Guide to Defending a Lawsuit in Small Claims Court


  1. I received a complaint in the mail, what is it and what do I do?
  2. Do I need an attorney?
  3. What is a settlement?
  4. Is Small Claims Court the right place for the lawsuit? (Jurisdiction and Venue)
  5. What if I cannot make it to my trial? (Continuances/Postponements)
  6. What if I am a defendant but I have a claim against someone else? (Counterclaims, Cross-Claims, and Third-Party Complaints)
  7. What is “Transfer to the General Division”?
  8. How do I prepare my case for trial?
  9. What should I do on my trial date?
  10. What happens during trial? (Evidence, Witnesses, and Subpoenas)
  11. What happens after trial? (Magistrate’s Decision, Judgment, Objections)
  12. Who should I contact if I need legal advice or more information?


I received a complaint in the mail, what is it and what do I do?  (back to top)

A lawsuit in Small Claims Court begins when someone files a complaint.  The complaint contains legal claims against you and a demand for money damages.  A claim in Small Claims Court is limited to money damages, up to $6,000.  The person who files the complaint is the plaintiff and the person being sued is the defendant.  If you received a complaint and summons in the mail from the Small Claims Court then you have been sued and you are a defendant.  The summons contains the date and time you must appear in court.  You do not need to file anything before you appear in court.  Please read 8. How do I prepare my case for trial?.  If you do not appear in court on the date listed in the summons then you risk losing the case.



Do I need an attorney?  (back to top)

  • Individuals may represent themselves or be represented by an attorney.  If you need or want an attorney to represent you, you may call the Columbus Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 614-221-0754 or toll-free at 877-560-1014, or visit http://www.columbuslawyerfinder.com/ for more information about getting an attorney.

  • Partnerships may be represented by a general partner or an attorney.

  • Corporations may be represented by an attorney, a non-lawyer officer, or a salaried employee; however, the following limitations apply to non-lawyer representatives: the officer or salaried employee may testify only about facts he or she has personal knowledge of, and may present documentary evidence in support of the claim or defense.  He or she may not examine or cross-examine any witness, present legal arguments, or engage in other acts of advocacy.  The officer or salaried employee may not file or present motions, affidavits, or file collections proceedings.

  • Limited Liability Companies may be represented by an attorney, a non-lawyer officer or salaried employee of a limited liability company (LLC).  A non-lawyer representative may complete and file documents on behalf of the company in a small claims court, appear on behalf of the company at small claims court hearings, but may not engage in cross examination, argument, or other acts of advocacy.  A non-lawyer representative of an LLC may not file or present motions, affidavits, or file collections proceedings.


What is a settlement?  (back to top)

Parties often discuss their differences with one another and attempt to resolve their dispute before they come to court.  If you and the plaintiff reach an agreement to settle the case, the plaintiff must submit a statement to the Court that gives notice of the settlement.  The case number must be included on the statement.  The statement may be submitted in person, by U.S. Mail, or by fax 614-645-8465.  If the settlement notice is sent to the Small Claims Division before the next hearing date, the case can be removed from the Magistrate’s calendar and you will not need to appear in court.  If you settle the case, but a notice is not submitted before the court date, you should appear and tell the magistrate the outcome of the case.

If you cannot settle your case before the trial, you can request mediation.  In mediation, a neutral person works with the parties to reach a solution that is satisfactory for both parties.  For more information about mediation, speak with a staff member in the small claims office, or call 614-645-8611, or email mediation@fcmcclerk.com.

Online Case Resolution


Is Small Claims Court the right place for the lawsuit? (Jurisdiction and Venue)  (back to top)

Small Claims Court is the appropriate court for claims involving money damages that do not exceed $6,000 and that meet the requirements of jurisdiction and venue.  Jurisdiction is the court’s authority to hear a particular type of case.  The Small Claims Division only has the authority to hear cases for money damages that do not exceeding $6,000, not including interest and court costs – no other relief is permitted.  No “punitive damages” may be awarded.  The court does not have the authority to hear cases involving libel, slander, malicious prosecution, or abuse of legal process.  No claims may be filed against the State of Ohio or the United States of America.

