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Tennessee Small Claims Courts

The Tennessee General Sessions Courts hear small claims actions, which are civil cases where the amount in dispute is $25,000 or less. Tennessee designed its small claims courts to allow non-legal professionals to represent themselves in their civil disputes. But litigants may hire attorneys if they wish.

The following links offer more information about Tennessee's General Sessions Courts and small claims cases:

This article summarizes Tennessee's General Sessions Courts and small claims process. Contact your local court clerk or a civil litigation attorney for more information.

Tennessee Small Claims Court

Tennessee General Sessions Courts have jurisdiction over certain civil and criminal matters. This article focuses on the court's civil jurisdiction over small claims cases.

The General Sessions Courts' civil jurisdiction varies between counties based on state law and local rules. The court has limited civil jurisdiction, meaning it can only hear certain cases. Because of the varying rules, consider reviewing your court's local rules and contacting the court clerk before filing your lawsuit.

Generally, the court can adjudicate civil cases where the amount in controversy does not exceed $25,000. The jurisdictional dollar limit does not apply to cases involving unlawful detainers or cases where the plaintiff seeks to recover personal property.

Any adult, business, corporation, or partnership may file a small claims case. A minor with a small claims case must have their parent or guardian file it for them. The person or entity that files a small claims case is the plaintiff or claimant. The person or entity they sue is the defendant.

As noted above, Tennessee allows parties to hire attorneys if they wish, but a party does not need one.

How To File a Small Claims Case

The plaintiff begins their lawsuit by filing one of three forms, depending on the nature of their claim. The forms and corresponding claims are as follows:

  • A plaintiff files a detainer form if they have a landlord-tenant dispute, such as an eviction or unpaid rent.
  • A plaintiff files an action to recover personal property form if they allege the defendant unlawfully possesses their personal property. For example, if the plaintiff lends their neighbor some tools and the neighbor refuses to return them, the plaintiff would file an Action to Recover Personal Property form.
  • The plaintiff files a civil warrant form when they seek up to $25,000. For example, if the plaintiff alleges the defendant breached a contract and owes the plaintiff money, they may file a civil warrant form. For instance, if someone's negligence caused the plaintiff to suffer a personal injury or property damage, they would file a civil warrant.

Regardless of the type of case the plaintiff files, they must include the following information in their filing:

  • The parties' names and contact information
  • A description of the events giving rise to the lawsuit
  • The legal basis for the plaintiff's claims
  • Their requested relief (e.g., return of personal property, money damages, etc.)

The plaintiff must pay the court clerk a filing fee before the court accepts the filing. If the plaintiff can't afford the filing fee, they can fill out an affidavit of indigency and file it with the court. The court may waive the filing fee after reviewing the affidavit.

Once the plaintiff files their claim, the court will issue a summons and explain how to serve the defendant. The clerk will also set a court date on the court's calendar.

If you have questions about how to begin your small claims case, contact the clerk's office and speak to a clerk. They can give information about how to fill out the necessary forms and other procedural steps. They can't give legal advice.

Where to File

The plaintiff must file their case in a court that can exercise jurisdiction over the defendant. This usually means they must file their case in the general sessions court in the county where the defendant lives. Other proper venues may include the following:

  • The county where the cause of action arose
  • If the plaintiff sues a business, the county where the business has its principal place of business

Depending on your claim type, other counties may be the proper venues. But filing with a General Sessions Court that does not have jurisdiction over the defendant will cause delays and extra expenses. So consider contacting a civil litigation attorney if you have questions about where to file your lawsuit.

When to File: The Statute of Limitations

All civil claims have a time limit for the plaintiff to file their claim. The time limit, also known as the statute of limitations, begins when the plaintiff knows or should have known their cause of action arose.

The statute of limitations varies based on the type of case the plaintiff plans to bring. For example, under Tennessee law, anyone with a claim involving a breach of contract (written or oral) must file it within six years of the alleged breach. A plaintiff with a claim involving personal property damage must file it within three years of the alleged damage. Failing to file the claim within that time frame will prevent the court from hearing the case.

Read Findlaw's Tennessee Civil Statute of Limitations Laws article for more information.

