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Iowa City, Johnson County & Iowa Small Claims

I'm Christopher Warnock, an Iowa City attorney and I specialize in high quality, low cost small claims representation in the Johnson County District Court. I represent plaintiffs and defendants, businesses and customers, landlords and tenants. Due to the informality and above all the speed, small claims cases are typically heard within 60-90 days of filing, while district court cases can take years, I often prefer small claims court to district court.
On this page I discuss the basics of small claims litigation in Iowa. This information is useful both in assisting you with settlement and negotiation, in presenting your own case or in working with an attorney. Keep in mind that the information on this page is just general advice and may not apply to the specific circumstances of your case.
If you are interested in hiring Attorney Christopher Warnock for legal advice, for settlement and mediation or for litigation representation here is the Contact page.

Christopher Warnock's Small Claims Litigation
Overview of Small Claims Process
Plaintiffs: Do You Have a Case? Is it Worth Pursuing?
Defendants: I've Been Sued, What Do I Do?
Filing
Service
Settlement & Mediation



Christopher Warnock's Small Claims Litigation

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Two of my small claims cases, DeStefano v. Apts Downtown, 879 N.W.2d 155 (Iowa 2016) and Caruso v. Apts Downtown, 880 N.W.2d 465 (Iowa 2016) went all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court and De Stefano established important precedent on the jurisdicational limit in small claims court.
Here are some interesting examples of memorandum opinions from my small claims cases:
  • In Naso v. Teggetz, a breach of contract case, represented business plaintiff. Maximum damages of $5000 awarded to the plaintiff.
  • In Baculis v. Lanza, landlord tenant - FED (eviction). Represented tenant defendant. FED was dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
  • In Borer v. Apts Downtown, a landlord tenant case. Represented tenant plaintiff. Pet penalty provision found to be prohibited under IURLTA and unconscionable, actual damages of $840, punitive damages of $4047 and attorney fees of $5550 awarded.
  • In Ahmed v. Barkalow, a landlord tenant case. Represented tenant plaintiff. $491.25 actual damages, $2200 in punitive damages for bad faith withholding of security deposit and wilful use of a rental agreement with prohibited provisions.
  • In Four D v. Gradert, a landlord tenant case. Represented tenant defendant. Landlord sued tenant for $5000 damages. $0 damages awarded to landlord.
Not only do I appear in court, but I also spend significant time and effort preparing exhibits and my usual practice in small claims cases is also to file a hearing memorandum, to assist the magistrate with the legal and factual issues in the case.
Here is an example of my Exhibit List and Hearing Memorandum in Goodale v. Trinity. This is a landlord tenant case where I represented the defendant landlord who was sued for $3050 in actual and punitive damages by the plaintiff, his ex-tenant. This case settled right before trial with the plaintiff agreeing to pay the defendant, my client!
For more information on how to hire Christopher Warnock for small claims representation go to the Contact Page


Overview of Small Claims Process

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In Iowa, as in many states, a speedy, more informal court process, small claims court, been set up for cases involving $5,000 damages or less and some other types of cases, including evictions [known in Iowa as forcible entry and detainer]. Generally landlord/tenant cases are done in small claims court. The next higher level of court is the district court. Appeals from the small claims court are done to the district court and all cases for over $5000 or asking for injunctions take place in the district court. If you lose your small claims appeal to the district court, you can request the Iowa Supreme Court review the case. The Supreme Court can refuse to review, can accept the case to review itself, or can have the case reviewed by the Iowa Court of Appeals.
The Iowa Code section that governs small claims is Section 631. As in a regular, district court case, the person or corporation suing is the plaintiff, the person or corporation being sued is the defendant. If either the plaintiff claims or the defendant counterclaims for more than $5000, the jurisdictional limit of the small claims court, then the case must be transferred to regular district court. Wilson v. Iowa Dist. Court 297 N.W.2d 223 (Iowa 1980).
The Iowa small claims process is fairly straightforward:
  1. Plaintiff begins case by filing a combined Original Notice & Petition.
  2. Notice & Petition are served on defendant
  3. Defendant files an Answer and denies petition
  4. Case is set for hearing
  5. If both plaintiff and defendant appear at hearing date, magistrate or judge hears case under informal procedure. Decision is often rendered on spot, but order may be issued later.
  6. Losing party may appeal to District Court, and if appeal is lost, ask Iowa Supreme Court for further review




Plaintiffs: Do You Have a Case? Is it Worth Pursuing?

