Everything You Need to Know About Small Claims Court

Small Claims Court

The U.S. state court system is divided into criminal and civil divisions. In criminal court charges are brought by district attorneys working with law enforcement to try criminal cases. In civil court, any individual may bring suit against another or a corporation to address a wrongdoing like a broken contract, payments owed, or personal injury caused by negligence.

Small claims is a division of state court that deals with civil issues below a specific dollar value. Cases in small claims typically include things like:
    • nonpayment of rent (unless the state or city has a housing court specifically for this purpose)
    • property ownership disputes
    • incomplete or incompetent workmanship (vehicle repair, home repair)
    • eviction (in the absence of a housing court)
    • breaking a contract (rental agreement, not returning a downpayment on a vehicle purchase)

What is a Small Claims Court?

States set the parameters for small claims cases within their jurisdiction. Individuals generally do not have an attorney for small claims cases. The clerk’s office provides information about the process, whether filing against another party or responding to a charge filed against you. Courts usually require that the plaintiff (the one who filed the case seeking redress of an issue) use a sheriff or other sworn officer of the court to serve papers on the defendant. Once the service is made the clerk’s office will set a hearing date several weeks in the future. 

Types of cases that are NOT allowed in small claims court include:

  •   divorce
  •   bankruptcy
  •   lawsuits against the federal government

When Connecticut recently examined its state’s small claims limit other states were surveyed with the following results:

  •    Tennessee allows cases regarding goods, services, or damages of up to $25,000 to be settled in small claims court;
  •    Rhode Island, Arizona, and Kentucky set $2,500 as the limit for small claims cases;
  •    Seventeen states including New York, Michigan, and Florida set $5,000 as the small claims limit, and
  •    nine states, including Illinois, California, and Texas, set their limit at $10,000.

How Does Small Claims Court Work?

How Does Small Claims Court Work?

In general, the clerk’s office at your local district court can provide information (online or in-person) about the types of cases and the maximum value limit allowed under state law. Along with paperwork to fill out (under penalty of purgery) here are also strict guidelines about notifying the person you are suing to ensure the process is fair and transparent.

Steps to filing a small claims lawsuit:

  1.  visit the district court clerk’s office online or in person to get the necessary information including state law regarding the limits of financial awards;
  2.  pay close attention to instructions with the paperwork – making false statements about the issue you are suing for can get you in legal trouble;
  3.  follow the instructions for serving papers very closely – you may need to hire a sheriff or other sworn court officer to provide delivery of the documents to the defendant (the person you are suing) in order for the court to move forward;
  4.  once the court officer delivers the documents to the defendant they will notify the clerk’s office;
  5.  the clerk’s office will set a time and day for the court proceeding and will notify you.

What is the Lowest Amount for Small Claims Court?

States set the parameters for small claims filings, including the maximum award possible and the minimum claim. Most states don’t have a minimum claim amount because not every case is about a financial dispute. Some cases may call for restitution in the form of repairing property or releasing a lien.

How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court?

How Long Do You Have To Take Someone To Small Claims Court

  • Each state sets its own rules for limiting the time frame (also called statute of limitations) for filing suit. Different types of lawsuits also have different limitations, for instance:
  • California allows four years to file a suit for breaking a written contract, two years for a suit about an oral contract, two years for an injury claim, and three years for a property damage suit;
  • Illinois allows 10 years for suits about written contracts, five years for oral contract lawsuits, two years for an injury claim, and five years for a property damage claim;
  • Massachusetts and Michigan both allow six years for both oral and written contract breaches and three years each for injury claims and property damage suits;
  • Florida allows five years for a written contract lawsuit and four years each for oral contracts, personal injury, and property damage.

How to Win a Small Claims Court?

Winning a small claims suit is based on a judge’s decision after reviewing all of the evidence presented. Witnesses may be called on both sides, or witnesses may provide sworn (notarized) statements to the court rather than attending. The judge may ask questions but there is no jury in small claims court.

Key to winning (either as plaintiff or defendant) is providing irrefutable evidence. Offer the judge copies of medical paperwork (or bills) that show the extent of your injury, any police reports of an accident a criminal complaint, or any contract involved. If the defendant is a contractor who failed to complete a job to the agreed-upon specifications you may look for complaints that others have filed with the Better Business Bureau or Board of Professional Licensure in order to prove a pattern of shoddy work.

Small Claims Courts Fees and Limits

There is a fee to file a case in small claims court, usually a nominal processing fee of $50. There are rarely any lower limits for damages or awards, the court may entertain cases for any dollar amount. One issue that successful plaintiffs may face is collecting the award the court makes. For instance, a landlord may win a case for unpaid rent but may never collect if the renter (defendant) is unemployed. The clerk’s office can help with information about ways to collect.

Do You Need a Lawyer if You Go to Small Claims Courts?

No attorney is necessary in small claims court and some states may actually prohibit attorneys. The proceedings are simple and completed in plain language that anyone can understand (courts may provide translators if other non-English speakers are involved).