempt from collection, including: Social Security, SSI, disability, pensions, child support, spousal maintenance, unemployment insurance, veterans benefits, workers compensation, and public assistance.
The first $2,850 in your bank account is automatically protected from collection if it contains in part any directly deposited exempt benefits listed above. Generally, the first $3,600 in all other bank accounts are exempt from collection. Your earned income is exempt from collection, if your weekly take home pay is less than 30 times the minimum wage. (Current New York minimum wage is $15 for most employers so amount protected is $450 of your take home pay)
An information subpoena is a document sent out after a money judgment asking questions about the assets of the person or company that lost the lawsuit. If you get an information subpoena, you must respond quickly, or else you may be held in contempt and could face time in jail.
You can appeal if your case was decided by a judge. Appealing is asking a higher court to review your case. If the judge enters a default judgment because one or another party does not show up to trial, you cannot appeal; you can instead ask the same court to re-open the case.
Very few small claims decisions are appealed, and even fewer are successful. A higher Court will only decide if there was substantial justice—that is, a fair trial—between the parties. The higher Court will usually not change a Small Claims Court decision because of a technical mistake made at trial.
To appeal, you must file a Notice of Appeal within 30 days of the Court’s judgment. If you get the judgment from the court in the mail, you have 35 days to file the Notice with an Affidavit of Service. The Notice of Appeal is filed in the court that decided the case. You can read about beginning the appeal process here.
You must perfect your appeal. This means getting a transcript from Small Claims Court, writing and serving a brief with your arguments, and filing your papers with the trial court. The Court will send your papers to the higher Court to decide if they will hear your case. For more information about appealing, go to .
The information in this document has been prepared by The Legal Aid Society for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. You should not act upon any information without retaining professional legal counsel.
Last Updated: 14 February 2023
2023 The Legal Aid Society. All Rights Reserved