Consumer Complaints and the Courts
There may be times when you believe that a service person or a business concern has not treated you fairly. Typical examples are:
- an appliance does not work properly and the store will not replace it
or refund your money;
- a repair shop has not properly repaired your car or appliance;
- painting, plumbing, electrical, or carpentry work was not done properly.
When this happens, always try to talk to the business involved and seek a fair settlement. Do not hesitate to go directly to the owner or the president of the firm. (Sales receipts, sales agreements, warranties, or canceled checks are necessary to support your side of the story. Don't forget to keep them.)
If this does not work, you can ask for assistance from the State Office of Consumer Affairs (Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services) located at 1100 Bank Street, Suite 100, Richmond, VA 23219. This office may help you settle the complaint without going to court. Hours are 8 - 5, Monday through Friday, and complaints are accepted in writing or in person. Their phone number is 804.786.2042 or 1.800.552.9963 (Toll Free VA only).
In June 2009, the local Consumer Affairs Office for the City of Alexandria closed and the State Office took over the responsibility of handling all consumer complaints.
If you cannot settle the claim with assistance of the Virginia State Office of Consumer Affairs, a lawsuit may be necessary. If the sum of money in dispute is too small to justify hiring a lawyer, you can sue without a lawyer.
Where to Sue in Virginia: Which Court?
In deciding where to sue, you must consider both the proper court, and the proper geographical location. Suits for amounts up to $4,500 can be brought only in General District Court. Suits between $4,500 and $15,000 can be brought in either General District Court or Circuit Court. Generally, suits over $15,000 can be brought only in Circuit Court. The use of lawyers is strongly encouraged in Circuit Court. In either court, both parties may be represented by a lawyer.
The following link will provide you with more information about the courts: www.courts.state.va.us.
Also, the following additional link will provide more information about General District Courts: www.courts.state.va.us/courts/gd/home.html
See also: www.courts.state.va.us/faq/frame.html.
Small Claims Court
Lawsuits up to $5,000 can be filed in Small Claims Court. No attorney representation is allowed, but a case can be removed to the General District Court anytime before the judge's decision. The small claims court trial is conducted in an informal manner and all probative evidence may be admitted.
Please see the Small Claims Court clerk at 520 King Street, 2nd floor or call the office at 703.746.4021 for more information.
The following link will provide you with detailed information on small claims procedures: www.courts.state.va.us/pamphlets/small_claims.html
File Suit in Alexandria or Not?
If you are 18 years or older, you may sue in Alexandria if:
- the transaction on which your claim is based took place within the city limits of Alexandria; or
- the defendant's regular place of business is located within the city limits of Alexandria; or
- the defendant lives within the city limits of Alexandria.
If you are suing a corporation, you must sue in the city or county where the main office is located, where the registered agent conducts business, where the chief executive officer lives, or where the transaction took place. This information is available from the State Corporation Commission in Richmond 804.371.9733. The State Corporation Commission can also tell you whether a business is a corporation.
When to Sue
Do not wait too long after the transaction before bringing suit. The time you have depends upon the nature of the claim. For example, in Virginia the statute of limitation is three years for cases involving some contracts and two years for personal injuries. However, it is generally recommended that suits be brought as soon as other ways to settle the dispute have been exhausted.
Before you decide to take your case to court, make sure that the defendant has assets that can be used to pay your judgment. If he or she has no assets, or has your debt discharged in bankruptcy, your judgment may be uncollectible.
Also, the following additional link will provide more information about General District Courts: www.courts.state.va.us/gdc/gdc.html
See also: www.courts.state.va.us/faq/frame.html
How to Start the Suit
To file suit in Small Claims Court or General District Court, go to the Office of the Clerk of the General District Court. The office is located at 520 King Street (Courthouse Building), 2nd floor, Alexandria, Virginia 22314, and the telephone number is 703.746.4021. The Clerk's Office is generally open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A civil warrant can be obtained and filed there. The cost for a warrant is $36 for anything under $200, and $41 for anything over $200 (regardless of the number of defendants sued). The court cost is added to the judgment if you win. The Sheriff's service of process fee is $12 per defendant. You should mail a copy of the warrant to the defendant and certify that this was done on the back of the original warrant.
You will be asked by an employee in the Clerk's Office to select a court date at least three weeks from the date you file your claim. If the case is filed in Small Claims Court, the date you select will be the trial date. The Sheriff's Office will try to serve a copy of the warrant on the defendant. The warrant must be served on the defendant at least five days before the case can be heard.
Preparing for Your Day in Court
The Alexandria Lawyer Referral service, telephone number 703.548.1105, can refer you to an attorney who will help you prepare for the trial. One half hour of his or her time will cost you $40. In addition, low-income persons may be eligible for free legal assistance. To see if you qualify and to apply, call Alexandria Legal Services Office at 703.684.5566.
Assemble all original documents such as bills, checks, contracts, letters, and receipts that will support your claim, and take them with you to the trial. Also, contact any witnesses who will testify for you at the trial. You may ask the Clerk's Office to issue and have served subpoenas for your witnesses.
What to Expect at the Trial
On the day of the trial, enter the Alexandria Courthouse Building at 520 King Street and go to the second floor to the courtroom marked "Civil." Be there promptly. If you are not there when your case is called, it may be dismissed.
The judge will swear in all the witnesses to the case. Next, he or she will ask you to tell your story. State your complaint briefly and present the evidence. You and your witnesses may be questioned by the judge and by the defendant.
Next, the defendant will be asked to present his/her case. The judge may question the defendant and will allow you to do so. After hearing both sides, the judge will announce the Court's decision.
Can You Appeal?
Yes. If the amount in the controversy is more than $50, either party has the right to appeal to Circuit Court within 10 days of the judgment. If this happens, you will have to present your case again. However, if the defendant appeals, he/she must post bond to satisfy any final judgment and costs. This means if the plaintiff is successful in the appeal, the court already has funds that can be used to satisfy your claim.
If the decision is appealed, you will be notified of where and when to appear in court.
Collecting Your Money
If the defendant will not pay your judgement, after the appeal time has elapsed, you may consider a Sheriff's sale or garnishment of wages.
You begin the process by returning to the Clerk's Office of the General District Court and asking for Writ of Fieri Facias to be issued. This writ gives you a claim on the defendant's personal property. You may then ask the Sheriff to "levy" on particular items or on all the property (called a Sheriff's Sale). You will be required to pay a fee and post a bond with the Sheriff to make it possible for him to seize and sell the property and pay the proceeds of the sale to you. A Sheriff's sale involves additional time and money, and you may not want to do this if the defendant appears to have little money or few items of property.
If the defendant works, and you may wish to garnish the defendant's wages. You must furnish, among other things, the name and address of the employer, fill out the appropriate Garnishment forms, and pay the filing and service fees.
If you do not know whether or where the defendant works or what assets the defendant has, you may file an Interrogatory Summons at the Clerk's Office.
The Lawyer Referral Service, telephone number 703.548.1105, can refer you to an attorney who, for $40, will advise you for up to 30 minutes, how to collect your judgment.