Thomas A. King, P.C.
Plaintiff: The person who files a claim against another person.
Defendant: The person against whom a claim is filed.
Statement of Claim (Complaint): The
legal paper filed by the
Defendant’s Answer: The legal
paper filed by the defendant
The legal paper filed by the
A final determination by a court of the rights and
In the late 1800s, as towns and cities began to be incorporated in Alabama, the cities were given the authority to pass and enforce by-laws and ordinances. The Alabama Code gave the mayor or the intendant the authority to act as a justice of the peace in all matters. The jurisdiction of justices of the peace at this time included civil matters under $100 and criminal misdemeanors. The mayor or intendant had such jurisdiction over matters arising “within the precincts of the corporation.”
In 1907 Alabama created the office of recorder and the recorder courts. The recorder courts had jurisdiction over cases concerning breach of city ordinances and by-laws. The recorder had the power of an ex officio justice of the peace in criminal and quasi-criminal matters, but did not have jurisdiction in civil matters. The recorder court had “original and concurrent jurisdiction with county courts of all misdemeanors committed within the city.” A defendant convicted in a recorder court had the right to appeal to the circuit court and the appeal was de novo. The court system remained virtually unchanged until the early 1970s.
In 1973 the Alabama Constitution was amended, thus abolishing the recorder courts and establishing a unified court system. The recorder court system was replaced by the current system of municipal courts. The jurisdiction of the recorder courts was transferred to the new municipal courts, and the right to appeal de novo to circuit court was retained. The major changes under the amendment related to the qualifications and salary of the municipal court judge. This amendment required municipal judges to be learned in the law and their salary to be separate and independent of the fines levied against defendants.
“Jurisdiction” refers to the court’s power of authority to hear and determine controversies before it. Proper jurisdiction must exist before any court has the authority to hear a case or enter a valid judgment. Proceedings held before a court without jurisdiction are void and unenforceable. A court without jurisdiction cannot enter a valid judgment. The municipal court judge’s threshold duty is to make a determination that jurisdiction exists before taking any action on a case.
In order for the municipal court to have jurisdiction over a case, there must be a valid ordinance proscribing the conduct in question, the alleged offense must have been committed within the police jurisdiction of the municipality, and the accused must be properly brought before the court. Generally speaking, municipal courts have jurisdiction over three types of cases: traffic offenses, municipal ordinance violations, and state misdemeanors that have been adopted by municipal ordinances as offenses against the city.
Municipal courts have limited jurisdiction. A municipal court has no civil jurisdiction to hear private disputes between litigants concerning contract actions, property rights, or tort actions. In traffic convictions involving an accident, the judge should not make a judicial determination of civil liability for damages even if restitution is granted to the victim as provided for in the Alabama Code. However, the court does have limited authority to exercise civil jurisdiction in regard to bond forfeitures. Actions on the forfeiture of bail have uniformly been held by the courts of Alabama to be civil in nature rather than criminal in nature. Therefore, when the municipal court judge enters an absolute judgment against the accused for failure to appear in court to answer charges against him, the absolute judgment that the municipal court enters is in the form of a final civil judgment.
A municipal court has no jurisdiction over civil domestic relations actions or non-traffic juvenile cases. A complaint filed in the municipal court alleging a non-traffic violation of a city ordinance by an accused who is under the age of eighteen a the time of the offense must be transferred by the judge, together with all papers, documents, and transcripts, to the juvenile court. However, a municipal court does have jurisdiction over traffic offenses, other than driving under the influence, committed by juveniles who are sixteen years old or over.
The municipal court has no jurisdiction over cases involving state misdemeanors unless the municipality has adopted a valid ordinance incorporating state misdemeanors as offenses against the municipality. The jurisdiction of municipal courts is also limited by the statutory authority of the mayor to commute any sentence imposed by municipal judges. While this power is seldom used, the mayor is provided this authority in the Alabama Code, which states:
The mayor may remit fines and such costs as are payable to the municipality and commute sentences imposed by a municipal court or the court to which an appeal was taken for violations of municipal ordinances and may grant pardons, after conviction, for violation of such ordinances, and he shall report his action to the council or other governing body at the first regular meeting thereof in the succeeding month with his reasons therefore in writing.
The mayor possesses only the power to pardon a defendant or to remit a find under this statute. After the defendant serves any portion of his sentence, the mayor is not empowered to grant parole. Likewise he is unauthorized to place a defendant on probation or to allow installment payments on any fine imposed.
A municipality’s jurisdiction is territorially restricted according to the size of the municipality. A municipal court’s jurisdiction extends to all violations of municipal ordinances occurring within the police jurisdiction. In a city with less than 6,000 inhabitants, jurisdiction extends to all adjoining territory a mile and a half beyond the city’s corporate limits. For those municipalities with 6,000 or more inhabitants, the police jurisdiction, and hence the jurisdiction of the municipal court, extends to all adjoining territory three miles beyond its corporate limits. Moreover, county lines do no impede the exercise of municipal police jurisdiction in enforcing police or sanitary regulations.
The Small Claims Court is a special civil division of the District Court where individuals as well as businesses can settle disputes and agreements. The maximum amount you may sue or be sued for is $3,000. Procedures are simple, informal, and inexpensive. There are no juries and you may appear before the judge with or without an attorney.
Before you file a claim, you should contact the person or business you plan to sue and attempt to settle your dispute out of court. This effort may save you both time and money.
You should also find out if the person or business you plan to sue has any money or assets to pay you claim, if you should win. Otherwise, you may have a difficult time collecting on a court judgment. Remember, it is up to you – not the court – to take further legal action against the person or business if they do not pay the judgment.
individual who has reached the age of 19, a partnership, or a corporation may
file a claim, with or without an attorney.
