Minnesota Conciliation Court, often called “small claims court,” is part of the Minnesota state court system. Conciliation court is designed to more quickly resolve small disputes without the costs, time, and formalities of a normal case in Minnesota District Court.
Minnesota Conciliation Court is quicker and has fewer rules than normal cases in Minnesota District Court. For example, in conciliation court, the rules of evidence are relaxed. “The judge shall normally receive only evidence admissible under the rules of evidence, but in the exercise of discretion and in the interests of justice, may receive otherwise inadmissible evidence.” See Rule 512(d) of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice.
Conciliation court is a lot like what you might see on TV with The People’s Court (1981), Judge Judy (1996), or Judge Mathis (1999). Cases often take 10-20 minutes. Both sides tell their version of events. The judge will ask questions (and the judge usually lets the parties ask each other questions). However, unlike TV, Minnesota judges usually mail their decisions to the parties rather than present them at the hearing.
Before a hearing in Minnesota Conciliation Court, either party can remove the case to Minnesota District Court and skip conciliation court. Also, if either party doesn’t like the outcome of Minnesota Conciliation Court, they can appeal the case to Minnesota District Court for a limited number of days. When a party appeals the case to district court, the case is heard anew (de novo). For this reason, parties often see what happens in conciliation court before deciding whether their case justifies the costs and delays of Minnesota District Court.
If you are considering suing someone but the amount is not high enough to justify hiring an attorney, filing a lawsuit in small claims court is a good option. Small claims court, or conciliation court, allows people to represent themselves under less formal rules of evidence and procedure. The court settles disputes up to $15,000, but there are a few exceptions (for the exceptions, see Minnesota Statutes section 491A.01, subdiv. 3a and 4).
Even if your claim is over the limit, you may still want to file in conciliation court up to $15,000, and let the rest of your claim go. For example, if you are owed $16,000, you could let $1,000 go and sue for $15,000 instead. This may still be easier than filing in district court.
On the other hand, you might consider finding an attorney for complex or expensive claims, even if they are under the limit and you file in small claims court. An attorney can help you organize and articulate your arguments in the statement of claims and summons (described below), and can represent you in the actual hearing before the judge as long as the judge agrees the attorney’s involvement is helpful (see Rule 512(c) of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice).
First, you have to locate the correct district court. The lawsuit should generally be filed in the district court for the county where the defendant lives, where checks were written (if the case involves bad checks), where real property or land is located (if the case is a landlord/tenant dispute), or where the corporation has its business or branch office (if suing a corporation).
To begin the lawsuit, you will file a complaint by filling out a form called the “Statement of Claims and Summons.” You can find the forms here or use this step-by-step wizard. You will need a telephone number where you can be contacted during the day, the defendant’s name and address, the amount of money (or a list of property) you want the defendant to give to you, and the reasons why this money or property should be yours. When completing the last section, write in a clear and organized fashion that tells your story but doesn’t confuse the reader with unnecessary details.
At the time of filing, you will have to pay a filing fee, usually under $100. Often, the court orders the losing party to pay the other party’s filing fee along with whatever other damages are awarded.
Once this is done, you or the court clerk will “serve” the other party by mailing a copy of the complaint to the defendant. It’s important to make sure you have the defendant’s correct address, because your case cannot proceed unless the defendant is aware of the complaint against them.
If you receive a complaint and summons, you have a few options.
You could admit the charges against you and agree to pay what you owe.
You could try to settle with the other party by negotiating a payment that is acceptable to both of you. In this case, you would put the agreement in writing and notify the court clerk.
If you want to fight the case, you can show up in court on the scheduled date and present your case in front of the judge. If you think that you have been harmed, you can file a counterclaim that will be resolved at the same time. (You can find the forms here.) As with a regular claim, you will have to pay the filing fee.
If you fail to show up for the hearing, you lose by default and the other side wins automatically, as long as they can show that you received the complaint and summons. If you can’t make the court date, you can contact the court well in advance of the hearing and request a new court date. This request to reschedule is called a “continuance.”
Effectively representing yourself mostly boils down to preparation and common sense. Here are a few tips to help.
Again, if you don’t show up to your court hearing, you default and the other party wins. Make sure that you either clear your schedule for your court date or ask for a continuance. On the day of the hearing, make sure you know where the courthouse is and leave yourself plenty of time to get there and find parking. It can also take time to get through security screenings and find the right courtroom.
You should keep a file with every document you or the other side has filed with the court, and bring that file with you on the day of your hearing. Also, bring all evidence you have gathered that helps prove your case—pictures, written agreements, emails, and whatever else can be used to show that your story is true. Bring the original and 2 copies: one for yourself, one for the opposition, and the original for the judge (which you may not get back).
Before the day of the hearing, take some time to organize your argument. Think about all the facts you want the court to know, then practice telling your story in a clear fashion that highlights all of those facts. It’s usually best to present your side in this way:
1. In a sentence or two, tell the judge what you are going to share (the key point why you are right and the other side is wrong).
Your Honor, as I explain what happened, you will see that I sent payment to the Plaintiff but he returned it and said he changed his mind.
2. In chronological order, tell the judge your story and present evidence as it comes up in your story.
On April 1, Mr. Johnson agreed to sell his Honda snowblower to me for $900.
On April 2, I brought a check for $900 to Mr. Johnson. When I arrived, I gave the check to Mr. Johnson. We went to the garage, and Mr. Johnson said he changed his mind and wanted to give me a Toro snowblower instead. The Toro snowblower was older, smaller, and worth less. I insisted on the Honda snowblower, which he refused. I said I wanted my money back, but Mr. Johnson refused. I took the Toro snowblower under protest.
Now I am suing Mr. Johnson for a refund of $500, because the Toro snowblower was only worth $400. I have as evidence some online ads showing that Toro snowblowers of the same model and year are worth only $400. Your Honor, may I approach the bench and give you this evidence?
Alternatively, I’m willing to return the Toro snowblower for a full refund.
3. Conclude with 1-2 sentences on why you should win.
In conclusion, Mr. Johnson agreed to sell his Honda snowblower to me for $900. I am entitled to the Honda snowblower for $900, a full refund, or the Toro snowblower for $400, which means Mr. Johnson owes me a refund of $500. I would prefer to have the $500 refund so I can be done with this and avoid further interactions with Mr. Johnson.
Going over your argument with a friend or out loud by yourself will make it easier to present it to a judge. Bringing an outline to look at during the hearing may also be a good idea. Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter how right you are if your story isn’t communicated to the judge.
The court, even for less formal proceedings, requires proper conduct. Dress nicely, be respectful to the judge and the opposition, and leave the kids at home if possible. You don’t want to do anything that would make a bad impression on the person deciding your case. In short, use common sense.
Conciliation court can be a good option for small claims that don’t justify hiring an attorney. The process is straightforward and is aimed at providing a simple and accessible legal forum. Representing yourself is also straightforward, as long as you are prepared. Telling your story in a clear, organized manner will give you your best shot at success. If you are worried you will be so nervous that you will get confused and present your case poorly, you are welcome to contact me for a referral to a low-cost attorney to help you in conciliation court.
To learn more, you can read Minnesota’s Conciliation Court Rules. Title VI of the Minnesota General Rules of Practice for the District Courts provides the Conciliation Court Rules. You can find them as a PDF here or look for them in the table of contents for the Minnesota General Rules of Practice (look for Rules 501-525).
The Minnesota Statutes that cover Minnesota’s Conciliation Court are Minnesota Statutes 491A.01, 491A.02, and 491A.03.