Student Legal Services provides advice and representation to students (regardless of what side they are on) in small claims cases, including trial, appeal and collections.

Small claims court was created to provide a low-cost, simple process for resolving civil disputes of $6,500 or less. This includes money judgments and replevin actions (lawsuits where a party requests property, not money).

In small claims court, cases are tried before a judge, not a jury, and the rules of civil procedure are relaxed. Parties can choose to hire an attorney or represent themselves.

The information below is accurate to the authors’ knowledge at the time it was written. This is general information and is not a substitute for legal advice.

A small claims case begins when a plaintiff files an Original Notice and Petition. Forms are available online. Small claims forms must be filed electronically. Filers can request an electronic account or can go to the Clerk of Court’s office for filing assistance.

There is a $95 filing fee for small claims cases. There is an additional $20 charge for service (the Clerk of Court will mail your Original Notice and Petition to the defendant). If the plaintiff wins the case, the defendant will be required to repay these fees.

If you receive an Original Notice and Petition naming you as a defendant, you must file an Answer within twenty days of receipt. If you believe you also have a claim against the person suing you, you may file a counterclaim. Both of these forms are available online.

Small claims forms must be filed electronically. Filers can request an electronic account or can go the Clerk of Court’s office for filing assistance. There is no fee for filing an answer or counterclaim.

If you do not file an answer, you risk having the court enter a default judgment against you, meaning that you automatically lose the case.

Many Iowa counties, including Johnson County, require parties to attend a mediation session prior to a small claims trial. During mediation the parties will meet with a neutral person called a mediator. The mediator will help facilitate a conversation where each party can share their side of the case. If the parties come to a resolution, the mediator will write up the agreement and give it to the judge. If the parties do not resolve the case during mediation, they will attend a pre-trial conference with the judge.

The purpose of the pre-trial conference is to set a trial date. The parties may be asked to briefly describe the nature of the case and the number of witnesses they plan to have.

At trial, the parties should be prepared to tell the judge their position and to respond to questions from the judge and the other side. Parties are encouraged to provide exhibits (pictures, videos, e-mails, letters, etc.) to support their case, but exhibits must be filed electronically prior to trial. The judge will not look at your phone during trial, so pictures or text messages must be printed and filed. Parties are allowed to bring witnesses who can also testify regarding the case. The judge will record the hearing. The judge may make a decision immediately after the trial, or may take time to consider the matter further before issuing a written decision.

The parties are required to attend all court hearings. If the plaintiff does not appear, the judge may dismiss the case. If the defendant does not appear, the judge may enter judgment against them in the amount requested by the plaintiff. If you failed to appear for a hearing and have questions, contact Student Legal Services or another attorney. 

If you are unhappy with the judge’s decision in the case, you may appeal. To appeal you must:

  • Either tell the judge at the conclusion of the trial that you want to appeal, or file a written notice of appeal with the Clerk of Court within twenty days after the court’s decision is made; and
  • Pay a filing fee to the Clerk of Court when you file your appeal.

The notice of appeal should explain why the party is appealing. The other party is allowed to submit a written response to the appeal. A new judge will review the case and decide whether or not to change the outcome. There will not be another trial.

If you win a small claims case but have not received your money from the other party, you may have collections options including garnishment of wages. If a judgment was entered against you and you have not paid the money, you may be subject to garnishment. If you have questions regarding collections, contact Student Legal Services or another attorney.