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Texas Small Claims Courts

Texas abolished its small claims courts in 2013. Now, people file civil claims that do not exceed $20,000 in Texas' Justice Courts. The Justice Courts provide people with a quick and inexpensive way to resolve certain civil disputes.

The following links provide more information and self-help resources for people filing a small claims case in Texas:

This article describes Texas' Justice Courts and how to file a small claims case in them. For more information, contact a civil litigation attorney near you.

Texas Justice Courts and Small Claims Cases Explained

Texas used to have a small claims court for minor civil disputes. It offered parties a quick and inexpensive option to resolve their disputes compared to formal litigation in a superior court.

However, the Texas Legislature abolished the small claims court in 2013. Now, people with certain civil disputes under $20,000 may file their claims in the state's Justice Courts.

Justice of the Peace presides over small claims cases. Any party may request a jury trial, although they must request it at least 14 days before their scheduled trial. Each county has at least one Justice Court. Contact your local county court or county clerk's office if you have questions about filing a small claims case.

Anyone 18 or older may file a small claims case in the Justice Court. A minor with a small claims case must have their parent or guardian file the case on their behalf. Corporations and businesses may also file small claims cases. In general, money lenders and collection agencies cannot file small claims cases.

The small claims process is informal compared to cases in a superior court. The informality allows many parties to represent themselves instead of hiring an attorney. However, any party may hire an attorney if they wish. The $20,000 jurisdictional limit includes attorney's fees.

What Claims Can the Justice Court Hear?

Justice Courts have limited jurisdiction, meaning they can only hear certain types of cases. The Justice Court may only award money to a prevailing party. It cannot, for example, force a contractor to finish fixing your roof. 

Instead, it can award you money for the expenses related to the contractor's damage to your house, payments you made to them, and the cost of finding another contractor.

Examples of cases the Justice Court can hear include the following:

  • You lent someone money and they refuse to pay you back
  • A plumber charged you for repairs they did not make
  • Someone damaged your personal property and refuses to compensate you for the damage
  • Your landlord has not returned your security deposit since you moved out several months ago
  • Eviction cases

Examples of cases the Justice Court cannot hear include the following:

  • A claim that someone has to remove the fence they allegedly built on your property
  • A claim requesting someone you hired to paint your house finish the job after they quit halfway through painting
  • A claim that exceeds $20,000
  • A claim involving a dispute over the ownership of real property

If you have questions about whether you can file a small claims case in the Justice Courts, contact a civil litigation attorney.

How To File a Small Claims Case

The plaintiff, who is the person or entity filing a lawsuit, begins their small claims case by filing a petition in an appropriate Justice Court. The petition lists the following information:

  • The parties to the lawsuit and their contact information
  • The plaintiff's explanation of why they are suing the defendant(s)
  • The amount of money claimed

The court will charge a filing fee when the plaintiff files their petition. If the plaintiff cannot afford the filing fee, they may ask the court clerk about a fee waiver (Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs). If the plaintiff wins their case, the court may include these court costs in the award.

It is critical that a plaintiff correctly names the defendants, who are the people or entities they are suing. If they provide incorrect information about a defendant, the court cannot enter a judgment against the defendant. If the plaintiff is suing a business or corporation, they may want to contact the county clerk's office or the secretary of state to find out a business's assumed name.

Where and When To File Suit

The plaintiff must file their case in a proper venue. The nature of your case and the parties involved will determine where to file the case. In general, a proper venue is one of the following precincts and counties:

  • Where the defendant lives
  • If the dispute involves a contract, where the performance occurred or where the non-performance was supposed to occur
  • If the case involves a personal injury or property damage, where the injury or damage occurred

If the plaintiff does not file in a proper venue, it may delay their case and add extra expense. It is essential to file in the correct precinct and county.

Each civil claim in Texas has a statute of limitations. The statute of limitations is a period within which the plaintiff must file their claim. State law sets the statute of limitations, and it varies between claims. Read FindLaw's Texas Civil Statute of Limitations Laws article for more information.

Serving the Defendant

After the plaintiff files their suit, the court will prepare a citation. The plaintiff must ensure the defendant receives the petition and citation. This process, known as the service of process, ensures the defendant becomes aware of the lawsuit against them.

The plaintiff cannot serve the defendant. Instead, they must arrange for someone else to serve the defendant. They have several options, including the following:

  • The plaintiff may ask the court to mail the documents via certified mail with a return receipt requested.
  • The plaintiff may contact the sheriff's office and pay them a fee to serve the defendant.
  • The plaintiff may hire a professional process server to serve the defendant.

Each of these options will cost the plaintiff a service fee. If they win their case, the court may award these fees to them.

