The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last week announced rule changes to small claims matters that will have a direct impact on collection cases in the state. The amendments become effective Oct. 1.
The changes include a requirement that creditors filing a small claim must certify that they have verified the defendant's current address. If the plaintiff fails to confirm the address, the court may not enter a default judgment if the defendant later fails to appear for trial.
Requiring a verified current address is expected to eliminate concerns that some debtors never receive notice of a small claim pending against them because of outdated address information, according to the state's supreme judicial court. This new requirement, however, only applies to business plaintiffs and assigned-debt collection cases, not to consumer plaintiffs.
The issue of debtor notification was a chief concern among a group formed in 2006 by the court to examine small claims practices. This "working group" included clerk-magistrates, state legislators, consumer groups and collection attorneys.
"Some defendants never receive notice of the small claims action pending against them, nor do they receive notice of the trial date, so they may appear and present a defense or contest the amount of the claim," the working group stated in its report.
If a defendant fails to appear for trial, the plaintiff is entitled to ask for a default judgment. One of the rule changes ensures that these requests are appropriately scrutinized through a checklist of factors the law requires before entering a default judgment. These factors are designed to help the court determine legal liability and correctly calculate the amount of any award, thereby ensuring fairness and consistency in the entry of default judgments even though the defendant is not present, according to the court.
Another rule change directs that a judgment for the defendant, rather than a dismissal, be entered if the defendant appears, the plaintiff is not prepared to proceed to trial and there is no good cause to continue the case. The amendment is intended to be consistent with the provision for a default judgment for the plaintiff when the defendant fails to appear.