How to Start a Small Claims
How to Complete the Complaint Form
What is a small claim?
A small claim is a lawsuit for money damages up to $6,000. The small claims court uses a streamlined process for hearing cases and there is no jury. You can claim only money damages, not the return of property or the completion of services. You may not recover “punitive damages,” and you may not recover any money you paid to gather evidence or come to court (travel expenses, lost wages, baby-sitting, parking, etc.). Court fees and interest are added to the amount of your claim if a judgment is awarded. Recent Magistrate Decisions are available to learn more about the small claims trial process.
I heard Mediation is a no-cost alternative to filing a lawsuit, how do I request mediation?
Mediation is a voluntary process designed to help parties resolve a dispute outside of court with the help of a neutral 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 acceptable to everyone. The mediator’s role and the goal of mediation is to help parties reach an agreement. The mediator may help the parties document an agreement in writing.
Here are some of the advantages of Pre-File mediation:
- Mediation is free.
- The mediation process is private and confidential.
- Mediation is generally much quicker than going to small claims court.
- There is no need to involve witnesses or gather evidence. Mediation is not a “proof” hearing.
- Mediation sessions are usually scheduled on one Thursday evening per month at 6:00 pm.
- You control the outcome. (You do not have to agree if you do not want to.)
- Mediated agreements are more likely to meet the needs and interests of the parties than a judgment.
- Parties can include in a mediated agreement things a court might not have the authority to order.
- Parties may still move forward with a lawsuit if an agreement is not reached.
- Even if your case goes to trial later, you will be better prepared to present your case.
To request mediation before filing a lawsuit, complete the Pre-File mediation request forms. Please see Mediation for more information.
Do I need an attorney?
- 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 obtaining 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.
Is Small Claims Court the right place for my lawsuit? (Jurisdiction and Venue)
Your lawsuit is appropriate for the Franklin County Small Claims Court if it meets the court’s requirements for both 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 exceed $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. You may not file a small claims case 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.
Who are the parties in a small claims case?
The plaintiff is the party who files a complaint. As the plaintiff, you may claim money that is due to you only—you may not file a case to collect someone else’s money. The party you seek payment from is the defendant. If you are a defendant, please see Defending a Small Claims Lawsuit.
Who can file a small claims case and who can be sued?
Individuals or business entities such as corporations, limited liability companies, or partnerships are parties that may sue and be sued in small claims court. It is very important that you list each party accurately. If there is more than one plaintiff or more than one defendant, list each one separately.
- Individuals: If you are 18 years or older, you may sue or be sued. As a plaintiff you may file a claim in your own name. Here is an example of how you might list a party (plaintiff or defendant) who is an individual (always provide a full first and last name; do not use nicknames):
23 Any Street
Columbus, OH 43200
- Corporations: A corporation is an artificial “person” that is permitted to exist under Ohio law. In a small claims case, a corporation may sue or be sued in its own name and may be represented by an officer, salaried employee, or attorney in a small claims case. To list a corporation, enter the name of the corporation, and the address of its usual place of business. All corporations register with the Ohio Secretary of State. You can obtain information about the corporation from the Secretary of State by calling 614-466-3910 or toll-free at 877-767-3453, by visiting https://businesssearch.sos.state.oh.us/, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is an example of how you might list a corporate party:
General Enterprises, Inc.
10000 Enterprise Ave.
Columbus, OH 43200
- You should not list officers, employees, or other agents of the corporation as defendants unless you also have claims against them personally. As a rule, a principal (such as the corporation) is responsible for the acts of its agents (such as employees, officers, etc.) only if the agents act within the scope of their duties with their principal. If you decide to add any of these individuals as defendants, be sure to explain their personal responsibility to you in the complaint.
- If you are filing against a corporation and you cannot determine a regular business address, you may name the corporation through its Statutory Agent. The Statutory Agent is a person appointed by the corporation, who can receive notice when the corporation is sued. You can get the name and address of the Statutory Agent from the records at the Secretary of State’s office by visiting https://businesssearch.sos.state.oh.us/, by calling toll-free 877-767-3453, or by e-mailing email@example.com. It is important to note that the Statutory Agent is not a defendant, but can accept Court notices for the corporation.