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If you are the potential plaintiff (one who is suing) before you decide to go forward with a small claims case you need to answer two questions:

(1) Do you have a case? and (2) Is it worth pursuing?

Do you have a case? is both a legal and factual question. While small claims court has informal procedure, the substantive law is the same there as in the district court. Because life is complex and complicated and court is for solving real life problems, law can be complex and complicated as well. This is probably the area which is hardest for pro se parties (people suing or defending themselves without a lawyer) and it is probably well worth consulting an attorney to find out if they think you have a legal cause of action. In addition, you need to consider if you have sufficient evidence to prove your case. Is there a written agreement or lease? Do you have pictures? Do you have any receipts or other documentation of payments, costs or expenses? It can be difficult to win your case if all you have to offer is your oral testimony in court.
Is it worth pursuing? is a very subjective question. Even if you have a case you may decide that it is not worth pursuing. You may not wish to represent yourself or hire an attorney. You may not wish to stir up bad feelings or cause trouble. On the other hand you may feel that the case involves a matter of principle and you want to take a stand.
In addition, you should realize that even if you win a judgment in court, the judge will not be passing money out to you. If the defendant refuses to pay voluntarily you will need to track down their money or property and seize it or garnish their wages to receive the amount you won. The court and sheriff will assist you if you file the proper pleadings, but you will need to take action yourself.
Once you have determined that you wish to go forward with the case and have a legal and factual basis for your case, it's time to file. Here are the official small claims forms. If you are seeking to recover money, use eform 3.1 "Original Notice and Petitition for Money Judgment" For an eviction, known in Iowa as a Forcible Entry and Detainer ("FED") you use eform 3.6. Note that an FED is super technical and much harder to do then an usual small claims action. Best thing to do is to load this form into Adobe Reader and fill it out electronically, so you have a very readable and small size file. This will work much better than printing the form out, writing on it and scanning it, which produces a somewhat illegible and bulky file.
In Iowa all court filings, including filing by people representing themselves, needs to be done electronically via the EDMS system. You need to register with EDMS and file online, even if you go to the courthouse, they will just have you register and file electronically, from a practical standpoint there is no way to file paper pleadings old style at the court house.



Defendants: I've Been Sued, What Do I Do?

