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Missouri Small Claims Courts

In Missouri, the small claims court is part of the circuit court. The small claims court hears civil claims involving $5,000 or less. Missouri's small claims courts allow people without legal training to resolve minor disputes quickly and efficiently.

A person or business may file a claim in the small claims court. Parties to a small claims case may find the following self-help resources useful:

This article summarizes Missouri's small claims court process. For more information, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.

Missouri Small Claims Explained

Missouri's small claims courts have limited jurisdiction, which means they can only hear certain types of cases. Specifically, the court may only adjudicate civil cases. Moreover, the small claims court may only award up to $5,000. A person or business may file a small claims case for more than $5,000, but by doing so, they waive their right to recover any amount above $5,000.

The person or business filing the lawsuit is the plaintiff. The person or business against whom they file the lawsuit is the defendant.

The small claims court may only hear civil cases where the plaintiff claims the defendant owes them money. It cannot issue an order requiring the defendant to, for example, return property or complete their contractual obligations.

The small claims court follows informal rules of evidence and civil procedure. This allows non-legal professionals to represent themselves in their small claims cases. However, they may choose to hire an attorney if they so desire.

A person or entity may file up to 12 small claims cases in a calendar year.

How To Start a Small Claims Case

Anyone 18 or older may file a small claims case in Missouri. A minor may file a claim if they bring a “next friend" (i.e., someone 18 or older) to the courthouse when they file. The circuit or small claims clerk can answer questions about how to file the small claims case.

The plaintiff must file a Petition Small Claims Court form to begin their small claims case. The petition lists the plaintiff and defendants. The plaintiff must describe their claim, including who they believe owes them money and why. Plaintiffs may obtain the forms online or at their local courthouse.

The court will charge a filing fee when you file your small claims case. The fee ranges between $5 and $35. Soon after you file, the court will notify you of the case number and court date.

If you have questions about filling out the form, the court clerk may assist you. Contact the clerk's office to speak with the small claims clerk or circuit clerk if you have questions.

Venue

Plaintiffs must file their small claims case in a proper venue. Typically, the plaintiff must file the case in one of the following counties:

  • Where the defendant lives (recommended)
  • Where the defendant works
  • Where the cause of action arose (for example, in a landlord-tenant case, where the property is located)
  • Where the plaintiff lives, if the defendant also lives or works there
  • If the defendant is a business, where it has an office
  • If the defendant is a business, where its registered agent is located

Failing to file the case in a proper venue may result in extra time and expense regarding the small claims case.

Statute of Limitations

Plaintiffs must file their small claims action within a specific time period. This period, called the statute of limitations, varies based on the plaintiff's claim type. For example, the following causes of action have the corresponding statutes of limitation:

  • Breach of contract: five years
  • Property damage: five years
  • Breach of written promise resulting in monetary damages: 10 years

Some claims carry a two-year statute of limitations. Check your state laws or consult with an attorney if you have questions about the deadline to file your small claims case.

The statute of limitations typically begins once the occurrence giving rise to the cause of action occurs. If a plaintiff fails to file their claim within the statute of limitations, the court will bar them from filing the lawsuit.

Serving the Defendant

The plaintiff must notify the defendant(s) of the small claims case against them. The court will mail a Summons to the defendant via certified mail. The court will charge the plaintiff the cost of the certified mail.

If the defendant does not receive the certified mail or refuses to sign for it, the plaintiff must try to serve them using a different method. For example, they may contact a professional process server like the county sheriff. A process server will likely charge a service fee.

The defendant must receive the Summons at least 10 days before the scheduled court date. If they do not receive a timely Summons, the court may continue the court date to a later date.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

A defendant who receives the Summons should prepare for the upcoming court date. The court may enter a default judgment if the defendant does not appear at the scheduled court date. If the court enters a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor, it will likely grant the plaintiff's requested relief. In other words, the defendant will owe the plaintiff the disputed amount.