- Limited Liability Companies (LLC): A limited liability company is created when individuals lawfully associate themselves for any purpose. An LLC may sue or be sued. To list an LLC as a party, write the name of the LLC and its mailing address. You may find the mailing address of the LLC through the records at the Secretary of State’s office by visiting the Secretary of State’s website at https://businesssearch.sos.state.oh.us/, by calling toll-free 877-767-3453, or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is an example of how you might list an LLC:
Columbus Example, LLC
c/o John Liable
2000 LLC Street
Columbus, OH 43200
- Partnerships: A partnership is an association of two or more persons to carry on as co-owners of a business for-profit. A partnership may sue or be sued in its own name and may be represented by a general partner or an attorney. Although not required, many partnerships doing business in Ohio register with the Secretary of State by filing Statements of Partnership Authority. You may find the name and address of the statutory agent for the partnership, or if no statutory agent, the names and mailing address of the general partners, by visiting the Secretary of State’s website, by calling toll-free 877-767-3453, or by e-mailing email@example.com. Additional information about identifying partnerships may be found at the the Franklin County Recorder’s office. You may call 614-525-3930, or visit http://www.co.franklin.oh.us/recorder/ for more information about the specific partnership you are looking for. It is a good idea to list the partnership and its general partners in the complaint. Here is an example of how you might list a partnership:
Rental Properties of FCMC, a partnership
John Doe, general patner
5000 Some Street
Columbus, OH 43200
- D.B.A.: "D.B.A." means, “doing business as” and is a fictitious business name that the owner (an individual or business entity) might use. The fictitious name is never a substitute for the identity of the party that owns the business. Here is an example of how you might use “D.B.A.” in identifying a party:
Bill Buckeye, D.B.A. Jane's Restaurant
100 Uptown Street
Columbus, OH 43200
- John Doe: A fictitious name may be used in a claim against a defendant whose identity and location are known, but whose name is not. If you do not know the name of a defendant, that defendant may be designated in the complaint by any name, usually John Doe. In the complaint you must state the fact that you could not discover the defendant's name. You must also sufficiently identify and describe the defendant to allow personal service to be made on the defendant when the complaint is filed. The body of the summons must contain the words "name unknown," and a copy of the summons and complaint must be served personally upon the defendant. When the name of the defendant is discovered, the complaint must be amended to include the defendant's actual name. Here is an example of how you might list a John Doe party:
123 Downtown Avenue
Columbus, OH 43200
What do I need to do to file a small claim?
A lawsuit begins in the Small Claims Division when the plaintiff files a complaint with the Clerk of Courts. Pre-printed complaint forms and instructions are available at no charge in the Small Claims Division. To obtain the forms and instructions you may call or visit the Small Claims Division, or you may download the forms at the Court Forms section of this site. You may also send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Small Claims division requesting the forms and instructions.
To begin the legal process you must complete and return to the Clerk of Courts a Complaint and the Clerk of Court’s Civil Cover Sheet.
- Complaint form: The complaint is the legal document that begins the lawsuit. In the complaint you briefly state the facts of your case, why the defendant is responsible, and the amount of money you want the court to grant to you.
- Clerk of Court’s Civil Cover Sheet form: The Civil Cover Sheet form notifies the court that a case is being filed. The case type for a small claims case is letter “I” and the filing fee is $78.00.
How do I fill out the complaint form?
A guided, online form is available to help you complete the complaint forms (email address required): Online Complaint Form
If you prefer to complete the forms in-person or hand-write the information, the 5 steps below refer to the pre-printed complaint form provided by the Small Claims Division.
Step 1: List the Parties
- Plaintiff(s): In the upper left-hand corner of the form, enter your (plaintiff’s) name, address (ZIP Code required), and telephone number. If there is more than one plaintiff, make sure that you list all of them. Do not use nicknames.
- Defendant(s): In the upper right-hand corner, enter the defendant’s name, address (ZIP Code required), and phone number, if known. If there is more than one defendant, make sure that you list each defendant separately. If you are bringing a lawsuit against a business entity, be especially careful to enter the name of the owner, whether it is an individual, corporation, limited liability corporation, or partnership, as the defendant. An incorrect identity can result in delay, dismissal, or obtaining an unenforceable judgment.
Step 2: Answer the Yes/No questions by marking the appropriate box
- Question (1) asks if the dispute has been mediated. If you have participated in a mediation with the opposing party mark "Yes." If you have not participated in a mediation with the opposing party mark "No."
- Question (2) asks if the defendant is currently in the military service of the United States. If, to the best of your knowledge, the defendant is currently serving in the United States military mark "Yes." If, to the best of your knowledge, the defendant is not currently serving in the United States military mark "No."
- To find out whether a person is in the military service of the United States contact:
Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC)
Attn: Military Verification
1600 Wilson Blvd., Suite 400
Arlington, VA 22209-2593
703-696-6762 or -5790/ fax 703-696-4156
- Go to the DMDC SCRA Website, and enter the last name and Social Security number of the individual. These are mandatory entries; the form on the main page also asks for a first name, middle initial and date of birth (DOB), which will help with the search. Additional information is available on the “Help” section of the DMDC website.
- To perform a search, click "Submit". If the individual is on active duty, the report will show his or her branch of service and beginning date of active duty status. If DMDC does not have information as to whether the individual is on active duty, the generated report will only list the supplied last name, first name and middle initial (if supplied), with the text:
“Based on the information you have furnished, the DMDC does not possess any information indicating that the individual is currently on active duty.”
- The report is signed by the DMDC Director.
- If the Social Security number is unavailable, you may request a manual search by mail. You must provide the DOB. You must send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the DMDC with your mail request.
- Question (3) asks if you want to waive notification of failed service. Service of Process is the official delivery of the summons and complaint to the defendant. When a complaint fails to reach a defendant by certified mail, you have the right to have notice of the failure before the clerk sends the out the summons and complaint again by ordinary mail. If you waive notice of failed service the court will resend the complaint by ordinary mail and you will receive notice of a new court date. If you do not waive notification of failed service then you must return to the Clerk of Court to file instructions for ordinary mail service. If you want to waive notice of failed service mark "Yes." If you do not want waive notice of failed service mark "No."
