Colorado Small Claims Court Guide

The Small Claims Court was created to provide a relatively cheap and efficient way for people to resolve their disputes. Because the legislature wanted the process to be inexpensive and fast, the rules of procedure and the rules of evidence in Small Claims Court are different than in other courts. However, the basic rules of law and the basic constitutional rules that apply in all other courts apply in the Small Claims Court.

This guide is intended to provide you with the information you need to present a case in a typical small claims court in Colorado.  However, there are different courts for each of the counties of Colorado and you must first determine two things: which county has the court where the dispute should be resolved (not necessarily where you live), and what procedures and rules that particular small claims court uses. Although this guide is an overview, please read through it carefully, because it will help you understand the local variations in the rules if you understand the rules in general when you talk with the clerk of the applicable small claims court. If you have questions after you have read the guide, contact your base legal office, or the clerks of the small claims court.  Remember though, that the clerks cannot give you legal advice. If you need legal advice, you should consult with an attorney.

Small Claims Court is a court of limited jurisdiction. In general, the claims that may be brought are:
  • Claims for money damages in an amount of $5,000 or less,
  • Complaints to rescind or revoke contracts for $5000 or less; and
  • Claims for enforcement of restrictive covenants in a subdivision where the cost of compliance will be $5,000 or less.
The $5,000 limit does not include interest on the amount owed or court costs for bringing the lawsuit, both of which may be added to the $5,000 limit. The Small Claims Court cannot order a person to return property, order a person to perform work or labor or order a person to accept or comply with a payment plan for the payment of a debt. It cannot enter an award for damages arising from libel or slander, award an injunction to prevent someone from taking an action, or enter a mandatory injunction to force someone to take an action.

A Plaintiff is a person who sues.  They are the ones who first go to court and ask for the Court to do something to change a situation.  The Defendant is the person or entity that is being sued.  When the defendant decides to also ask the court to do something, beyond just dismissing the lawsuit, they are filing a Counter suit, which makes the original Plaintiff a Defendant as well.  When a lawsuit starts to involve more than one such "Filing" or "Complaint," such as when there are "Third Parties," "Cross Complaints," "Interpleading," "Joinder,"  and the like, go sort it out with an attorney!

The Court charges a filing fee in most cases. If you cannot afford to pay a filing fee, the Court may waive the filing fee. If you believe that the filing fee should be waived in your case, you must file a Motion to Waive Costs and Fees, describing your household income and assets. A copy of that motion is available from the Small Claims Clerk. In all other cases, the fees are approximately as follows (expressed in dollars):

COMPLAINT: Fee depends on size of claim
0.01 500.00 9.00
500.01 2000.00 17.00
2000.01 3500.00 26.00
3500.01 5000.00 43.00
ANSWER: Without Counter-claim against plaintiff
0.01 500.00 4.00
500.01 2000.00 11.00
2000.01 3500.00 21.00
3500.01 5000.0 38.00
ANSWER: With Counter-claim Against Plaintiff
0.01 500.00 8.00
500.01 2000.00 16.00
2000.01 3500.00 25.00
3500.01 5000.00 42.00

Unless a motion to proceed without the payment of fees has been approved, all fees must be paid at the time of filing the first document with the Court.

In the Metropolitan Denver each county has a separate courthouse and clerk's office. The City of Denver is actually "the City and County of Denver," and City Hall also serves as the courthouse.  Other counties within easy commuting distance of Denver area installations are: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas, Elbert, El Paso, Jefferson, and Weld. In the areas around Lowry and Buckley there are some very unusual lines, because for many years The City and County of Denver was able to expand by annexing land in Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson Counties. The end result is that there are some areas that are completely surrounded by Denver which are actually in another county.   Some of these areas are rural such as around the Airport, but some are quite urban, such as Glendale, which is part of Arapahoe County. The legislature has recently passed a law allowing the City of Bloomfield, which is partially in four different counties, to be like Denver, and be both city and county, so it might soon have its own courts as well. When you check on your address, do not rely on what the Postal Service lists, because it uses a regional system. For example, Highlands Ranch and Lone Tree are listed as Littleton, even though they are in Douglas County, while Littleton is the county seat for Arapahoe. Greenwood Village and Cherry Hills Village are listed by the postal service as Englewood, which is in Arapahoe County. The courthouse for Arapahoe County is in an unincorporated area with an Englewood mailing address, but it is about ten miles away from either Littleton or Englewood.  Check your property tax papers, or ask your landlord, and then double-check on a map! Most of what remains of Lowry AFB is in Denver, while Buckley AFB is in Arapahoe County. The City of Aurora stretches through Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties.
Most Small claims Courts hold trials during daytime business hours, but some offer evening or Saturday sessions as well.  If you have a preference, ask the clerk.

