Small Claims Law

Small claims law pertains to smaller cases that involve monetary damages of $5,000 or less, although small claims court limits will vary by state. An attorney isn't necessary to file a lawsuit in small claims court, but you may want to hire a small claims lawyer if you want to avoid court and negotiate a settlement.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Aug 19, 2021

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Overview

  • Small claims is one type of court department
  • Small claims lawsuits have maximum recovery amounts, usually around $2,000 to $5,000
  • A small claims lawyer may charge less, making it more advantageous for a claimant
  • Rules of civil procedure and evidence are simplified

When people think of court, they may conjure up images of famous TV shows that depict a packed courtroom, twelve jurors, and extremely well-dressed attorneys. Small claims court is entirely different. Small claims lawsuits are legal claims in which a lesser amount of money is at stake.

State laws regarding civil procedure and evidence are simplified in small claims court in order to speed up the legal process and make it accessible to everyone, even claimants and respondents who cannot afford legal representation.

That being said, only certain types of cases can be tried in small claims court. If you’re facing a small claims lawsuit, keep reading to learn more about small claims law and enter your ZIP code into our free legal tool above to find affordable small claims attorneys near you.

What is small claims court?

Small claims court is just one of the many kinds of state court systems designed to handle specific types of cases. Small claims is referred to as a court of limited jurisdiction, and it resolves civil disputes between private parties, including breach of contract, landlord-tenant disputes, and other incidents that caused monetary damages.

Certain requirements must be met before you can file a lawsuit in small claims court. Make any mistakes during the process and you risk having your case thrown out. Hire a small claims lawyer to work on your behalf and give you the guidance you need to correctly follow the established small claims law procedures by state.

What is required to file a small claims lawsuit?

People who file a small claims lawsuit are called claimants. The individual or company they are suing is the respondent.

A claimant must be an individual who is 18 years of age or older.

Companies and corporate entities can file a small claims lawsuit provided that an employee or officer of the corporation represents them.

However, any corporation in the business of lending money for interest cannot file a small claims lawsuit to recover money. For example, banks and collection agencies are forbidden from filing a lawsuit in small claims court.

Other requirements to file claims in small claims court include:

Small Claims Court Limit the Amount in Dispute

Each state has a different small claims court limit on how much money can be under dispute in a small claims lawsuit. For most states, the total maximum dispute limit ranges between $2,000 and $5,000.

If you are filing a lawsuit that is worth less than $10,000, for example, it may be helpful for you to reduce the amount you seek and file in small claims court instead. You can avoid paying higher filing fees, expensive attorneys’ fees, and reduce the amount of time it takes to get your settlement.

Remember, claimants can only seek monetary damages in small claims court. The court cannot order someone to perform a service as promised or to stop some action. The court also will not make any guarantee that the losing party pays the judgment.

Time Requirements to File

Every lawsuit, whether filed in small claims or another court, must be filed within a certain amount of time. This time is determined by the date of the event giving rise to the lawsuit.

Called a statute of limitations, each state may have a different time requirement for different types of claims. This time may be as little as a few months after the event inspiring the lawsuit, so you need to act fast. If you miss this important filing requirement, you may miss out on your chance to recover compensation from the other party.

Complaint Procedure Requirements

When you file any lawsuit, including a small claims suit, you have to follow certain procedures. This is where it can get complicated.

You first need to prepare a complaint. This is a legal document where you describe the relationship between you and the other party. Then you need to describe how the other party wronged you. Finally, you need to deliver an original copy to the clerk of court in your county and state.

Don’t forget to provide a copy of the complaint to the other party. This is a crucial step and one that often gets small claims cases thrown out. If you don’t serve the other party with the complaint, they have no way of knowing you have filed a lawsuit and no way to respond.

Once you have provided the other party a copy of the complaint, they have a certain amount of time allotted to them to respond to your allegations in writing. Usually, this time period is around twenty days.

After they have filed their response, then you may set your case for a hearing before a small claims court judge. One benefit to small claims is that cases are usually resolved quickly, so you may not need to wait as long to get in front of the judge as you would in other types of courts.

