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Arizona Small Claims Courts

Small claims cases simplify and expedite the legal procedure for relatively minor lawsuits in the small claims divisions of Arizona state courts. In Arizona, small claims courts decide minor civil cases where the amount in dispute is less than $3,500.00.  

Small claims cases typically involve civil disputes regarding debtstortspersonal injuriesevictions, or personal property damage. Small claims courts do not have jurisdiction over all cases, such as those involving injunctive relief, requests for specific performance, or forcible entry and detainer. In landlord/tenant disputes, justice courts share jurisdiction with the superior court, where damages are between $5,000.00 and $10,000.00.

Every justice court in Arizona has a small claims division. Parties are only allowed to hire attorneys in small claims cases if all parties agree in writing to hire attorneys.

The court's decision in a small claims case is final. Therefore, the parties cannot appeal the decision.

The following links provide additional information regarding Arizona small claims cases:

This article will focus on Arizona small claims court procedures and rules.

How to File a Small Claims Case

The person or entity that files a lawsuit is the plaintiff. The person or entity against whom the case is filed is the defendant. The plaintiff and defendant are known as parties to the lawsuit.

The plaintiff must file a small claims complaint to commence a small claims case. The plaintiff initiates the lawsuit by filing the complaint. The plaintiff must file the complaint in the justice court precinct where the defendant resides unless A.R.S. Section 22-201 permits the lawsuit's venue to be elsewhere. However, the plaintiff can file a small claims case in another justice court precinct if the defendant does not object to the venue. A local court clerk can assist you in filing the complaint.

The plaintiff's complaint must state the legal basis for the plaintiff's complaint. It must also identify the defendant and how much money the plaintiff believes the defendant owes them. The amount in dispute must not exceed $3,500.00. The plaintiff cannot get around this requirement by splitting the claim into multiple smaller claims.

The plaintiff must pay a filing fee when they file the complaint. They may request a waiver or deferral of these court costs per A.R.S. Section 12-302 and the Arizona Code of Judicial Administration Section 5-206.

Within 45 days of filing the complaint, the plaintiff must serve the complaint, summons, and Notice to the Plaintiff and Defendant on the defendant within 45 days. To do so, the plaintiff may utilize the following methods:

  • Certified mail: If the plaintiff uses certified mail, they must request a return receipt. The plaintiff must file the return receipt within 45 days of filing the complaint to prove they correctly served the defendant.
  • Process server, sheriff, or constable: The plaintiff can contact one of these entities to serve the defendant personally. If the plaintiff uses one of these methods, they must file an affidavit of service within 45 days of the complaint's file date.

Discovery can begin once all parties have been served with the necessary forms. Any party that files a document with the court must also serve those documents upon all other parties.

Responding to a Small Claims Court Lawsuit

According to Arizona's rules of civil procedure, a defendant must respond to a complaint within 20 days of service. The defendant must file the answer and mail it to the plaintiff.

If a defendant fails to answer the complaint within 20 days, the plaintiff may file default proceedings and request a default judgment in their favor.

The court will set a hearing date no more than 60 days after receiving the defendant's answer.

If a defendant alleges the plaintiff owes them something, the defendant may file a counterclaim. The counterclaim's basis must be related to the events in the plaintiff's complaint. The defendant must file their counterclaim within 20 days of service of the complaint, summons, and notice. The amount of the counterclaim must be $3,500.00 or less. If the counterclaim exceeds $3,500.00, the court will transfer the case to the justice court's civil division.

Before the Hearing

Either party may request that a justice of the peace hear their case rather than a hearing officer. The request must be made at least 15 days before the hearing date.

Both parties may secure witnesses to testify at the hearing. If a witness will not testify willingly, a party may request a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order compelling a witness to appear at trial. The party requesting a subpoena may have to pay additional fees to the court.

The Hearing

The plaintiff will appear first and present their case. This can include calling witnesses and providing evidence to the court. The parties may cross-examine any witness called to testify. When the plaintiff is done, the defendant will present their case.

The formal rules of evidence do not apply in small claims cases. Thus, the justice of the peace or hearing officer may consider evidence that a judge in civil court could not. The justice of the peace or hearing officer may also take a more active role in the small claims case, including asking the parties questions.

Unlike a jury trial in a civil case, the justice of the peace or hearing officer will decide the small claims case. They may decide the case immediately or issue a written judgment after the trial. They will issue a written decision within ten days after the trial's conclusion.

Enforcing a Judgment

Payment of a judgment is due when the decision is rendered. If the court issues a money judgment, the defendant must satisfy the judgment by paying the ordered amount. It is the plaintiff's responsibility to collect the judgment. Thus, the court is not responsible for collecting or enforcing the judgment.

To satisfy the judgment, the plaintiff may demand the judgment amount in writing from the defendant. If the defendant refuses to pay the judgment, the plaintiff may request forms from the court to enforce the judgment. The court cannot provide legal advice to the plaintiff. However, the court can provide the plaintiff with other methods to collect the judgment.

For example, if the defendant does not pay, the plaintiff may request to garnish the defendant's wages. Garnishment is a method of satisfying the judgment by taking money from the defendant's wages.

Within 30 days of the defendant's payment of the judgment, the plaintiff must file a Satisfaction of Judgment form with the court.

Parties cannot appeal the small claims court's judgment. The judgment is binding on all parties.

Contact an Attorney For Help

Small claims court cases can involve complex questions of law and fact. If the other party agrees, you can hire an attorney to help with your small claims case. An experienced civil litigation attorney can help protect your interests in a small claims case. For example, an attorney can help you with the following:

  • Court filing deadlines and local court rules
  • When the statutes of limitations (time limit) to bring your personal injury claim expires
  • What types of cases can be filed in small claims court
  • Defense and litigation strategy regarding your claims

If you are involved in a small claims case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.

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