Venue means the territory (usually, a specific county) where a case may be heard.  Generally, the Franklin County Small Claims Court is a proper venue if either the incident or transaction giving rise to the lawsuit occurred in Franklin County, or the defendant either lives in, or regularly conducts business in Franklin County, Ohio.



What if I cannot make it to my trial? (Continuances/Postponements)  (back to top)

If you cannot make it to court on your trial date, you may request a continuance.  A continuance postpones the trial to a future date.  Any party may obtain one continuance of the trial, for up to 30 days.  A written request for a continuance must be delivered to the Small Claims office at least 10 days before the trial date.

To request a continuance, write the case number, names, date, and time of the court trial in the request.  You may mail the request to:

Franklin County Municipal Court
Small Claims Division
375 South High Street, 16th Floor
Columbus, Ohio 43215-4520

You may fax your request to 614-645-8465.  If you do not file your request 10 days before the trial date, or if you want to continue the case for more than 30 days, or if you are making your second request for a continuance, you must request the continuance from the assigned magistrate.  Generally, only in exceptional circumstances will a magistrate grant a second request to reschedule a case.



What if I am a defendant but I have a claim against someone else? (Counterclaims, Cross-Claims, and Third-Party Complaints)  (back to top)

If you are a defendant and have a claim against the plaintiff, another defendant in the case, or a party that is not currently in the case, you may file either a counterclaim, a cross-claim, or a third-party complaint.  

  • A counterclaim is a claim brought by a defendant against a plaintiff. 
  • cross-claim is a claim brought by one defendant against another defendant, or one plaintiff against another plaintiff. 
  • third-party complaint is a claim brought by the defendant against a new party who was not named in the original complaint.

Counterclaims, cross-claims, and third-party complaints filed in the Small Claims Court are limited to $6,000, not including costs and interest.  Forms and instructions for completing the forms are available in the Small Claims office and online at the Court Forms section of this site.  These claims must be filed at least seven (7) calendar days before the trial.  A fee of $20.00 (plus costs for service of process) is required to file each of these pleadings.



What is “Transfer to the General Division”?  (back to top)

A case may be transferred from the Small Claims Division to the General Civil Division docket by any of the following ways:

  • By motion of the court at any stage of the proceedings
  • By motion of a party against whom a complaint, counterclaim, cross-claim, or third-party complaint is filed, accompanied by an affidavit, stating that a good defense to the claim exists and that states the grounds of the defense, or
  • Upon the filing of counterclaim, cross-claim, or third party complaint for more than $6,000.

A transfer fee of $45.00 is required AT THE TIME THE MOTION IS FILED as a condition for transfer.  Transfer must be completed at least five (5) court days prior to trial.  A party seeking transfer less than five court days prior to trial must obtain permission from the assigned magistrate.  Permission will be granted only in exceptional circumstances.



How do I prepare my case for trial?  (back to top)

Organize your testimony and arguments and practice what you want to say so the Court will be able to understand the facts.  Gather evidence that will help you defend against the plaintiff's claims (receipts, canceled checks, estimated bills, contracts, photos, etc.).  Find witnesses who will be able to testify.  If witnesses are not willing to testify, you can have them subpoenaed.  For more information about evidence, witnesses, and subpoenas, please see 10. What happens during trial?.



What should I do on my trial date?  (back to top)

Be on time to your hearing because if you are late, you may lose.  Before your trial begins, check-in with the courtroom bailiff.  If you do not appear on your trial date then you will lose the case.  If the plaintiff does not appear the case will be dismissed.

Before your trial date you are encouraged to discuss your differences with the other party in an attempt to resolve the dispute prior to trial.  If communication is difficult you may obtain assistance by contacting the court’s Dispute Resolution Program, which may be able to facilitate negotiations before the day of trial through the process of mediation.  Please see Mediation for more information.