If a partnership files without an attorney, the person representing the
partnership must be a partner or employee of the partnership.
If a corporation files without an attorney, the person representing the
corporation must be an officer or full-time employee of the corporation.
You or your attorney should go to the Small Claims Division of the District Court in the county where the person or business you wish to sue lives or has an office and file a Statement of Claim (Complaint) form. The clerk has this form.
Having filed a complaint, you then become the “plaintiff” in the case and the person you are suing is the “defendant.” You must furnish the court the correct and complete address of the defendant.
The clerk will assign your case a number and you should use this number whenever you contact the court concerning your case.
You must pay a filing fee at the time the claim is filed. If you cannot afford to prepay this fee, you can fill out an Affidavit of Substantial Hardship form and ask the judge to delay payment. You may obtain this form from the court clerk.
The court clerk cannot give you legal advice.
The clerk will send a copy of the Statement of Claim (Complaint) and a Defendant’s Answer form to the person or business you have named as the defendant.
Once served with a Statement of Claim (Complaint), the defendant has 14 days to complete the Answer form and to file the Answer with the Clerk of the Small Claims Court.
If the defendant fails to file an Answer within 14 days after being served, you may ask the clerk of the court to enter a Default Judgment against the defendant.
YOU ARE THE DEFENDANT, WHAT SHOULD YOU DO
AFTER A CLAIM HAS BEEN FILED?
You may choose to settle with the plaintiff before the date the claim is set for trial. If you do settle, then the claim may be dismissed, with no judgment entered against you. If you choose not to settle or you are unable to settle, you must answer the Complaint within 14 days after being served, admitting or denying all or part of the claim. Remember, your answer must be filed within 14 days or a default judgment may be entered against you. As the defendant, you may also choose to file a Counterclaim, which is a claim that you have against the plaintiff.
All parties to a small claims case are encouraged to try and reach a settlement agreement prior to trial.
All settlement agreements should be in writing and should state who is to pay the court costs. If the defendant does not agree to pay the court costs as part of the settlement, the plaintiff will be responsible.
If a settlement agreement is reached before the trial, the plaintiff must immediately notify the clerk so that the trial can be cancelled.
If an agreement cannot be reached, both the plaintiff and the defendant should get together all papers, receipts, bills, sales tickets, estimates, photographs, etc., having anything to do with the claim.
You should write down the details and facts of the case to assist you in telling your side of the story at the trial.
As the plaintiff or defendant, you may bring any witnesses you feel can help explain your case. If there is any reason to believe a witness will not voluntarily appear, you may ask the clerk to issue a witness subpoena requiring that person to appear. You will be required to pay a witness subpoena fee.
If you do not feel confident and prepared to present you case yourself (plaintiff) or to defend your case yourself (defendant), you should contact an attorney. Both sides have a right to have an attorney present to represent them.
BE ON TIME. If you are late, the judge may dismiss your case (if you are the plaintiff) or he may enter the default judgment against you (if you are the defendant). If something comes up which would prevent you from being on time or appearing at the trial, you MUST inform the clerk as soon as possible and request a continuance (delay) of the trial.
A trial in Small Claims Court is an informal hearing before the judge. There is no jury. When the case is called, the plaintiff will present his/her evidence and his/her witnesses. The defendant will then present his evidence, and call his witnesses.
After hearing both sides of the case and looking at the evidence, the judge will make a decision and render a judgment based on the law and the facts presented.
CAN YOU DO IF YOU DISAGREE WITH THE
If either of you (plaintiff or defendant) disagrees with the decision, you may appeal the case by filing a Notice of Appeal form with the clerk of the Small Claims Court within 14 days after the date of the judgment. The clerk has this form.
The appeal will be heard in the Circuit Court. The party filing the appeal must be prepared to pay a filing fee and post a bond to cover any unpaid court costs. You may need the assistance of an attorney if you choose to appeal because the simplified procedures of Small Claims Court do not apply in Circuit Court.
IF YOU, THE PLAINTIFF, WIN, HOW DO YOU COLLECT THE JUDGMENT?
If the defendant does not pay the judgment (after the appeal time has run – 14 days) it is up to you and not the court to take one of the following actions:
Execution – Obtain a court order authorizing the sheriff to pick up any property belonging to the defendant and sell it to satisfy the judgment; or
Garnishment – Obtain a court order to garnish (withhold) the wages of the defendant to satisfy the judgment.
Both of the above described actions require an additional filing fee. The clerk has the necessary forms. Because either method of collection may become involved, you may with to have an attorney explain the procedure and assist you in filing the appropriate forms. The court clerk cannot give you legal advice.
YOU, THE DEFENDANT, LOSE THE CASE AND THE PLAINTIFF FILES AN EXECUTION OF
GARNISHMENT PROCEEDING AGAINST YOU, WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
If you do not understand the proceeding, you should contact an attorney for assistance. You have certain legal rights and an attorney can explain these rights to you. The court clerk cannot give you legal advice.
This website is an advertisement. It contains general descriptions of Alabama law in certain areas but it is not a substitute for advice from a qualified lawyer familiar with the facts of your case. These materials are for general discussion and educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Do not rely on the information presented on this site to make legal decisions. Always consult a lawyer first. The law constantly changes and the legal discussions in this site could be out of date. There is no promise or warranty that these materials are accurate, free from defects, merchantable or fit for a particular purpose. The user of these materials assumes all risk associated with their use. No attorney-client relationship is established between any user of this site and Tom A King, P.C. or any of its attorneys unless the relationship is evidenced by a written legal services agreement signed by both the attorney and the client. No representation is made that the quality of the legal services to be performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.
This Page was Last Updated on 05/05/2004