Yes, if you are an individual or sole proprietor you can represent yourself in small claims. If you are an LLC or Corporation, Ohio small claims courts will allow an owner or officer appear on behalf of the company to avoid default. See Cleveland Bar Assn v. Pearlman. However, as an owner or officer, you will not allow you to present any present any arguments, present evidence, give any testimony, or ask any questions. In short, you can’t do much other than sit there. In order to present your case and have the judge decide the matter on its merits you need to retain counsel. By having an attorney represent and LLC or Corporation, the attorney can present evidence, cross examine witnesses, and make arguments on behalf of the Company to the Court.
The reason you, as a representative of an LLC or Corporation, are not permitted to do any of those things is you are representing another person (aka engaging in the practice of law)! In the eyes of the law, LLCs and Corporations are separate legal persons. The Company, as separate legal persons, is why owners of LLCs and Corporations receive certain protections from creditors – the company is independent of the owner. Ohio prohibits non-attorneys from “defend[ing] any action or proceeding in which the person is not a party concerned.” R.C. 4705.01. When you, as a non-attorney, represent a Company, you are not a party to the action and actually engaging in the practice of law.
It may not be recommended even if you could represent yourself in small claims. Any party in small claims is required to comply with the Civil Rules of Procedure and Rules of Evidence. These Rules are complex and take time to understand. Without the background on procedure and evidence, unrepresented parties’ biggest error in small claims is not presenting evidence properly. Unrepresented parties almost always attempt to bring in hearsey.
Hearsay “is a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement.” R. Ev. 801. Heresay can is usually in the form of “well, she said blah blah blah” which proves the party’s point. If the person who made the statement isn’t testifying, the statement cannot be considered by the Court! There are a few exceptions to the hearsey rule, but they are infrequently used in Small Claims.
Any document presented must also be authenticated. R. Ev. 901. The person who drafted or created the document(s) must be present to affirm it is true and accurate. There are exceptions to this rule where documents are “self-authenticating,” though rare. The party attempting to introduce the documents to Court must authenticate them because they drafted the document or they have called the drafted as a witness.
If this all sounds complicated, it can be! ALH Law provides small claims defense work on a flat fee basis. If you have been sued in small claims and have questions, feel free to reach out!