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What types of claims can I file in small claims court?

Only money disputes can be resolved in small claims court. If you lent someone money and they haven’t repaid you, small claims court might be the perfect place for you to try to collect the debt owed.

Along with your complaint, you will want to be sure that you have evidence to prove that you lent the money to the other person, like a signed document. This will help bolster your claim and give the judge a reason to rule in your favor

Providing evidence like this is vital to getting the money you’re owed. If the judge agrees with you after seeing sufficient evidence, they may render a judgment in your favor. Once you have this judgment, you can use collection techniques to get your money.

Bad debts are not the only type of lawsuit you might take to small claims court. Other small claims court lawsuits may include issues involving:

  • Loan repayments
  • Not fixing a car
  • Return of an apartment security deposit
  • Damaged clothing during cleaning
  • Dog bites
  • Poor home installation

Some states expand what types of cases can be filed in small claims court. Your state may allow:

  • Eviction
  • Restitution
  • Defamation
  • False arrest

Before you take the time and money to file a complaint in small claims court, make sure you check your state’s court website for what types of cases they allow in small claims. You certainly don’t want to file a lawsuit and have it thrown out because the small claims court does not have jurisdiction.

What types of claims are forbidden in small claims court?

While small claims court can be a good, quick, and cheaper path to a legal resolution for some types of cases, not all cases can be heard in small claims.

You cannot file a lawsuit in small claims court for:

  • Divorce
  • Guardianship or conservatorship
  • Bankruptcy
  • Name change
  • Emergency relief
  • Injunction

Furthermore, you cannot file a lawsuit in small claims against the federal government or any agency. Most lawsuits involving government agencies must be filed in federal or state courts.

What happens if I get sued in small claims court?

So far, we’ve discussed what to do when you’re the one filing a lawsuit. But what if you are being sued in small claims court? Surely, you need to know what to do next.

Getting sued isn’t fun. Getting any legal paperwork can ruin your day. From a speeding ticket to divorce papers to a formal lawsuit complaint, there are many ways in which you might receive legal paperwork.

If you have been served a small claims complaint, it can be nerve-wracking. But you don’t need to be nervous. Learn your options below and consult with an attorney to better understand the next best steps you can take moving forward.

Step One: Review the Complaint

When you receive a complaint, not only should it clearly spell out why you’re being sued, it should also include specific details regarding the next best steps to take.

The complaint will tell you:

  • How much time you have to respond in writing
  • If and when you are expected to appear in court
  • Details about who is suing you, why, and what evidence they have

Seeing a complaint for the first time can be overwhelming. You may not know exactly what’s being alleged. If you have any questions or any concerns about the complaint and allegations against you, it’s always advisable to speak with a trusted small claims court lawyer right away.

Step Two: Check for a Procedural Problem

When someone files a small claims lawsuit against you, they may not have hired a lawyer to assist them. This could mean the complaint is rife with legal problems as non-lawyers may not always follow procedural rules correctly. But even if the person suing you has filed the complaint without a lawyer, it is still a legal document that has been filed with your local clerk of court.

Even if there is a procedural problem, do not ignore the complaint.

After reading through the complaint, think about the allegations made. Are you even the person who is involved in this situation? If the claimant has served the wrong person, you must let the court know right away.

You can call the clerk, and they can point you in the right direction, though they cannot give you any legal advice. Even if you’re not the right person, you may still need to appear at a hearing to explain to a judge the claimant served the wrong person.

You also want to know if the complaint was served in the right court. When do small claims courts have jurisdiction?

For a court to have jurisdiction over you and to call you into a hearing, you need to have some ties to the community.

If you live in the county where the lawsuit was filed, then it’s clear the court has jurisdiction. However, if you live out of state, it’s not as cut and dry. If you do business in the county where the lawsuit was filed, that may be enough to give a court jurisdiction. A court will have jurisdiction over you if the event at issue occurred within the jurisdiction, too.

If you have no ties to the community where the small claims lawsuit was filed, you may be able to have the case dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. That may require the services of a local attorney.

