Small claims court was created to provide citizens with a low-cost, simple process for resolving civil disputes involving small amounts of money. The applicable Iowa laws may be found in Iowa Code chapter 631.
A small claims case is a civil action for a money judgment in which the amount in controversy is $6500 or less. An action for forcible entry and detainer arising out of a landlord tenant dispute can be brought in small claims court. In small claims court, cases are tried before a judge, not a jury, and without strict regard to technicalities of rules of procedure. There are easy to complete forms for small claims available on this website, with links to the forms and instrucions at the top of this page.
Start a Small Claims Case
To begin a small claims case, review the "Instructions for Pro Se Users " from the Iowa Bar. You will then be able to choose and download the appropriate small claims Original Notice form available on this website. Once you complete the form, you must go to Iowa Courts E-filing website, create an account to become a registered user, and file the form in PDF format. You must also pay an $85 filing fee. There may be an additional cost for having the petition served on the other party.
Defending a Small Claims Case
If you have received an Original Notice naming you as a defendant, review the Instructions for a Defendant available through the Iowa Bar. Download a small claims Appearance and Answer form from this website. If you believe you also have a claim against the person suing you, you may file a small claims Counter Claim by using a form available on the same site. Once you complete the form, you must go to Iowa Courts E-filing website, create an account to become a registered user, and file the form in PDF format. There is no fee for filing an answer. If you do not file an answer, you risk the chance of having the court enter a default judgment against you.
If the other party has entered a timely answer or defaulted (not answered), the clerk will assign a case to the court calendar for hearing. The clerk shall transmit the case file to the judge assigned to hear the case. A magistrate, district associate judge, or district court judge may hear the case. Judicial magistrates hear most small claims cases. Small claims hearings shall be simple and informal. Follow the Tips for Representing Yourself on this website.
Hearings are not recorded by a certified court reporter unless the party provides the reporter at the party's own expense. At the magistrate's discretion the hearing may be electronically recorded by other means.
Failure to Appear at Hearing
Unless good cause to the contrary is shown, if parties fail to appear at the time of the hearing the claim shall be dismissed without prejudice. If the plaintiff fails to appear, but the defendant appears, the claim shall be dismissed with prejudice. If the plaintiff appears, but the defendant does not, judgment shall be rendered against the defendant.
Using a Lawyer for Small Claims
Some litigants in small claims court choose to have a lawyer, though it is not required. If you do want to have an attorney represent you in court, but want some assistance preparing your case you might consider retaining a lawyer for an hour or so to look over your case and point out strong and weak points.
If a defendant fails to appear and the clerk of court determines proper notice was given, judgment shall be rendered against the defendant by the clerk of court if the relief is readily ascertainable. If the relief is not readily ascertainable, a judge shall render judgment.
Setting Aside a Default Judgment
A defendant may ask the court to set aside a default judgment for good cause, including mistake, inadvertence, surprise, excusable neglect, or unavoidable casualty. A motion to set aside a default judgment must be filed promptly after the discovery of the grounds, but not more than sixty days after entry of the judgment.
If you are unhappy with the decision in the case, you may appeal. To appeal you must:
- Either tell the judge at the conclusion of the hearing that you want to appeal, or file a written notice of appeal with the clerk within twenty days after the decision is rendered.
- Pay the docket fee to the clerk of court within twenty days after the decision is rendered.
If a magistrate decided the original action, a district associate or district court judge will hear the appeal. If a district associate judge heard the original action, a district court judge shall decide the appeal. And if a district court judge heard the original action, another district court judge shall decide the appeal.
The appeal shall be heard upon the record without taking additional evidence. If the original action was recorded electronically, the tape recording or other medium shall be the record on appeal.
If you are not pleased with the outcome of the appeal, you may ask the Iowa Supreme Court to review the case. In small claims cases, however, the supreme court has discretion to decide if it will review the casereview is not a matter of right.
Unfortunately, receiving a judgment in your favor is not necessarily the end of your small claims case. If the judgment debtor does not pay, you may need to consider garnishment. It is possible to garnish wages and bank accounts subject to certain exemptions. Many of the necessary forms are available on the Iowa Courts website, but garnishment is a multi-step process, so you are encouraged to contact Student Legal Services or another attorney of your choosing for more information.
If a judgment has been entered against you, there are strict limits regarding how much can be garnished from you. If you are struggling financially as a result of a garnishment, an attorney may be able to help.