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If you are the defendant (the person who has been sued) in a small claims case you have a number of options. One bad option is trying to ignore the case. Once you've been served, if you don't respond the plaintiff can get a default judgment against you. This means that they win their entire case and can be awarded damages, if you fail to answer and/or show up in court. Unlike a regular hearing the judge or magistrate will not hear your side and will, for the most part, simply accept everything the plaintiff says which means if you don't respond to the petition and/or don't show up in court, you automatically lose. Don't ignore the the case! If the case is in court you need to deal with it.
The first decision you need to make is whether or not to defend yourself or hire a lawyer. If you hire a lawyer then they will take care of most details of the case, though you will still have to assist them with investigation and mostly likely show up for court. On the other hand if the case is for $500 and the lawyer wants $2000, then it would probably make more sense to pay the $500 to the plaintiff and settle the case. If you are reasonably determined and willing to stand up for yourself, you can do a good job of representing yourself, if you take the time to prepare.
If you do decide to represent yourself you need to file an answer. Here are the official small claims forms. Generally you should use eform 3.11 "Appearance and Answer of Defendant" Best thing to do is to load this form into Adobe Reader and fill it out electronically, so you have a very readable and small size file. This will work much better than printing the form out, writing on it and scanning it, which produces a somewhat illegible and bulky file.
In Iowa all court filings, including filing by people representing themselves, needs to be done electronically via the EDMS system. You need to register with EDMS and file online, even if you go to the courthouse, they will just have you register and file electronically, from a practical standpoint there is no way to file paper pleadings old style at the court house.
The official eform 3.11 "Appearance and Answer of Defendant" has three options. You can:
  1. deny the claim;
  2. admit the claim entirely, or
  3. admit the claim in part for a specified amount of money.
As a general rule, you should probably answer by denying the claim, the first option. If you don't want to fight the case and want to admit it, you should probably deny the claim with the first option and then contact the plaintiff and tell them you will pay in full in return for them dropping the case, i.e. settle. It is probably better to have the court record, which is public, say that the case was dismissed, as opposed to letting the judgment be entered against you.
As far as the third option, which is to admit the case partially, in general, it is probably a better strategy if you want to admit the case in part and fight the case in part, to deny the claim completely using the first option. Then appear at the hearing and tell the magistrate what you want to fight and to accept. This is more flexible and less written in stone than simply admitting that you owe a particular amount as it may be that you misunderstand the law or the applicable facts. Tell the truth and the magistrate can make a decision based on all the facts presented. Alternatively, you could file the answer denying the claim using the first option, and then settle the case, paying the plaintiff an agreed amount but less than what they ask for in return for them dismissing the case.
Finally, as a defendant you should consider whether you have a counterclaim against the plaintiff. If the plaintiff caused you monetary damage, either from the situation that they are suing you about or another situation, you now have an opportunity to sue them for this damage. Look at the official small claims forms and use eform 3.13 "Counterclaim Against Plaintiffs" and file this along with your Appearance and Answer.




FILING

In Iowa all court filings, including filing by people representing themselves, needs to be done electronically via the EDMS system. You need to register with EDMS and file online, even if you go to the courthouse, they will just have you register and file electronically, from a practical standpoint there is no way to file paper pleadings old style at the court house.
Unless you have had a motion to proceed without prepayment of fees granted you will have to pay filing and other fees. The filing fee for a small claims case is $85.


SERVICE

Once you have filed the Original Notice & Petition you need to have it served on the defendant either by certified mail by the small claims clerk ($10) or by the Johnson County Sheriff's Office by a deputy. If you want to have the Original Notice & Petition served by a deputy, after you file, take a stamped copy to the Civil Division of the Johnson County Sheriff's Office at 511 S Capitol St in Iowa City. You will need to pre-pay $40, but the cost of serving Original Notice is just $15 plus mileage, so you will likely get a refund.
After the Original Notice & Petition is served on the defendant all further pleadings are served electronically by EDMS.



Settlement & Mediation

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As an attorney with over 25 years of experience I always advise my clients, whether plaintiffs or defendants, to consider settlement. A case can be settled at any point, if both sides can reach an agreement. Settlement does not mean that you get whatever you want without going to court. Settlement almost always involves both sides giving something up. However, the advantage of settlement is that you know what the outcome is and you get to agree to it, even if it is not exactly what you would want or had hoped for. Trial is ALWAYS a risk, NEVER 100% unpredictable. What you may think is a slam dunk victory can quite easily lose. The judge or magistrate does not know you and will not automatically favor you or see things your way.
As noted settlement can take place at almost any point in the case. Typical points for settlement are when the case is originally filed and then very close to or on the trial date. Filing suit may be necessary to show a defendant that you are serious about pursuing your claim. Trial also provides a very significant deadline that also may be necessary for both plaintiffs and defendants to think seriously about whether they want to risk trial.
In Johnson County District Court, mediators are provided for small claims cases. On the day of trial after your case is called, you will have an opportunity to meet with the other side and a trained mediator to see if you can settle your case. This is an excellent opportunity to settle and you should seriously consider mediation given the risks of litigation. You are not required to settle and should not feel pressured to waive your right to trial and settle.



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If you are interested in hiring Christopher Warnock for advice or representation use the Contact Page