Certain unique rules apply to cases in the Small Claims Court:

Only Certain Defendants May Be Sued In Small Claims. For a case to be brought in a given county's Small Claims Court, at least one of the Defendants must live or be a student in that county, be employed in that county or have a place of business in that county at the time the suit is filed.

Trials Are Conducted By a Magistrate. Unless the Defendant has a Small Claims case transferred (see below), a Magistrate who has been appointed by the Chief Judge of the Judicial District conducts all trials in the Small Claims Court. There are no jury trials in the Small Claims Court.

No Lawyers Are Allowed In Small Claims Court. Lawyers are not permitted to represent parties in the Small Claims Court until after a judgment has been entered. Once a judgment is entered, a lawyer may represent a party either in collecting the judgment or appealing the judgment, or both. If a lawyer is a party to the small claims case (that is, the lawyer is either trying to collect money through Small Claims or is defending a claim made against the lawyer) the other party may be represented by an attorney. An attorney who is employed on a full time basis by a corporate party may represent that party in Small Claims Court. In that event, an attorney may also represent the opposing party.

Simplified Rules Of Procedure Apply In Small Claims. The Small Claims Court uses simplified rules of procedure. No written motions are allowed, except those described below, and the court provides most of the forms that may be used in Small Claims. At the trial, every party and witness will be able to tell the Magistrate the facts that they believe are important. Cross examination of parties and witnesses by the opposing party is generally not permitted.

The Technical Rules Of Evidence Do Not Apply In Small Claims. The Small Claims Court does not apply the Colorado Rules of Evidence when it hears trials, except to the extent that the application of these rules is required to protect the constitutional rights and privileges of parties. The Small Claims Court will consider all types of evidence, if the evidence is relevant to the case. Written statements of witnesses or other persons, photographs, photocopies, and written estimates or appraisals all may be used in the Small Claims Court, along with the testimony of witnesses who appear in the Court. Parties often find that the testimony of witnesses in open court is more persuasive than is a written statement but written statements of witnesses will be considered. You can view videotapes (VHS) in the Court, however, you cannot take testimony by telephone, or examine audio recordings or computer displays.

Cross-Examination Of Witnesses Is Discouraged. The testimony of witnesses is given in narrative (rather than question and answer) form. The Magistrate may ask questions if the Magistrate needs additional information. Parties are usually not allowed to cross-examine each other's witnesses, but if a party has questions for a witness, the Magistrate may allow the party to ask the questions. If you are allowed to ask a witness questions, you should ask questions only. The opportunity to ask questions is not your opportunity to argue with the witness or to testify about your case.

Each of the steps in prosecuting a Small Claims case will be described in greater detail below.
In general, follOw these steps:
  1. Plaintiff prepares the Complaint
  2. Plaintiff has the Complaint served on the Defendant(s)
  3. Not later than 7 days prior to trial, Defendant may move to have the case transferred to County Court
  4. Defendant files an answer to the Complaint, which may also include a "Counterclaim" against the Plaintiff
  5. A trial is held
  6. Either party may appeal the result to the District Court within 15 days after the trial.