If an out-of-court settlement is reached, you must submit a statement to the court indicating that the case has been settled before the hearing date.  The case number should appear on the statement.

On the day of trial, if you have not already resolved your case with the other party, you may be asked by the magistrate to engage in settlement discussions conducted by a mediator.  A mediator is not a judge and does not decide if either party is “right” or “wrong.”  The mediator will not force any party to accept a settlement that is not agreeable to everyone.  The mediator’s role and the goal of mediation are to help parties make their own decisions and agreements without going to trial.



What happens during trial? (Evidence, Witnesses, and Subpoenas)  (back to top)

Trial will be conducted in a relatively informal manner by a magistrate.  A magistrate has authority to decide your case.  Generally at trial, the plaintiff will first present evidence that supports the plaintiff’s complaint.  After the plaintiff has presented evidence, the defendant may ask the plaintiff questions.  The defendant may also ask questions to any witnesses the plaintiff calls.  The defendant may then present evidence.  After the defendant has presented evidence, the plaintiff may ask questions of the defendant and the defendant’s witness(es).

Please note: a person representing a corporation or a limited liability company without a lawyer may not ask questions of any witnesses.

Evidence may include the relevant testimony of witnesses, original documents, or acceptable copies of documents.  Some examples of evidence include contracts, receipts, public records (e.g., a marriage license or birth certificate), authenticated business records, market data reports, photographs, and tangible items (anything you can hold or touch).  The court keeps any document the magistrate accepts as evidence in the court file.  If you bring a document to offer as evidence you should bring (1) the original, (2) a copy for each party in the case, and (3) a copy for your own records.

Witness testimony is appropriate and effective evidence.  A witness should have first-hand knowledge of the facts.  Statements from witnesses who are not present at trial may be considered hearsay evidence.  Hearsay is not admissible as evidence.

Written estimates of value or repair cost are admissible as evidence to measure monetary loss in small claims cases.  You may present documents such as receipts, cancelled checks, bank statements, contracts, or photos as evidence.

Subpoenas are used to compel the attendance of witnesses.  A subpoena is a court document that orders a witness to come to your trial.  Any party may ask the court to issue subpoenas.  Requests for subpoenas should be made at least a week before trial at the Clerk of Courts office on the 3rd floor of the municipal court.  Subpoenas are not free.  The fee for a subpoena is determined by the length of time the witness is in court, the way the witness receives the subpoena (for example, if it is mailed or if you ask the court to deliver it in person), and the distance the witness has to travel to and from court.  If your witness or witnesses will come to court voluntarily, subpoenas are not required, but you may still have to pay a fee.  If you call an “expert” witness (mechanic, contractor, etc.), be prepared to pay the witness for his or her time.  For more information about witness fees, see the Clerk of Court’s Civil Cost Sheet.

In claims for motor vehicle damage, the Plaintiff must present proof that he or she is the owner or lessee of the damaged vehicle.  Proof that the Plaintiff is the current owner or lessee includes: (1) a valid certificate of a title or the original lease agreement (if the damaged vehicle is leased), or (2) a stipulation of all parties in open court that ownership is not in dispute.

Proof of monetary loss from motor vehicle damage may be shown by producing (1) at least two estimates of repair, (2) a receipted repair bill, or (3) testimony from an expert in collision repair.  Eyewitnesses who saw the damage occur or expert witnesses, such as a police officer who investigated the accident or a collision repair expert, may be subpoenaed, if necessary, and called upon to testify in open court.

The magistrate can ask questions at any time to clear up your testimony.  It is important during this procedure to remain polite; do not interrupt or argue.  When all testimony is finished, the magistrate will tell you that the case is “submitted” and that you will receive a written decision in the mail.

