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?
Settlement & Mediation
Here are some interesting examples of memorandum opinions from my small claims cases:
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
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 $6500, 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).
Here is the basic small claims process in Johnson County, Iowa, your county may be different, particularly with regard to whether or not the case is originally set for mediation. Many counties set small claims for trial as the initial hearing date. There are many possible variations from this procedure even in Johnson County:
(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 your petition which starts the case. Here is a video I made on How to register with EDMS and file a petition in small claims court. 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.
Here are the official small claims forms. If you are seeking to recover money, I have a fillable pdf Petition for Money Judgment which you can download and fill out electronically as opposed to printing it out, filling it out by hand and then scanning as a pdf to file.
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.
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" Here is a fillable pdf Answer which you can download and fill out electronically as opposed to printing it out, filling it out by hand and then scanning as a pdf to file.
In Iowa all court filings, including filing by people representing themselves, needs to be done electronically generally with pdfs 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:
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.
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.
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. Generally it makes sense to see if the clerk can serve the petition by certified mail, then if that doesn't work do the Sheriff service. For Sheriff service, after the court approves your petition, print out the petition and original notice plus the page with the court seal and take one copy for each defendant, plus an additional one additional copy. Take these copies to your county sheriff, in Johnson County to the Civil Division of the Johnson County Sheriff's Office at 511 S Capitol St in Iowa City. in Johnson County you will need to pre-pay $60, but the cost of serving Original Notice is just $30 plus mileage, so you will likely get a refund.
After the Original Notice & Petition is served on the defendant all further pleadings and court notifications, including hearing dates, are served electronically by EDMS via e-mail. If the e-mail fails that is on you, so check your EDMS account regularly. "I didn't get the e-mail" does not excuse you.
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 small claims cases are now set for mediation at the initial hearing date where the parties get assigned a mediator to assist them in trying to reach a settlement. But you do not required to use the mediator, you can settle on your own and you can settle after mediation even if it fails. 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.
If you are interested in hiring Christopher Warnock for advice or representation use the Contact Page