When you sue someone or are being sued, chances are high that you will find yourself in one of Virginia’s General District Courts (the “GDC”). The GDC oversees the adjudication of small civil claims, which is the focus of this post. Other matters handled by the GDC include traffic violations, minor criminal cases known as misdemeanors and preliminary hearings for more serious criminal cases called felonies.
What types of cases are heard in the GDC?
The GDC decides all small claims involving amounts up to $4,500. Cases involving amounts greater than $4,500 but no more than $25,000 may be filed in either the GDC or the Circuit Court. Cases regarding the recovery of personal property, Landlord/Tenant disputes, contract claims, and personal injury actions are all cases that can be initiated in the GDC. The GDC can hear eviction cases, also known as actions for unlawful detainer, involving claims for rent that exceed $25,000. Another type of action heard in the GDC is a warrant in detinue, which seeks the return of personal property such as equipment or a vehicle.
How does a case begin in the GDC?
A person or a corporation with a claim within the above parameters initiates the lawsuit by filing a civil warrant with the clerk of the GDC and paying the corresponding filing fee. The party filing the case is the “plaintiff,” and the person against whom the claim is filed is the “defendant.” The plaintiff must file the warrant in the city or county where the defendant lives, is employed, or has a regular place of business, where the incident upon which the claim is based occurred, or where the defendant corporation has a principal office or registered agent. The filing fee covers the cost of filing the warrant as well as the cost of service on the defendant(s). After filing, the sheriff will locate the defendant and “serve” the defendant with a copy of the warrant so that the defendant has notice of the case and return date. The more defendants involved in the case, the higher the fee to cover service.
If the case involves a claim for money, a Warrant in Debt is filed setting forth the names and addresses of the parties and the amount of and basis for the claim. For the return of property, a Warrant in Detinue is filed providing the names and addresses of the parties, a description of the property sought, the estimated value of the property and the reason for the suit. A Summons for Unlawful Detainer is the form filed when a landlord needs to evict a tenant and collect unpaid rent or any other damages.
What will happen on the return date?
The initial hearing date is called the “return date.” Knowledge of the local practice of your jurisdiction is important because courts vary widely on what occurs on the return date. The clerk schedules many cases on the return date and the judge or an officer of the court will call each case one by one. If the defendant does not appear on the return date, the judge will check to see if the defendant was properly served such that the defendant had notice of the return date. If the defendant was not properly served, the judge may continue the case to a later date. If the defendant was properly served, the judge may enter judgment against the defendant and in favor of the plaintiff. If the plaintiff fails to appear on the return date, the judge may dismiss the case without prejudice, meaning that the case may be refiled. If both parties appear in court, some jurisdictions will expect the parties to present evidence on the return date. More typically, disputed cases are not heard and decided on the return date. Rather, the judge will determine a suitable date for the parties to return to court to present their cases. The judge may also order the plaintiff to file a “Bill of Particulars” and the defendant to respond with a “Grounds of Defense” by certain dates. These “pleadings” will give the parties more information about the claims and defenses involved.
After the return date and before trial is the time to prepare and gather evidence necessary for trial. Important contracts, documents, correspondence, leases, photographs, medical records, bills, receipts etc. must be collected, analyzed and organized. Important documents can be gathered from the opposing party or third parties through the use of a “subpoena duces tecum” which orders the custodian of the documents to bring them to trial. A subpoena duces tecum must be served upon the custodian and must be requested no later than 15 days prior to the hearing date. A witness subpoena must be requested no later than 10 days prior to the hearing. As a practical matter, subpoenas should be served at least a few weeks in advance, perhaps longer, to accommodate the witness or producing party. The subpoena duces tecum and the witness subpoena are the only discovery tools available in GDC—parties cannot depose witnesses or send interrogatories to the opposing party. However, the parties are free to independently investigate claims and defenses, including sending informal requests to third parties and using Freedom of Information Act requests to governmental agencies.
What should I expect at trial?
Proceedings in GDC are typically less formal than those in the Circuit Court. A judge presides over trials in the GDC and there are no juries. However, parties must still follow the rules of evidence and procedure. Each party will be sworn in and may present a short summary of their claims and defenses in an opening statement. The plaintiff presents his or her case first and may testify, call witnesses and present documents. The defendant can question the plaintiff and the witnesses, and the judge may also ask questions. Once the plaintiff rests his or her case, the defendant presents defenses and claims in the same manner. The court will allow evidence based on a witness's personal knowledge but not on another person’s out-of-court statement not made under oath—also known as “hearsay.” However, public documents are admissible if the issuing agency has certified them as true copies of the agency’s records, and a sworn written statement (an “affidavit”) may be presented from a repairperson or insurance estimator in lieu of oral testimony in cases involving damages to personal property.
After both parties have rested their cases, the judge will usually make a decision and enter judgment for one party or dismiss the case.
What happens after judgment is entered?
Either party may appeal the GDC decision to the Circuit Court within 10 days. If a money judgment or a judgment for recovery of property is entered, the prevailing party now has the task of collecting on the judgment or the property – and that is a topic for another blog post!