The defendant may also contact the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney to try and settle the case. If the parties agree to a settlement, they must put it in writing and file it with the court.

If the defendant is younger than 18, they may need a parent or guardian to attend the court date with them. Contact the court clerk for more information about minors and small claims cases.

Counterclaims

The defendant may file a counterclaim if they allege the plaintiff owes them money. If the claim arose from the same occurrence giving rise to the plaintiff's lawsuit, a plaintiff may file a Counterclaim Small Claims form. The form is available online or at your local courthouse.

The defendant must state the amount of money they allege the plaintiff owes them. They must also briefly describe why they believe the plaintiff owes them money.

The defendant must file the claim at least 10 days before the scheduled court date and provide notice of the counterclaim to the defendant. The notice provisions and procedure are similar to the plaintiff's notice requirements regarding the Summons. The court clerk may provide information to the defendant regarding serving the plaintiff.

In general, the court may only hear counterclaims that allege less than $5,000. If the counterclaim exceeds $5,000, the parties must agree to hear it in the small claims division. If a party does not agree, the defendant must file the claim in an appropriate district court. The defendant may file the counterclaim in the small claims court, but they waive their right to collect more than $5,000.

Preparing for the Small Claims Hearing

All parties to the small claims case should prepare to attend the small claims court date. As noted above, if the defendant does not appear, the court may enter a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. If the plaintiff fails to appear, the court may dismiss the case. If the small claims court dismisses the case, the plaintiff may not refile it in the small claims court.

Parties may present evidence to the court during the hearing. Therefore, parties may compile different pieces of evidence before trial. For example, they may bring relevant contracts or photographs to the hearing. They may also bring witnesses to testify. If a witness does not willingly come to court, they may request the court issue a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order that compels a witness to appear at the hearing.

If a party knows they cannot attend the scheduled court date, they may request the court continue the trial to a later date. Contact the court clerk about a continuance if you cannot attend the scheduled court date.

The Small Claims Hearing

The plaintiff has the burden of proof in a small claims case and will present their case to the court first. This means they will describe their cause of action and why they believe the defendant owes them money. They may present evidence and call witnesses to testify. Once the plaintiff finishes, the defendant presents their side of the case.

A judge decides who prevails in the case. The judge may notify the parties of their decision immediately or issue a decision later. The court will mail the judgment to both parties.

Appeals

Either party may appeal the small claims court's judgment. To do so, they must file an Application for a Trial de Novo form and pay a filing fee. This must be done within 10 days of the small claims court's judgment. The circuit division will hear the appeal, and the parties may request a jury trial.

Enforcing a Judgment

The prevailing party is responsible for collecting the judgment. The parties may agree to a payment method. For example, they may agree the losing party pays the judgment in a lump sum or an installment plan.

If the losing party cannot or does not pay the judgment, the prevailing party may ask for court assistance in the collection process. For example, the prevailing party may request a writ of garnishment from the court. A writ of garnishment orders the losing party's employer to pay money to the court, and the court then pays the winning party. The prevailing party may also request to garnish the losing party's bank accounts.

The court clerk can provide more information about different satisfaction of judgment methods.

Once the losing party pays the judgment in full, the prevailing party must file a Satisfaction of Judgment form with the court.

Questions? Contact an Attorney

While the small claims process in Missouri does not require parties to hire an attorney, they may do so if they wish. Although the money in dispute is often a small amount, the case may involve complex questions of law or fact. Therefore, consider contacting an attorney for help with your claim. An experienced civil litigation attorney can provide you with critical legal advice in your small claims case, including the following:

  • General information about Missouri law, its small claims court process, and how to file suit
  • How to prepare for an appeal from a small claims court case
  • Whether the statute of limitations bars you from filing a small claims case years after you sustained a personal injury

If you have a small claims case or received a Summons, do not delay contacting a civil litigation attorney near you.

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