If you have questions about how to serve the defendant, contact the clerk of the court. They can provide you with information about the service of process, but they cannot provide legal advice or answer legal questions. For more information, read the Texas State Law Library's guide to filing.

Responding to a Small Claims Case

A defendant must respond to the petition and citation within 14 days of receiving it. To respond, they must file an answer with the court. They must also serve the plaintiff with their answer.

If the defendant does not file an answer within 14 days, the plaintiff may ask the court for a default judgment. The court will hold a default judgment hearing determining if the plaintiff is entitled to their claimed amount of money. If the court enters a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor, they win the case. The defendant will likely have to pay the plaintiff's claimed amount.

If the defendant has claims against the plaintiff, they may file a counterclaim. The court will hear the counterclaim in the same trial as the plaintiff's claim.

Once the defendant files their answer, the court will schedule a trial or pre-trial hearing on its docket.

Before the Trial

The parties may settle their dispute at any time before the trial. If the parties settle, they should inform the court clerk as soon as possible. The court will enter a judgment reflecting the settlement agreement.

If the parties do not settle their dispute, they should prepare for the trial. This may include gathering evidence to introduce at the trial, such as copies of contracts or photographs. They may also secure witnesses to testify at the trial. If a witness does not willingly appear for the trial, a party may request a subpoena from the court. A subpoena is a court order compelling a witness to appear and testify at the trial.

If the court schedules a pre-trial hearing, parties must attend and discuss the case. Issues to discuss may include the following:

  • Whether either party needs an interpreter
  • Whether the court needs to issue a subpoena to a witness

As noted above, either party may request a jury trial. They must request it at least 14 days before the scheduled bench trial. Requesting a jury trial will cost the requesting party additional fees.

The Small Claims Trial

All parties should plan to attend the small claims trial. If the plaintiff fails to attend, the court may dismiss their case. The court may enter a default judgment in the plaintiff's favor if the defendant fails to appear.

On the trial date, the plaintiff will present their arguments first. They can introduce evidence and call witnesses to testify. If a party calls a witness to testify, the other party can cross-examine them. Once the plaintiff rests, the defendant will have an opportunity to present their arguments and evidence.

Unless the parties request a jury trial, a Justice of the Peace will preside over the trial. After the trial, the Justice of the Peace will announce their decision. The court will issue a written judgment as well.

Appeals and New Trials

The non-prevailing party may file a motion for a new trial within 14 days of the judgment's date. The party must show that the Justice Court committed an error to get a new trial. This will cost additional fees.

Either party may appeal the Justice Court's judgment. To appeal a case, the party must file one of the following within 21 days of the judgment's date:

  • An appeal bond, in which the appealing party pays the court double the amount of the judgment. An appeal bond requires another person to act as a surety and promise to pay the bond amount to the non-appealing party if the appealing party ultimately does not pursue the appeal.
  • Deposit double the amount of money the judgment specifies with the court. If the appealing party does not appeal the case, the court will distribute the money to the non-appealing party.
  • Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs if they cannot afford the appeal bond or double the judgment's amount.

A County Court will hear all appeals from the Justice Courts. You may need to hire an attorney if you appeal a case, as the County Courts do not follow the informal court rules and procedures of the Justice Courts.

Enforcing a Judgment

Suppose the plaintiff prevails in the small claims case, and the defendant owes them money. The plaintiff is responsible for collecting the money from the defendant. The court does not collect the money for the prevailing party.

The parties may discuss how the non-prevailing party will pay the prevailing party. If the non-prevailing party can't or won't satisfy the judgment, the prevailing party has several options. These options include the following:

  • Discovery: They may send interrogatories or other questions to the non-prevailing party. The questions focus on what assets the non-prevailing party has that could satisfy the judgment. If the non-prevailing party does not respond within 30 days or if they object to the questions, the court may hold a hearing on whether they must respond.
  • Abstract of Judgment: The prevailing party may request the court give them a lien on the non-prevailing party's real property. If the non-prevailing party sells the property, the prevailing party can take some of the proceeds to satisfy the judgment.
  • Writ of Execution: The prevailing party may obtain a writ of execution. This allows the sheriff to seize non-exempt property from the non-prevailing party and sell it at a public auction. The prevailing party may use the auction's proceeds to satisfy the judgment.
  • Writ of Garnishment: The prevailing party may obtain a writ of garnishment. This allows them to garnish the non-prevailing party's wages or bank accounts to satisfy the judgment.

Enforcing and satisfying a judgment involves many steps and could cost quite a bit in additional fees. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney if you need to use these methods to enforce a judgment.

Contact an Attorney

Texas small claims cases often involve a small amount of money, and the informal court rules allow parties to represent themselves. However, these civil cases may involve complicated questions of law. Consider contacting a civil litigation attorney near you for help with your small claims case.

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