How to get your money back in small claims court or arbitration

Filing a claim against your cable, internet or wireless provider in New York small claims court or arbitration can seem complicated. Here is a step-by-step comparison between the two.[1]

Do I need an attorney?

Small Claims Court: No.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): No

How much can I demand?

Small Claims Court: It depends on where you live (a town, a village, or a city). You can sue for $3,000 in Town or Village Courts, and $5,000 in City Courts—such as New York City’s.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): There is no limit under AAA Rules (available here). Claims under $75,000 receive expedited treatment.

How do I file a claim?

Small Claims Court: There are two ways to file a claim. First, you can go to your local small claims court to get the form or, if you plan to file in New York City, you can find the form here.  If you live in New York City, are under the age of 65, and do not suffer from a disability, you cannot mail your form to the court. Instead, you (or someone else) must drop the form off at the small claims court.  Alternatively, you can file online by using a private service (available at TurboCourt or nCourt). These private services have fees ranging from $14 – $35.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): To initiate an arbitration, consumers can go to AAA’s website and fill out a one-page form. Complete this form and send it to AAA, together with the filing fee (described below) and a copy of your contract with your cable, internet or wireless provider. Also send a copy of the completed form to your provider and any other party you are seeking a refund from.

How much do I have to pay to initiate a claim?

Small Claims Court: In a Town or Village Court, if your claim is for $1,000 or less, there’s a $10 filing fee. If your claim is for more than $1,000, it’s $15. In a City Court, if your claim is $1,000 or less, the fee is $15. For a claim over $1,000, the fee is $20. You pay the fee when you file.

If you fill out the paperwork in person, the fee must be paid by cash, certified check, money order or bank check made out to “Clerk of the Civil Court.” If you fill out the paperwork online using a private vendor, you will have to pay by credit card.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): The cost of initiating an arbitration with the AAA is $200, paid upfront. Depending on the language of your contract with your cable, internet, or phone company, your provider may be obligated to reimburse you for all or part of this $200 fee.

Comcast: Comcast will reimburse your filing fee. However, if you lose the arbitration, you must pay Comcast back the $200.

Time Warner Cable: Time Warner Cable will reimburse part of your filing fee if you request them to do so prior to initiating an arbitration. Time Warner Cable will only reimburse you for the difference between the cost of filing an arbitration ($200) and the cost of filing in small claims court (either $15 or $20). If Time Warner Cable wins the arbitration, they require that you reimburse them for the partial filing fee.

AT&T: AT&T will reimburse you for the filing fee (provided your claim is less than $75,000). If, however, the arbitrator finds that either the substance of your claim or the relief sought is frivolous or brought for an improper purpose, then you will have to reimburse the $200 to AT&T.

Verizon: Verizon will pay the filing fee. If you send Verizon Wireless a signed written notice that you cannot pay the filing fee, Verizon Wireless will pay the fee directly to the AAA instead of reimbursing you. Verizon will also pay any administrative and arbitrator fees charged by the AAA.

Do I have to pay anything else?

Small Claims Court: Small claims court does not make you pay for the judge’s time or other administrative fees, beyond the initial filing fee.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): Unlike an action in small claims court, the parties to an arbitration are responsible for paying all expenses of the arbitrator, including required travel and other expenses. The parties are also responsible for any AAA expenses, as well as the costs relating to proof and witnesses produced at the direction of the arbitrator. Costs are higher if you seek to have an in-person or telephonic hearing for your case.

Under AAA Rules, your provider is responsible for paying for these costs (other than the initial filing fee).[2]

How is the decision-maker selected?

Small Claims Court: The judge is assigned to your case by the small claims court.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): If you and your provider do not agree on a process for appointing the arbitrator, the AAA can appoint a neutral arbitrator for you.

What happens next?

Small Claims Court: The clerk at the small claims court will provide the date and time of the small claims “hearing,” when the judge will listen to you and your provider (if it comes to the hearing).

The clerk will “serve” the notice of claim by mailing it to the defendant. The hearing cannot take place until the defendant has been served with the notice of claim.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): Unlike in small claims court, your provider gets the opportunity to submit what is known as an “answer” to your Demand. The answer describes how your provider intends to defend against your claim.

