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FAQ: Small Claims
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Small Claims: Frequently Asked Questions

Each year, the Civil Division of the 36th District Court handles thousands of cases in which one party (a person, group, business, corporation, or organization) brings an action against another for money owed as a result of a variety of causes.  Such causes may include overdue accounts, rental security deposits, delinquent rent, repair bills, physical damage, breach of contract, etc.  The Civil Division docket is divided into two main categories of cases:

  • General Civil cases for suits up to $25,000.00.
  • Small Claims cases for suits up to $5,000.00.

Small Claims Court

Small Claims court is a judicial process established in district courts that allows for settling monetary disputes of $3,000.00 or less. You can only sue for money damages in Small Claims court. This court is not for cases in which you are trying to require someone to do, not do, or stop doing something.

If you want to bring a suit against another party in the 36th District Court, Civil Division Small Claims Court, the cause of the action for which you are suing must have occurred, or the party that you are suing must live or do business in the city of Detroit. It is important for you to know that by having your case heard in Small Claims action, you give up the following rights:

  • The right to have an attorney represent you in court;

  • The right to a jury trial;

  • The right to appeal a judge's decision to a higher court.

However, the party you are suing (the defendant) in Small Claims court does not have to give up these rights.  They may demand that the case be removed to the General Civil docket. If that happens, you may seek the advice of an attorney.


Table of Contents
  1. How do I start a Small Claims lawsuit?
  2. How soon after beginning my suit will I have my hearing?
  3. How are Small Claims court cases conducted?
  4. What kinds of results can occur from a Small Claims hearing?
  5. Can either party appeal the decision of a magistrate?
  6. What happens if a Dismissal or Default Judgment is entered on the case?
  7. What happens if either party in the lawsuit does not show up for the hearing?
  8. Can an appeal be made of either a dismissal or a default judgment?
  9. What happens if the Court enters a judgment against the defendant?
  10. What can the plaintiff do if the defendant does not pay the judgment?
  11. What happens once the judgment has been paid in full?

How do I start a Small Claims lawsuit?

To start a Small Claims lawsuit, you must fill out and file an Affidavit and Claim form at the Civil Division cashier counter on the 2nd Floor of the Madison Center Building.  The cost of the form is one dollar ($1.00) and they are available at the cashier counter or at many office supply stores.  When filling out this form, it is important for you to enter the correct name and address (including the zip code) of the party you are suing.  The plaintiff is the party who begins the lawsuit. The defendant is the party being sued.

The cost for beginning a Small Claims suit depends on the amount of your claim. Remember, the maximum that you can sue for on a Small Claims complaint is $3000.00.

Amount of your claim Cost to start your case
$1.00 to $600.00 $25.00
$600.01 to $1,750.00 $45.00
$1,750.01 to $3000.00 $65.00

When you file your Affidavit and Claim form, you will be asked how you want this form served on the defendant.  Service refers to the official way the defendant is notified that a Small Claims lawsuit has been initiated against him/her.  If you request personal service by a court bailiff, it will cost you $24.50 for each defendant in the lawsuit.  If you request service by registered mail, the cost is $10.00 for each defendant.  You must pay for service when you file your claim with the Civil Division.

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How soon after beginning my suit will I have my hearing?

When you file your Affidavit and Claim, a member of the Civil Division staff will assign a courtroom and a hearing date, usually forty (40) days after the filing date.  It is important that you show up in the courtroom on the day and time that your hearing is scheduled.  Small Claims cases are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday.

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How are Small Claims court cases conducted?

Informal hearings are held before a 36th District Court magistrate.  During the hearing, all parties tell their sides of the case.  It is important that you bring to court any records, evidence and witnesses to support your case.  You should be prepared to state your case clearly and completely.  After testimony and evidence is presented, the magistrate makes a decision.

A magistrate is a lawyer appointed by the chief judge of a court, who has certain powers and duties which includes Small Claims hearings.

The Magistrate may also decide to refer your case to Mediation before hearing it in the courtroom.  Mediation provides the parties on the case with an opportunity to bring their dispute before a neutral facilitator who has been professionally trained to aid in dispute resolution.  Mediators make no determination of right or wrong, they simply assist in the search for equitable resolution between parties.

Both the plaintiff and the defendant must agree to participate in the mediation process.  The advantage of the process is that it allows each party to own the decision making process and reach a mutually satisfying resolution. There is no charge for mediation services.

If an agreement cannot be reached, the case will be referred back to the Magistrate for hearing the same day.  Participation in mediation does not require an additional court appearance.

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What kinds of results can occur from a Small Claims hearing?

