All About the Courts
Updated: Jul 9
Where to Sue?
Most North Carolinians will never see the inside of a courtroom but when they do, they all look the same. As the old adage goes, “Looks can be deceiving”. Depending on who you are suing, why you are suing, how much you are suing for and many other factors determine which courtroom has proper jurisdiction. The following is a brief overview of the court you will experience, if you seek justice in North Carolina.
As the name implies this court is the single A of the league. Most people who get the joyful experience of showing up in the local town hall or a tiny shabby office wannabe court will be faced with either being evicted from their rental property, fighting over a contract, debt or some other matter that doesn't exceed the amount of $10,000.
Many counties drop that number even lower to $5,000. It is important to visit NC's Administration of the Court’s (AOC) web page and read the local court rules. The general link to the AOC is here. It is not uncommon for larger cities/courthouses to have a local web page with a wealth of information. In Forsyth county this page is provided by the current clerk of court who can be a pro se litigants new BFF.
The paperwork, or lack there of, is very easy in small claims court. Legal Aid of North Carolina has an abundance of information and guidance for those lacking an attorney. The basic AOC complaint form can be found here.
It is also possible to sue when someone takes, breaks or loses your personal property. Most individuals are surprised to find out Judges do not handle the matters but Magistrates (non-elected officials). If one ends up in small claims, it is very important to not waste time and ensure your case is ready to go. The more you piss off the Magistrate (and this holds true for any presiding power) the higher the likelihood of failure.
At the end of the day small claims is normally just a preseason game. If the litigate, winner or loser, is unhappy with the outcome, the appeal is cheap and easy.
Rarely is a truer phrase ever muttered, but if you do proceed with out counsel ensure you read the law. The law appears long but contains a wealth of information that can easily be used against your opponent if you do battle in small claims court in NC.
If small claims is single A ball, then District Court is at minimum triple AAA, if not the majors. As the workhorse of the NC court system it is not a single court but an endless rotation of legal issues. As one old judge summed it up nicely, court is a road littered with broken promises and endless heart break.
In district court the following matters may occur; sue for a breach of contract or over a business issue, adopt a child, have your parental right terminated, be told you must stay away from someone (50B), get your gun rights back, after being arrested get your first appearance, be thrown in jail for not paying your child support, get a divorce, be told you are a juvenile delinquent, pay your speeding ticket or convicted of a DWI, deal with your misdemeanor criminal charges, plea to lower level felony charges, naive kids seeking emancipation or abortions, and many other life changing events.
District court judges are attorneys and you cannot just waltz into court unprepared. Even a sob story will not cure defects like they will in small claims court. District court judges are over worked and underpaid thus most lack patience when you fail to understand the system or appear as a monkey wrench. In District court you want to be a square peg in a square hole. Don’t take it personal because District court judges are over worked and fairly compensated.
The rules of civil procedure apply, thus it is very easy to lose on default (not meeting deadlines) and discovery (the requirement to produce or ask for documents) if one recklessly takes on the task of suing without an attorney.
With that said, the task is not surmountable if you go it alone. The clerks in the courthouse are not allowed to give legal advice but if you show the ability to be a respectful, and a kind person you can likely squeeze out what if anything you are doing wrong or at least what the next step is.
One major limitation, is the capped amount of money that one can be sued over in District Court. State law only allows the amount in controversy to be less than $25,000. Thus certain cases, if the damage threshold is surpassed, must be brought in Superior court.
Due to laws regarding traffic, criminal, family, and smaller business issues most people who appear in front of a person in a black robe, holding a gavel, with a large uniformed officer standing nearby will have experienced District court.
Finally, as previously mentioned, those appealing their case from small claims will be heard in District court if the parties don't settle prior to trial.
Making it up to Superior court is the playoffs.
With Criminal cases, no matter what makes it upstairs, the case must be indicted. Thus the vast majority of felonies are plead out in District court. Technically jurisdiction is handed down to District court to take pleas from those facing lower levels of felonies. Each county varies, but it is not uncommon to split up the Administrative calendar (Motions, pleas and other minor matters) and trials to separate courtrooms. Lengths can vary in that, some areas have week long sessions and other counties can extend up to a month.
While fighting over money, the minimum threshold, as previously mentioned, is $25,000.
Unlike District court judges that are elected and remaining in their district, Superior judges rotate throughout the state.
Similar to the Federal Constitution, Federal Courts are those of limited jurisdiction. Unless you are fighting over or under a Federal law you will not be allowed in. Diversity, requires not only plaintiffs and defendants from different states or countries, but also a $75,000 threshold thus filtering out many cases.
For those who have sued in Federal Court or severed on a Federal Jury and actually made it to a court room, this is a four or five star accommodation. Expect art on the walls, plenty of leather and finely polished wood. State courts are normally under funded and well out of date thus garnering at best a three stars. Commonly any state court would be lucky to get two stars.
Where to Sue
Overall most people have little control or forethought of where they need to bring their problem. Even so, it is important to know where you are, what you need to get done to achieve your goals. Ensure you always have an attorney who knows the game and can help you achieve success.