Ripped Off? The Trouble With Collecting Small Debts in Florida.

Logo

I’ve Been Screwed Out of $300! What Should I Do?!  This short article touches on a common question I get when someone is either owed money, or has paid money for services not delivered or performed as promised.  The amount changes, but the questions is normally pretty close to the title, “I’ve been screwed by _________________ for $______________!”

As a Pasco County Auto Accident attorney, most of my blog articles cover issues related to personal injury claims. However, I also try to mix in articles that will be helpful in other contexts, especially when some unfortunate person cannot get an attorney on the phone because the controversy is “small or insignificant.”  Of course, the $500.00 or $1,500.00 lost by the caller is very significant.

Unfortunately, the news is not especially good where your legal remedies are concerned.  Be aware that in Florida, if your claim is for an amount that is $5,000.00 or less, then an action to collect is filed in Small Claims Court.  The good news is that, without a law degree, you can go to the office of the Clerk of Court and find assistance with filing your Statement of Claim.  The rules are designed to be more “user friendly” then an action filed in County or Circuit Court, however, there are still rules that must be followed (see link to Rules below).

The problem here is in in the filing fee structure, which for Pasco County is outlined below.  Fees to file in small claims court are based on a sliding scale that is determined by the amount in controversy, which is set forth below:

Filing Fees: ******EFFECTIVE JULY 1, 2009***** 

$1.00 to $100.00:              $ 55.00

$100.01 to $500.00:          $ 80.00 

$500.01 to $2,500.00:       $175.00 

$2,500.01 to $5000.00:     $300.00 

That is a lot considering the amount someone is attempting to recover.  For example, if you are trying to recover $750.00, your filing fee of $175.00 is roughly 23% of what you are trying to recover in the first place!  And that does not include the $17.00 fee on top for preparation of summons.  If the amount in controversy is higher, for example $4,000.00, then the fee of $300.00 is just under 8%.  That may be easier to justify in terms of cost, but is still a good chunk of what you are owed.

If a claimant is indigent, then the fee for filing in small claims court might be waived.  However, the standard for proving one is indigent is pretty high, and stated as follows:

“…… applicant’s income is equal to or below 200 percent of the then-current federal poverty guidelines prescribed for the size of the household of the applicant by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. There is a presumption that the applicant is not indigent if the applicant owns, or has equity in, any intangible or tangible personal property or real property or the expectancy of an interest in any such property having a net equity value of $2,500 or more, excluding the value of the person’s homestead and one vehicle having a net value not exceeding $5,000.” 

Even if declared indigent, a fee and payment plan are involved.

This fee structure raises the question: “Is the whole small claims system worth the time, expense, and trouble?”  Unless the person you seek to collect from is collectible in the first place, or worried enough about his or her credit to pay, then you may wind-up with a worthless piece of paper.  As an attorney this is somewhat troubling because I would like to believe that the civil justice system provides an opportunity for redress of financial harm.  That may not always be the case.  If “Access to the Courts” is guaranteed by the Florida Constitution, then how are such high fees even Constitutional?  Are these high fees just dressed up taxes to obtain access to the Courts? Of course, the counter-argument from the Government would be, “We’re not denying you access to the Courts….you can have your day in Court for $300 (or whatever amount).”  I do not recall the Florida Constitution mentioning that my access to the Courts should come at a premium of 20% of what I am trying to collect in the first place!

It’s a tough predicament when you are owed hard earned money, and the amount is not enough to justify the hiring of an attorney, or even the fees of filing in small claims court.  Still, there are times when the best option is to file your claim, and you should at least talk with an attorney for input as to your specific facts (this article just addresses very general observations, and should not be taken as advice on whether or not to file in small claims court).  I always recommend exhausting every potential attempt at collecting the money prior to filing.  And while hiring an attorney to litigate your claim may not be practical, having one write a letter for you might do the trick under some circumstances.  As a last resort, small claims court may be a good option.  Although relatively costly, most people do not want a judgment on their record, so getting part of your money back is better than nothing.

If you have decided on filing in small claims court, these links may prove helpful:

Florida Small Claims Rules:  Florida Small Claims Rules:  download Florida Small Claims Rules


Application to be declared indigent:  http://www.flcourts.org/gen_public/family/forms_rules/indigent_application.pdf