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POINTERS ON HOW TO NAVIGATE THROUGH GEORGIA’S MAGISTRATE COURT

Posted By Joette Melendez, Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Magistrate Court, also known as Small Claims Court, allows parties to litigate claims where the amount in controversy is less than $15,000.00. In addition, non-lawyers are allowed to represent not only themselves but their company. This difference is critical because, in State and Superior Courts in Georgia, companies must be represented by attorneys. While resolving a case in Magistrate Court can save time and money, it is important to understand exactly how the process works before choosing to litigate there. 

 

You have to choose the correct county in which to sue the Defendant. Make sure you sue him/her in the county where he/she resides. If the Defendant is a company, sue it in the county where its principal office is located. Go to the secretary of state website for this information: www.sos.ga.gov. Once you know what county to sue in, you can either go on line and find the complaint form to fill out or you can get the paper form to fill out at the Magistrate Court. Many courts now allow you to simply fill out your complaint on line. You will have to serve the papers on the registered agent of the company. If the registered agent cannot be found or is no longer at the address on the Secretary of State, there are provisions that allow you to serve the Secretary of State on behalf of the company you are suing. 

 

Once the Defendant is served with the complaint, he/she will have 30 days to file an answer. If an answer is filed, the Court will set the matter down for a hearing. On the date of court, most judges will make the parties discuss settlement. You are not required to settle, but you have to at least discuss settlement in good faith.

 

If you actually have a trial, understand that while the rules of evidence are relaxed in Magistrate Court, you still have to prove your case, and hearsay evidence will still not be admitted. That means that if you are seeking to recover damages, it will not be admissible to simply show the court estimates or tell the Judge that someone told you that it will cost a certain amount of money to fix it. In order to recover damages, you have to either show that you paid a bill, and then provide proof of payment, or you have to bring to court the person who provided the estimate. If you want to be sure a witness shows up in court, you should serve him/her with a subpoena before the trial.

 

All cases (except defaults) can be appealed simply based on the fact that a litigant does not like the result. When that happens, the case is transferred to either the State or Superior Court in the same county, and it starts all over again. Whatever happened in the Magistrate Court does not matter as the case is adjudicated “de Novo” – a Latin phrase meaning “from the new” or in laymen’s’ terms, the entire case is heard from the start. 

 

Leaving court with a judgment does not ensure that you collect what you have been awarded. The court does not “make anybody pay,” and it is up to you to collect your judgment.

 

If you obtain a judgment and the other side does not appeal, you can try to recover your judgment by way of a garnishment. A garnishment is a separate legal action where you serve either the Defendant’s bank or employer and either take money in the bank account, or intercept wages that are due to the Defendant. If you do not know where the Defendant works or banks, you can send post judgment discovery to the Defendant and he/she is required to answer. There are forms for this post judgment discovery in the clerk’s office. 

 

While a non-lawyer can certainly successfully navigate through Magistrate Court, knowing in advance what to expect will make the sailing much smoother.

 

 

This content was written by one of our panel members, David Merbaum, an attorney in Alpharetta, Georgia.

 

***If you or someone you know is faced with Magistrate issues, please call

Atlanta Bar Association's Lawyer Referral & Information Service

at 404-521-0777.***

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