The burden of proof rests with the complaining party.  For example, the plaintiff is the complaining party in a complaint and has the burden to prove the claims in the complaint; the defendant is the complaining party in a counterclaim and has the burden to prove the claims in the counterclaim.  The burden of proof in small claims court is a preponderance of the evidence.  The magistrate will evaluate or “weigh” all the evidence presented by the parties.  If the weight of the evidence presented by the complaining party is greater than the evidence presented by the responding party, then the burden of proof will be met and the complaining party will win.   If not, the complaining party loses and the case may be dismissed or judgment may be granted to the defendant.



What happens after trial? (Magistrate’s Decision, Judgment, Objections)  (back to top)

After the magistrate hears the case he or she will prepare and file a written decision; you or your attorney will receive a copy of the decision and the Court’s entry of judgment by mail.  The Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law will provide a detailed explanation of the reasons supporting the magistrate’s decision.  If you do not receive Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law you may request that the Magistrate provide them in an amended decision.  You must make a written request within seven (7) calendar days of notice of the original decision that you receive from the Clerk of Court.  Forms for requesting Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law are available at the Small Claims Office and at the Court Forms section of this site.

A judge always reviews the magistrate’s decision; the Court will then enter a judgment.  The judgment in a small claims case may be appealed or enforced in the same way as any other judgment of the court.

Any party who disagrees with the magistrate’s decision may ask the court to modify or set aside the decision by filing written objections.  You have 7 days from the date the magistrate's decision is entered to make a written request for detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law.  After the detailed written decision is filed, you have 14 days to file written objections to the magistrate's decision detailing the errors you believe the magistrate has made.  You must file your objections within 14 days from the filing of the magistrate’s decision.  If a party files objections within this fourteen-day period, then any other party may also file objections up to 10 days after the first objections are filed.  The objections must state the specific reasons for challenging the magistrate’s decision.  If a party makes a request for findings of fact and conclusions of law, the time for filing objections begins to run when the magistrate files the decision that includes these findings of fact and conclusions of law.  A fee of $20.00 is required to file an objection to the magistrate’s decision.  For more information, please visit Objecting to the Magistrate's Decision.

A party may request an oral hearing by prominently writing on the first page of the objections, “An oral hearing of approximately [insert number of minutes] minutes is requested.”

When a party files objections, the case will be assigned to a municipal court judge.  The judge will consider the objections and any supporting memorandum; the judge may approve (sustain), reject (overrule), or modify the magistrate’s decision and enter a final judgment.  The court may adopt all or part of the magistrate's decision, conduct a hearing, take additional evidence, or refer the case back to the magistrate for a new trial.  The clerk will mail a copy of the final judgment to all parties.

If objections are upheld, a new hearing may be granted.  If a party’s objections are overruled, the party may appeal the Judge’s ruling to the Tenth District Court of Appeals.  By law, a party has thirty (30) days from the date of the final judgment to file an appeal with the Tenth District Court of Appeals.  At this point, however, the matter gets more complex and costly, requiring a transcript of the original hearing (there is a fee), and possibly the services of an attorney.  Before taking this step, you should consult with an attorney as to the merits of your arguments.



Who should I contact if I need legal advice or more information?  (back to top)

The Court, including Small Claims Division staff, judges, magistrates, bailiffs, and other court staff, cannot give legal advice.  If you have a specific question regarding your legal rights or responsibilities, you should contact an attorney.  If you need or want an attorney to represent you, you may call The Columbus Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 614-221-0754 or toll-free at 877-560-1014, or visit http://www.columbuslawyerfinder.com/ for more information about obtaining an attorney.

If you have questions about procedures in Small Claims Court you may contact the Small Claims Division at 614-645-7381 or email at smallclaims@fcmcclerk.com.  You may contact the Clerk of Court Civil Division at 614-645-7220 if you have a question about any of the court records for your case.  The Small Claims Division and the Clerk of Court are open from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., Monday through Friday.

In addition, the court maintains a website where you may view case information http://www.fcmcclerk.com/case/.  You can use the case information website to check the status of your case.

If you need language or interpreter assistance, please visit: http://www.fcmcclerk.com/court/interpreting-services#request-interpreter-services.