You’re Ready to File A Lawsuit … But Where Do You Begin?

Once you have decided you want or need to file a lawsuit, one of the most important decisions you must make is where to file your case.  This decision will have a significant impact on the type of relief you may be able to obtain (including how much money you may recover), who hears your case, the type of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) required, and how quickly your case is likely to be resolved. In North Carolina, most civil cases are handled in one of three courts: Small Claims (a special part of District Court), District Court and Superior Court.  Choosing the correct division is important for several reasons, and many factors go into the determination of which division is right for you. Three important considerations when filing your lawsuit include: (1) where your case is heard, (2) the type of relief you are seeking and (3) whether you may represent yourself or need attorney representation.

The beauty of being the plaintiff is that you get to choose where your lawsuit is heard, with some limitations.  A Small Claims lawsuit must be filed in the county where the defendant resides.  This is different from District and Superior Court, where the lawsuit may be filed where either the plaintiff or defendant resides, or where the cause of action arose.  (To find out where a corporation “resides”, visit the North Carolina Secretary of State’s website and search the name of the company in the corporation’s division.)  Consider this: You reside in Guilford County, but your defendant lives in New Bern.  In that situation, it is probably not practical for you to pursue your lawsuit in Small Claims Court.  Instead, it is more appropriate and convenient to file your action in District Court in the county where you reside.

Most often, the appropriate division can simply be determined by looking at how much money is at issue.  In August 2013, the limits for filing actions in Small Claims and District Court increased to $10,000 and $25,000, respectively.  Some counties, however, have chosen to keep the Small Claims limit of $5,000, so be sure to check with the Clerk of Court in your county prior to filing your action. It is important to note that these are monetary limits for each court, and other factors, including the complexity of your case or whether you are seeking non-monetary relief such as an injunction, may impact your decision to file in Small Claims versus District Court.

Another important consideration is whether you may represent yourself or need an attorney to pursue your lawsuit.  A corporation or limited liability company in North Carolina is required to be represented by an attorney in District and Superior Courts, but may represent itself in a Small Claims action.  Either party, if dissatisfied in Small Claims Court may appeal to District Court within ten days of the magistrate’s ruling.  Once a matter is in either District or Superior Court, a corporation must be represented by an attorney.  Individuals are permitted to represent themselves, regardless of what division a lawsuit is brought, but, often complex issues and the amount of money at stake make it a good idea to at least consult with an attorney.

The attorneys at Law Firm Carolinasare experienced in all divisions of civil court and can assist you in selecting the right court division for your case.