After your provider submits its answer, your dispute may be resolved without the need for an in-person or phone hearing. If you want to have a hearing, you may ask your provider to agree to one. If your provider declines, you can still ask the arbitrator to hold such a hearing. However, it is up to the arbitrator to determine whether to grant your request. If the arbitrator does grant a hearing, he or she will set the date, time, and place for each hearing.

What is a hearing like?

Small Claims Court: On the day of your hearing, you should arrive at the courthouse at least 15 minutes before the small claims court session begins. When you arrive at the courthouse, look for a small claims court calendar or for a clerk or court officer to assist you. Your case will be listed by your last name and by the name of your provider.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): At the hearing, you will be given the opportunity to submit evidence to support your claim. Your provider will then be given the opportunity to support its defense. If you want have a witness testify, he or she will answer questions from you, the arbitrator and your provider.

Can I have a jury trial?

Small Claims Court: You cannot demand a jury trial in small claims court. Your provider, as the defendant, may demand a trial by jury any time prior to the day of the hearing.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): No.

What evidence can I provide to support my claim?

Small Claims Court: Anything that will help prove your case should be brought to court. This includes a copy of your cable, internet, or phone contact, your monthly bill, correspondence with your provider, or a receipt for the purchase of an item (such as a phone or modem). Any witness whose testimony is important to your case may also testify.

Up to 48 hours before the trial date, you can also apply for a “subpoena.” A subpoena is a legal document that commands the person named in the subpoena to appear in court. You also may apply to the clerk of the small claims court for issuance of a “subpoena duces tecum.” That’s a legal document that directs someone to produce a bill, receipt, or other written document or record you need.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): As in small claims court, you should submit to the arbitrator anything that will help prove your case. The arbitrator allows the parties to present evidence in several ways, including web conferencing, Internet communication, and phone calls. The arbitrator may direct you and your provider to share specific documents.

Can I agree with my provider to end the dispute in a “settlement”?

Small Claims Court: Yes.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): Yes.

Can I appeal if I lose?

Small Claims Court: Yes, but it is hard to get a decision by a small claims court judge overturned.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): Yes, but it is hard to get a decision by an arbitrator overturned.

Can I still go to arbitration after filing in small claims court and vice versa?

Small Claims Court: Yes, as long as you do so prior to a final ruling by your small claims court judge. Some larger town and village courts and some city courts use the services of volunteer arbitrators to assist parties in resolving their cases. Because there are more arbitrators available to hear cases than there are judges, an arbitrator usually will hear your claim sooner than a judge would. Your case can be heard by an arbitrator only if you and your provider both agree. The hearing before an arbitrator is informal, and the arbitrator applies the same law to your case as a judge would apply. When an arbitrator determines a case, the decision is final, and there is no further appeal by either you or your provider.

American Arbitration Association (AAA): If you are eligible to file in small claims court (see “How much can I demand?”), you may opt to go to small claims court even if you have an arbitration clause with your provider.

You can go to small claims court in three ways:

  1. You can go directly to small claims court and not file any document with the AAA.
  2. If you have already filed with the AAA, but an arbitrator has not been assigned to your dispute, you can send a written notice to your provider and the AAA that you want the case decided by a small claims court. After receiving this notice, the AAA will administratively close the case.
  3. If you have already filed with the AAA, and the arbitrator has been appointed, you will need to notify your provider and the AAA that you want to go to small claims court. Then, it is up to the arbitrator to determine whether to transfer your case to small claims court.

[1] This information is deemed accurate as of the publication date but not guaranteed. David generally does not update blog posts in light of subsequent developments. Like all of David’s blog posts, this post contains general background information—it’s not legal advice or a substitute for a lawyer.

[2] The relevant rule is available under Section vii, titled “Expenses,” under the “Costs of Arbitration” tab of the AAA’s Consumer Arbitration Rules: “All expenses of the arbitrator, including required travel and other expenses, and any AAA expenses, as well as the costs relating to proof and witnesses produced at the direction of the arbitrator, shall be borne by the business.”

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