The first step in the process is for the Plaintiff to prepare the Complaint. There is a required form for Complaints in the Small Claims Court which will be provided to you by the clerk at your request. Before you fill out the form, you should be aware of certain requirements:

1. Know Who You Are Suing. Plaintiffs frequently lose cases because they have sued the wrong person or entity, rather than because they did not have a legal claim. It is important that the name of the Defendant(s) be correctly stated in the Complaint. It is also important that you name as Defendants everyone who you believe owes a legal obligation to you for the claim you are making. A judgment cannot be entered against anyone who is not named as a defendant in the case. It is important that you know whether any of the Defendants is a corporation, partnership, limited partnership or limited liability company, and, if so, what the full proper name of that entity is. If you do not know whether any Defendant is a corporation, partnership, limited partnership or limited liability company, you should check with the Colorado Secretary of State at (303) 894-2251 before you file your complaint. If you are suing a business and obtain a judgment, the judgment will apply only to that business entity unless you have named individual owners as Defendants and the Court has found that the individual owners are liable for the obligations.

2. State Your Claim Clearly. The Complaint form contains blanks in which you are to write the basis of your claim. Make sure that you fill in those blanks clearly and understandably.  After you have completed the Small Claims Complaint form, bring the documents to the Clerk of the Court. Remember that a fee will be payable when you file the complaint unless you have previously filed a motion to proceed without the payment of fees and that motion has been granted. At the time you file your Complaint, the clerk will assign a trial date and time, and that will be noted on the Complaint form. The Clerk of the Court will keep the white copy of the form and return the remaining copies to you. The green copy and yellow copies (one for each Defendant) should be given to your process server (see below), and you should retain the pink copy for your records.

All citizens must receive "due process of law" even in the Small Claims Court. Therefore, the Court must be satisfied that the Defendant has received legal notification that he (or she) is being sued before a judgment can be entered against the Defendant. The process of giving legal notification of a lawsuit is called "service of process," and proper service of process must occur in all cases heard by the Small Claims Court. There are two ways a Defendant may be given service of process: Service by Certified Mail or Personal Service.

Service by Certified Mail: Only the clerk may serve the complaint on a Defendant by certified mail. Service by certified mail by anyone other than the clerk is not valid. If you want the clerk to attempt service by Certified Mail, you need to provide the clerk with the names and addresses of the Defendants you wish to have served, together with a processing fee of $6.00 for each defendant to be served. Service of process is not achieved until the Defendant has actually received and signed for the certified mailing. No one but the defendant can sign for the certified mailing. In many cases, the Defendants fail to pick up their certified mail and there is no service of process. Therefore, personal service is the preferred method to serve process on defendants.

Personal Service: Personal service of process occurs when the Complaint is actually handed to a person. Only a person legally allowed to serve process and only a person legally allowed to receive the complaint are involved in the process. The complaint must be served by a person over the age of 18 who has no financial interest in the outcome of the lawsuit and who is not a member of the family or an employee of a person having a financial interest. Some people find it convenient to use the Sheriff’s department or a professional private process server to serve the complaint on the Defendant. The Sheriffs in the various counties and most private process servers charge about $30.00, and sometimes add mileage costs, to serve papers.

If you are suing an individual that individual may be served with the Complaint at his or her home. Only that person or a member of his family who lives in the home and is over the age of 18 may receive the complaint. If you are suing an individual, that person may be served at his place of business, only by handing the complaint to that person or to his "secretary, bookkeeper or chief clerk." This is proper service only if the individual owns the business. If you are suing a corporation' limited partnership or limited liability company, only an officer, manager, general agent, or registered agent may receive the Complaint, if any of those people can be found in the county. Otherwise a stockholder, partner or principal employee who is located in the county may be served with the summons. In most cases, a corporation or limited liability company will have a "registered agent" whose name and address are registered with the secretary of state. The registered agent is legally authorized to receive the complaint for the business entity, and you may have those documents served on the registered agent anywhere in the state, as long as the business entity has a regular place of business in the particular county.

In all cases, a "Return of Service" must be filed with the court before "Judgment may enter," which means before the court can take action it must ensure that the other party is aware that the matter is in the court.
The Return of Service must:
  • state the name of the person who received the complaint;
  • state the position or job held by that person (unless it was actually handed to the defendant), or the family relationship and age of that person;
  • state the time, date and place where the complaint was served, which must be at least 15 days before the court date;
  • be signed by the person who served the complaint, and his or her signature must be notarized;
  • be mailed or hand delivered to the clerk as soon as completed.