Finally, you want to make sure that you were served properly. There are strict rules around serving a complaint, called service of process. You must first receive the complaint. That sounds commonsensical but many claimants will leave the complaint with a neighbor or on a doorstep, never ensuring that you have received the complaint.

You also want to make sure that you have received the complaint with enough time to respond. Once a lawsuit has been filed against you, there is a time limit on how many days you have to respond in writing. If the claimant alleges they gave you the paperwork ten days ago, but you just received it yesterday, that means you have nine fewer days to build your case.

Step Three: Negotiate a Settlement

After you respond to the complaint, you need to consider your options. Maybe the complaint is completely illegitimate, you’re the wrong person, or the issue at hand never occurred.

You will need to challenge the lawsuit by presenting evidence to the judge in a small claims case to support your defense. If the judge agrees with you, they may throw out the lawsuit.

But if there is validity to the claims made against you, then you need to consider your options. If you believe that the other person has a legitimate claim against you but has asked for too much money in return, you could try to challenge that in court. Or you could try to negotiate a settlement.

Even small claims lawsuits take time to resolve and there’s no guarantee that the claimant will get the money they ask for from a judge. This may mean they are more likely to accept a reasonable settlement offer.

A good approach here is to try to work out a settlement with the claimant by contacting them in writing with an offer. How much you need to offer will depend on the strength of both parties’ cases and the evidence you each have to support your assertions.

Assume for a moment that the claimant has a very strong legal position with evidence to support their claim. They may be less inclined to take a settlement offer because they’re willing to take a chance that the judge grants them a judgment for the full amount they seek.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a leg to stand on to try to negotiate a settlement that resolves this matter for less. Even if you offer half of what the claimant is seeking in court, they may be inclined to negotiate with you to save time and money, especially if you are consulting with a small claims attorney regarding the settlement.

Step Four: Attend Mediation

This is one part of the process where the clerk of court can provide more support. They cannot provide any legal guidance, but they can help you with mediation. Some states even require mediation before any hearing takes place, so check your local court rules to see if you need to do this step regardless.

As the respondent, suggesting mediation can be helpful. If you find that you cannot successfully negotiate a settlement, mediation can help you reach an agreement without going in front of a judge. Mediation can encourage a settlement less than the claimant is seeking, so it can be worth your time.

The small claims clerk can give you information on approved and experienced mediators. They may charge a small fee for their services, but this fee can be split between the parties, so you don’t shoulder the entire cost.

If you think the claimant has a strong case, mediation could be a good opportunity for you and your small claims attorney to settle the case for less than the other party wants.

Step Five: Don’t Default

As stated in no uncertain terms earlier, do not ignore a small claims lawsuit. If you think the claimant has no case and they are out of their mind to try to sue you and collect money from you, that’s your right, but no one will know that if you stay home.

If the claimant has a strong case against you and you think you have no defense at all, you might think there’s no point in responding or going to court because you owe the debt.

In either situation, refusing to respond to the complaint or show up in court will have detrimental consequences for you. When only one party shows up to court, the judge doesn’t know what you might say and what evidence you might present. That means they only hear one side of the story.

In that instance, the judge may completely agree with the person who is suing you and issue a judgment against you for the full amount requested by the claimant. At least if you show up at court, you can try to make a case for why the full amount requested by the claimant should not be awarded.

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Understanding Your Rights and Responsibilities in Small Claims Court

Whether you are looking to sue someone for a debt owed to you or you have received a complaint that someone has filed a lawsuit against you, small claims court comes with certain advantages for more minor disputes.

The faster process and cheaper overall costs of small claims court can be an advantage to settling the case quickly and moving on with your life.

However, even though it’s small claims law, it can still be challenging, confusing, and legally overwhelming. If you want to avoid legal fees in small claims court, hiring a small claims lawyer can be less expensive than other legal options and can help you resolve your case faster with a successful outcome.

To help you understand your legal options and how a small claims lawsuit may fit into your overall recovery, enter your ZIP code below to find an experienced small claims lawyer in your area.

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