Step 3: Explain Your Claim
- Below the heading “COMPLAINT,” you must explain why the defendant owes you money. Include in your explanation a short summary of how, when, and where the debt arose. It is not necessary to go into lengthy detail (you will have an opportunity to do this at trial). It is not necessary to explain all of your past efforts to collect this money. The purpose of the complaint is to provide an official record and to advise the defendant of why you are bringing this claim. In your statement, you may call yourself “plaintiff” and the opposing party “defendant.” For example, you might state your claim in this manner: “Defendant owes plaintiff $ _____ for the following reasons.” It is important to include the dates and places of where the events happened. It is also important to explain the reasons for your suit. The evidence you plan to bring to court should support the amount of your claim.
Step 4: Enter the Amount of Money You are Owed
- Below where you explain why the defendant owes you money you will find the following sentence: “Plaintiff demands judgment against defendant in the sum of $__________ plus court costs, and interest.” In the blank line, you should enter the amount of your claim (not including court costs and interest). Your claim cannot exceed $6,000.
- Generally, if you win your case, you may recover your out-of-pocket court costs. Court costs include: (1) the filing fee, (2) subpoena fees, if any, and (3) fees you pay the Court to enforce (collect) your judgment. You may also recover interest from the date of judgment. Information about the current statutory interest rate is available at http://tax.ohio.gov/divisions/ohio_individual/individual/interest_rates.stm. There is also an interest calculation worksheet available at the Court Forms section of this site. You may not recover “punitive damages,” and you may not recover any money you paid in gathering evidence or coming to court (travel expenses, lost wages, baby-sitting, parking, etc. cannot be claimed).
Step 5: Sign Your Complaint
- By signing your complaint you are declaring that the information written is true and correct to the best of your knowledge, if not your case could be dismissed or you may face other consequences the court finds appropriate.
How do I file my complaint with the Clerk of Court?
If you are mailing or bringing your complaint form to the court, you must include the original plus three copies of the completed forms and any exhibits that you wish to file with your complaint to the Court. The two required forms are: (1) the Complaint, and (2) Clerk of Court’s Civil Cover Sheet. If you are suing more than one defendant, you must bring an extra copy of the Complaint and any attachments for each additional defendant.
You must pay a filing fee of $78.00 when you file your complaint. The Clerk of Court accepts cash, checks, money orders, or credit cards (VISA or MasterCard.) Fees are payable to “Clerk of the Franklin County Municipal Court.” You can mail checks and money orders with your forms to the Small Claims Division. If you want to pay with a credit card payment, you must pay in person at the Clerk of Court’s office. The Court will mail you a Notice of your trial date within a few days. Trials usually take place at 1:30 p.m. or 2:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday.
If you mail your complaint form to be filed by the clerk, please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). The clerk will return a time-stamped copy of the filing to you in this SASE.
What is service of process and why is it necessary?
Service of process is the delivery of the complaint to the defendant. When a complaint is filed the court sends the complaint to the defendant at the address you provide. Service of process notifies the defendant of the lawsuit and the court hearing date. A case cannot move forward without service of process. You must obtain successful service on a defendant within six (6) months of the date you file your complaint. If you do not obtain service within this time period, the Court will dismiss your case and you will have to file a new case.
There are several ways to serve a party. The first method is service by certified mail. For this method, the clerk mails a copy of the summons and complaint to the other party. The second method is personal service. If personal service is requested a Court Bailiff will physically deliver the summons and complaint to the defendant. The third method, residence service, is also completed by a Court Bailiff. The Court Bailiff personally leaves a copy of the summons and complaint at the usual place where the defendant lives. The person who receives the service must be an adult (18 years or older).
The filing fee includes one type of service for up to three defendants. You will be charged additional service fees for each additional defendant and/or address. If you request more than one type of service there will be additional service fees based on the current court fee schedule.
If service of process by certified mail is refused or unclaimed, and the certified mail is returned, the clerk will notify you or the attorney that represents you by mail. If you waive this notification on your complaint, the clerk will skip the notification and send a copy of the summons and complaint by ordinary mail to the defendant at the address that you provided.
Your case status, including whether notice and summons was served on the defendant(s) and your hearing date, is available online at http://www.fcmcclerk.com/case/. Enter your case number or your name to view your case information.
Where can I find party names and addresses in order to obtain service?
There are many ways to check names and addresses. You can look in the telephone book, search Internet sites like the white pages, Facebook, County Auditor (for property records) and court sites (for criminal and civil case records). You can contact the Ohio Secretary of State to find out if a business is a corporation with a statutory agent authorized to receive court service.
Who should I contact if I need legal advice or more information?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are writing regarding a filed case, please include the case number and case name in any communication with the court. The Small Claims Division is open from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., Monday through Friday.
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 Clerk of Court is open from 8:00 A.M. to 4:30 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.