Unless the Defendant files a timely request to transfer the case to the County Court (the one that handles general matters and not just small claims matters), the next time the court will normally be involved in your case is on the day scheduled for the trial. However, you may have work to do on the case before the trial. The following suggestions will help you prepare for trial.

Prepare Your Exhibits: At the trial, you may want the Magistrate to see various kinds of evidence, such as contracts, canceled checks, photographs and other documents. Before the trial date, you should make sure you have assembled all of the physical items you want the Magistrate to see. You should make a copy of each document, photograph or other paper for yourself and one for the Defendant, so that everyone can be looking at the same evidence at the same time. You do not need to label your exhibits, but you may do so if you want. Plaintiffs' exhibits are numbered (1, 2, etc.) while Defendants' exhibits are lettered (A, B, etc.)

Arrange For Your Witnesses to Appear: If you want the Court to hear the testimony of witnesses, you should make sure that your witnesses know the date, time and place of your trial and that they have made whatever arrangements are necessary to be in court with you. If a witness cannot be in court, the Court will consider a written statement signed by the witness. If you need to compel a witness to attend court, or if the witness needs court documentation to be excused from work, you have the right to subpoena witnesses to court. In other words, you may serve a court order (called a subpoena) on the witness to attend court, and the witness must be in court or face the possibility of being held in contempt of court. Subpoenas are issued by the clerk of the court on your request. You must make the necessary arrangements to serve the subpoena on the witness and to have a Return of Service sent to the Court after the subpoena is served.

Organize Your Presentation: The most effective presentations are ones that have been organized, so that someone who knows nothing about your case can learn everything you think should be learned in order to make a fair decision. The Magistrate will ask questions about your case, but it is your job to tell the Magistrate what happened and to provide the Magistrate with all of the physical evidence you think is important.

The law establishing the Small Claims Court gives the Defendant an opportunity to be represented by a lawyer if the Defendant wants an attorney. Therefore, the rules provide that a Defendant may request that a case be transferred to the County Court if the Defendant has retained an attorney to represent him or her. The request must be made at least 7 days before the scheduled trial date. If the request is made on time, the case must be transferred to the County Court, even if the Plaintiff does not want the case transferred.

The law also allows a Defendant to have the case transferred to the County Court if the Defendant files a "Counterclaim" against the Plaintiff (asking for money from the Plaintiff) in an amount in excess of the $5,000 jurisdictional limit of the Small Claims Court. If the Defendant files a counterclaim in excess of $5,000, the case will be transferred to the County Court even if neither party wants to be represented by an attorney. However, either or both parties may be represented by an attorney if a case is transferred due to an "excess" counterclaim. In this case County Court rules apply.

If a case is transferred to the County Court because the Defendant has hired a lawyer, the Plaintiff does not need to retain a lawyer, but the Plaintiff may have a lawyer if he or she wants a lawyer. In all cases which are transferred to the County Court, the County Court will hear the case under Small Claims rules, even though one or both parties have a lawyer.

If a Defendant has not moved to transfer the case to County Court and if he or she wants to contest the claim that has been made, the Defendant will file an Answer to the Claim. The Defendant may also file a Counterclaim against the Plaintiff, in which the Defendant explains why he or she believes that the Plaintiff owes money to the Defendant. Answers and Counterclaims are filed in the Clerk's office. Although a Defendant may file an Answer or an Answer and Counterclaim at any time after he has been served with the Complaint, most Defendants wait until the scheduled trial date to file their responses to the lawsuit. Therefore, the Court does not know until the day of trial whether the Defendant intends to dispute the claim and/or intends to make a claim against the Plaintiff. If the Defendant files a Counterclaim and if the Plaintiff needs additional time to prepare evidence concerning the Counterclaim, the Plaintiff may request a continuance of the trial to a later date.

On the scheduled trial date and time, the parties go directly to the courtroom. The Magistrate will call roll to see which Plaintiffs and which Defendants are in Court. A number of possible events may occur after that:

If Both the Plaintiff and Defendant are in Court: Then the Magistrate will ask the parties to discuss settlement of their case. If the case is settled, the parties will report their settlement to the Magistrate and it will be put on the record. If the case is not settled, the Defendant will be asked to file his Answer or Answer and Counterclaim (if one has not already been filed) and the case will be heard as a trial on that day. At the trial, each side will tell the Magistrate the facts of the case and the Magistrate will enter a judgment.