If both parties to the case are present at the hearing, the following actions can occur:

  • The defendant disagrees with your claim but agrees to continue with the hearing, after which the magistrate makes a decision (enters a judgment);

  • The defendant disagrees with your claim and requests the case be transferred to the General Civil docket;

  • The defendant admits liability for the claim of the plaintiff and a consent judgment is entered against the defendant; or

  • The magistrate rules that the plaintiff has no cause of action to sue and dismisses the case.

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Can either party appeal the decision of a magistrate?

Yes.  The decision of a magistrate at an informal Small Claims hearing can be appealed.  You must file your appeal with the Civil Division within seven (7) days of entry of the judgment.  Appeals, scheduled within fourteen (14) days after filing, are held on Tuesday or Thursday mornings before either the Presiding Civil/Real Estate Judge or another judge as assigned.

The decision of the judge is final.  No appeal can be made of the judge's decision.

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What happens if a Dismissal or Default Judgment is entered on the case?

The plaintiff has seven (7) days following the hearing date to file a Motion to Set Aside the Dismissal and Reinstate the Cause of Action, is a Dismissal was entered.

The defendant has seven (7) days in which to file a Motion to Set Aside a Default Judgment.  Either motion must be filed at the Civil/Real Estate Division counter on the 2nd floor of the Madison Center.  The forms cost one dollar ($1.00) each.

Generally, two weeks after the motion is filed, the Magistrate decides to either grant or deny the motion.  The court notifies both parties of the decision.  If the motion is granted for Setting Aside the Dismissal or Setting Aside the Default Judgment, a new court date is set.  If the motion is denied, you may file an appeal of that decision with the Civil/Real Estate Division.

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What happens if either party in the lawsuit does not show up for the hearing?

If the plaintiff fails to show up for the hearing, the case is dismissed.  If the defendant fails to appear for the hearing, the magistrate enters a default judgment against him/her.  However, before a default is issued, the court verifies that the defendant was properly served with a notice of the suit at least seven (7) days before the hearing.  If the defendant was not properly notified of the hearing, then another hearing must be scheduled.  When cases are dismissed or a default judgment entered, the court sends notice to all parties in the case.

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Can an appeal be made of either a dismissal or a default judgment?

Yes, dismissals and defaults can be appealed.  The plaintiff has seven (7) days following the hearing date to file with the court a Motion to Reinstate the Cause of Action.  A defendant has seven (7) days in which to file a Motion to Set Aside a Default Judgment.  Either motion must be filed at the Civil Division counter on the 2nd Floor of Madison Center.  The forms cost one dollar ($1.00) each.

Generally, two weeks after a motion is filed, the magistrate decides to either grant the motion or deny it.  The court notifies both parties of the decision.  If the motion is granted, a new court date is set.  If the motion is denied, you may file an appeal of that decision with the Civil Division.

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What happens if the Court enters a judgment against the defendant?

When the court enters a judgment against the defendant, the plaintiff becomes responsible for collecting on a money judgment in a Small Claims case.  At your hearing, a Small Claims Judgment form is completed stating the amount the defendant owes, how and when it must be paid, and what happens if it is not paid.  These forms are available at the Civil Division's cashier window for one dollar ($1.00) each.

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What can the plaintiff do if the defendant does not pay the judgment?

If, after 21 days following the date on which the judgment was entered, no payment has been received, the plaintiff can file a Writ of Garnishment against the defendant's wages (fee is $15.00) or bank account (fee is $15.00).  However, income from welfare, unemployment, social security, etc., can not be garnished. Arrangements are then made for the defendant's employer or bank to pay the judgment.

Bailiff service on a wage garnishment is an additional $27.50 per defendant. This includes the disclosure fee of $6.00.  Bailiff service on a bank garnishment is $19.50 per defendant (No disclosure fee).  The Court does not provide bailiff service for income tax garnishments.  Instead, citizens must send the completed form to the Department of Treasury in Lansing, Michigan.  

Another way for the plaintiff to collect on a money judgment is to file a Writ of Execution with the Civil Division.  When issued by the court, this writ authorizes a court bailiff or sheriff to take possession of real and personal property of the defendant to be sold to pay the judgment.  There is a $15.00 filing fee and $36.50 service fee (bailiff) for issuing a Writ of Execution, plus additional costs related to the actual expense of taking, keeping, and selling the property.

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What happens once the judgment has been paid in full?

If the defendant pays the judgment in full to the satisfaction of the plaintiff, the plaintiff must file a Satisfaction of Judgment form to close the case.  This form is available at the 36th District Court counter.  The plaintiff must give/mail a copy of the Satisfaction of Judgment to the defendant.

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