Serving the Defendant

Once the plaintiff files their small claims case, they must ensure that an adult, not a party to the lawsuit, serves all the defendants. Serving the defendant generally involves ensuring they receive notice of the civil action filed against them. This requires that the defendant receives a copy of the form the plaintiff filed, along with the court-issued summons.

The plaintiff has several options to ensure the defendant receives notice of the lawsuit, including the following:

  • Contact the sheriff's office and request they serve the defendant with the required court forms. The plaintiff must pay a service fee to the sheriff's office.
  • Contact a professional process server and pay them a fee to serve the defendant.
  • Send the forms via certified mail with a return receipt requested. Once they receive the return receipt, they must file it with the court.

Once the plaintiff confirms the defendant received notice of the lawsuit, they file an affidavit with the court stating they served the defendant. The court clerk will sign off on the proof of service of process.

Failing to serve the defendants will result in delays in the case. So, the plaintiff must properly serve the defendants. If you have questions about the service of process, contact the court clerk or a civil litigation attorney.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

A defendant doesn't have to file a formal answer to the plaintiff's claim. They can appear at the scheduled hearing and present their defenses if they disagree with the claim.

If the defendant agrees with the plaintiff's claims, they can contact the plaintiff or the plaintiff's attorney and ask if they can resolve the case before the hearing. If the parties settle their case, they must inform the court of their settlement.

If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim. Suppose the counterclaim exceeds the jurisdictional limit of $25,000. In that case, they have two options. They can file the counterclaim with the small claims court and waive their ability to recover above $25,000. Or they can file the counterclaim with the small claims court and then file a request to transfer the case to the circuit court.

Preparing for the Small Claims Hearing

All the plaintiffs and defendants in a small claims case must appear for the small claims hearing. The court will probably dismiss the plaintiff's case if they fail to attend the hearing. The court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor if the defendant does not appear. If the court enters a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor, the defendant loses the case, and they will likely have to pay the plaintiff's claim.

The parties can gather evidence and secure witnesses to testify at the hearing. Contact the court clerk for more information about the requirements for presenting evidence at the hearing. For example, you may have to bring several copies of any one piece of evidence you intend to introduce.

If a witness does not want to testify at the hearing, a party may request that the court issue a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order that compels someone to appear at the trial or produce certain documents. You may subpoena a potential witness even if they say they intend to appear at the hearing.

The Small Claims Hearing

A judge will preside over the scheduled small claims hearing; there are no jury trials for a small claims case. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof in the case. They must convince the judge that the defendant owes them money or property. If the defendant files a counterclaim, they have the burden of proof on their counterclaim.

The plaintiff will present their arguments and evidence first. This may include an opening statement indicating what the evidence will show and why they are entitled to the claimed relief. They can then introduce evidence and call witnesses to testify. If a party calls a witness to testify, the opposing party can cross-examine the witness.

Once the plaintiff rests their case, the defendant will present theirs. They can present defenses to the plaintiff's claims and also call witnesses. If they filed a counterclaim, they can present their arguments showing why the plaintiff allegedly owes them money or property.

The judge will announce their decision once the trial concludes. They may issue it immediately or at a later date. The court will send the parties a copy of the general sessions judgment.


Either party can appeal the judgment. If the court grants an appeal, the circuit court will review the court's decision. Contact the court clerk for filing deadlines and other procedural requirements for filing an appeal. Because the appellate process is more formal than the general sessions court, you may also want to consider speaking with a civil litigation attorney for help with your legal issues.

Satisfying a Judgment

Suppose the court issues a money judgment in your favor. In that case, you are the judgment creditor. The person or entity that owes you money is the judgment debtor.

The judgment creditor handles collecting the money or property owed. The court will not collect it for them.

The creditor and debtor may discuss how the debtor will satisfy the judgment. The parties must notify the court clerk once the debtor fully satisfies the judgment.

If the debtor doesn't satisfy the judgment, the creditor can request the court's help. For example, they can ask that the court garnish the debtor's wages. They may also request that the sheriff execute on the debtor's property and sell it at an auction to satisfy the judgment.

Contact an Attorney

The state of Tennessee designed its general sessions courts to allow parties to pursue their claims without an attorney. But your small claims case may involve complex questions of law or fact. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney if you have a small claims case and need legal advice.

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