If Only the Plaintiff is in Court: The Court will review the Return of Service and the Complaint to assure that the Defendant received legal notification of the lawsuit and that the claim is one which the law recognizes as a proper type of claim. If the Court is satisfied that there has been proper service of the Complaint and that there is a legal claim, the Court will enter a Default Judgment in favor of the Plaintiff and against the Defendant.

If Only the Defendant is in Court: The Court will normally send a notice to the Plaintiff that the Plaintiff must obtain an "alias summons."

If the Plaintiff wins at trial, or is given a default judgment, the Plaintiff may begin collecting the judgment as soon as the Court can process the paperwork. The Court does not automatically send any paperwork to the Plaintiff or the Defendant after the judgment is entered. The Court does not collect judgments for the parties. The Court will provide you with an outline of the collection process at the time your judgment is entered.  Even though the Plaintiff may begin collecting the judgment as soon as it is entered, both parties have a right to appeal the decision. The Court will provide you with an outline of the appeal procedure.  The Defendant may stop the collection process if it was due to a default judgment by filing a Motion to Set Aside the Default Judgment. This motion must be filed within 30 days after entry of the judgment. If the motion is filed, the Court will notify both Plaintiff and Defendant of a new trial date.

The Court encourages settlements at all stages of the process. You should send a Notice of Dismissal to the Court if you settle before the trial date. If you settle on the day of the trial, the Court will put your settlement on record, but no written copy of the settlement will be provided to you unless you request a copy from the Clerk approximately one week after the trial date. You may settle your case even after the judgment is entered. If the judgment is entered and paid in full, the party receiving payment must file a Satisfaction of Judgment with the Court.

The following forms are typically available from the Clerk or from the Colorado State Courts page:

Complaint (4–page form). The white copy is kept by the Clerk to open the Court's file. The yellow copy is to be served on the Defendant (remember, if there is more than one Defendant, each Defendant must receive a copy). The green copy is to be returned to the Clerk after the "Proof of Service" is completed. The pink copy is for Plaintiff to retain.

Motion to Transfer Case to County Court. To be completed by Defendant if Defendant hires a lawyer.

Request for Dismissal. This is filed if the parties settle their case or if the Plaintiff no longer wants to pursue the case.

Request for Continuance. If a party cannot appear on the scheduled court date, a continuance may be requested. If there is a good reason for the continuance, the case normally will be rescheduled by the Court. However, continuances are not automatically granted and some requests are denied. The party requesting the continuance should check with the Clerk to see if the request has been granted.

Satisfaction of Judgment. If a judgment is entered for money to be paid to one of the parties, and if the judgment is paid, the party receiving the money must sign a satisfaction of judgment form and have his or her signature notarized. The party who has paid the judgment should make sure either that he or she submits the signed satisfaction of judgment to the Court or that the other party sends the satisfaction to the Court. The satisfaction of judgment is the document that credit reporting agencies look at to determine whether to show that a judgment has been paid.

Interrogatories to Judgment Debtor. If a judgment is entered against a party and the judgment is not paid, the party who owes the money may be served with "interrogatories" (written questions) which ask where that party has income or assets. The order to answer interrogatories will be signed by the Magistrate, so that the judgment debtor is receiving a court order to answer the questions. If the judgment debtor fails to answer the questions by the date specified in the court order, the debtor may be held in contempt of court.

Motion for Contempt Citation. If a judgment debtor fails to answer the interrogatories, the judgment creditor may request a Citation ordering the judgment debtor to appear in court and explain why he or she should not be held in contempt of court. If the party who receives the contempt citation fails to appear in court on the scheduled day and time, the court may authorize a warrant for the arrest of that person.

Writs of Garnishment or Attachment, With Notices. These writs are court orders to employers or others to take income or property of a judgment debtor into their custody and turn the income or property over to the Court for payment to the judgment creditor.
U.S. Air Force Academy, USAFA, CO 80840, (719) 333-1110 DSN: 333-1110, Updated: 01 Mar 15
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