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What Can I Sue for in Small Claims Court?

Angry people arguing their problems to a Judge

Not all court cases require teams of attorneys and crates of evidence. Most disputes involve much smaller sums and less dramatic issues. When you disagree with your neighbor over who should pay for repairs after their tree falls on your fence, it goes to small claims court.

Small claims courts are part of the state court system. Litigants file their complaints with the court, but filing fees are smaller than in civil court. Small claims filing fees are often less than $200. The person suing (the plaintiff) does not have to serve the other party (the defendant), so there are no process server fees.

The court clerk's office sets the hearing date and advises both parties by mail. At the hearing, the judge hears the evidence, reviews the documents filed by both parties, and often gives a verdict on the same day. Most state laws do not allow attorneys to represent clients in small claims courts, so there is no lengthy witness testimony or cross-examination.

What kinds of cases go to small claims court?

Small claims courts are limited jurisdiction courts. They only hear certain types of cases. Most states hear civil cases with dollar values below $10,000, although a few states' small claims courts are as high as $15,000. High-value civil cases must go to civil court.

Some states, such as California, have limited civil courts which hear cases up to $35,000. Unlimited civil courts take the remaining cases. You should confirm with the clerk's office before filing any documents.

Small claims courts can hear most types of civil court cases, such as:

  • Small personal injury claims
  • Debt collection
  • Repairs and maintenance
  • Landlord/tenant claims (eviction, security deposit, lease agreements)
  • Issues with contractors or home remodels
  • Property damage claims

Small claims courts do not hear:

  • Family law, bankruptcy, or probate cases go to their own courts
  • Small criminal cases, such as traffic tickets or DUIs
  • Claims requiring injunctive relief
  • Cases asking for remedies over the statutory amount

A small claims case requires a money judgment or an award with a dollar value. Small claims courts can grant a plaintiff's claim that a fence was improperly installed and should be rebuilt because that has a dollar value. They cannot resolve a case for someone who wants the neighbor to stop grilling steak because they don't like the smell.

Any plaintiff may file a case in small claims court if the dollar value is under the statutory amount. Plaintiffs can name individuals, large corporations, and small businesses as defendants. If the case must go to the superior court, you should consider hiring an attorney.

Should I hire a lawyer?

In most states, court rules prohibit attorney representation in small claims court. Attorneys may represent corporate entities, but there are additional rules in these cases.

You should get legal advice about your case if you need clarification on any facts in the matter. You may want an attorney's help if:

  • The other party filed a counterclaim against you
  • The amount of money is close to the statutory limit
  • You need to postpone ("continue") the court hearing

Courts often have self-help clinics at the courthouse or through their websites. Staff at these clinics cannot give legal advice, but they can provide general information about forms and filing.

What happens when I file my small claims court lawsuit?

When you file your small claims lawsuit, the court notifies the opposing party by issuing a summons to appear. Your complaint, sometimes called a petition or affidavit, must contain:

  • The defendant's correct name
  • The defendant's street and mailing address
  • The defendant's phone number and contact information
  • If the defendant is a business entity, you must have their registered agent's address

In some jurisdictions, you may be responsible for serving the summons and complaint on the defendant. You cannot serve the summons yourself, so you must have a third party do so or have a process server deliver it. Some states allow notice through registered or certified mail.

Once all parties receive notice of the court date, you must attend the court hearing and present your evidence. Some courts require the parties to attend mediation before the judge hears the case.

The judge may issue a verdict immediately or take it under advisement. In that case, you and the defendant will receive the verdict by mail.

What should I bring to small claims court?

When your court date arrives, bring anything relevant to your case. It helps to make copies for yourself, the other party, and the judge. If you have bank statements or contracts, highlight the relevant portions for the judge. Bring copies of things like:

  • Contracts or invoices
  • Receipts and canceled checks, including downloaded copies
  • Photos of injuries or property damage
  • Any witnesses whom you wish to testify on your behalf

If you must get a court order or subpoena for any witnesses or material, you may need help from an attorney or other legal professional.

What if the other party doesn't show up?

If the defendant does not show up for the court date, the judge will issue a default judgment for the plaintiff. The plaintiff can then have the judgment enforced.

If the plaintiff fails to appear, the judge often dismisses the case. The plaintiff must start their case over again.

If the absent party has a valid reason for missing court, the judge has the discretion to reschedule the case. It is rare for a judge to reschedule small claims cases.

Can I appeal a small claims judgment?

You can appeal most court verdicts. Arbitration agreements can waive the right to appeal, which is a reason some people avoid arbitration when possible. Court costs and filing fees are the main issues in appealing small claims cases. Filing fees start at around $200-300 in most states, but that's only for the notice of appeal. The appellant must also pay for the court transcript and enter it into the appellate record.

There are time limits to filing an appeal. In most states, parties must file a notice of appeal within 30 days of the verdict. The format for appeal documents and the filing process differs from standard court forms.

If the verdict is worth appealing, you should consult a civil attorney. The average small claims claimant should not undertake appeals alone.

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