What is Small Claims Court?
Small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning that they only involve small scale disputes that don’t involve a lot of money. Unless the amount you’re seeking is higher than a certain threshold amount (the “jurisdictional limit”), most states require you to file your lawsuit in small claims court, and anything above the jurisdictional limit requires you to file your case in a higher court. Depending on the state, the jurisdictional limit ranges from from as low as $2,500 to as high as $10,000. For your state’s limit, click here.
What Kind of Cases Are Filed in Small Claims Court?
Most cases that are filed in small claims court involve the collection of small debts and any other dispute that falls below the jurisdictional limit. For example, doctor’s bills resulting from an accident, costs of repairing a car or appliance, damages for breach of a contract, and nearly every other type of small dollar cases are heard in small claims court. One possible exception to this involves eviction cases, which in some states must be brought in a higher court.
Should you sue in Small Claims Court?
In some cases, By suing in a small-claims court, the plaintiff typically waives any right to claim more than the court can award. The plaintiff may or may not be allowed to reduce a claim to fit the requirements of this venue. ‘Court shopping’—where a plaintiff reduces the damage claim amount to have a trial in a court that otherwise does not have jurisdiction—is strictly forbidden in some states. For example, if a plaintiff asserts damages of $30,000 in hopes of winning an award of $25,000 in small-claims court, the court dismisses the case because the court does not have jurisdiction to hear cases in which asserted damages exceed the court’s maximum amount.
Thus, even if the plaintiff is willing to accept less than the full amount, the case cannot be brought to small-claims court. To bring the case to small-claims court, the plaintiff must prove that actual damages are within the court’s jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, a party who loses in a small-claims court is entitled to a trial de novo in a court of more general jurisdiction and with more formal procedures.
The rules of civil procedure, and sometimes of evidence, are typically altered and simplified to make the procedures economical. A usual guiding principle in these courts is that individuals ought to be able to conduct their own cases and represent themselves without a lawyer. Rules are relaxed, but still apply to some degree. In some jurisdictions, corporations must still be represented by a lawyer in small-claims court. Expensive court procedures such as interrogatories and depositions are usually not allowed in small-claims court, and practically all matters filed in small-claims court are set for trial. Under some court rules, should the defendant not show up at trial and not have requested postponement, a default judgment may be entered in favor of the plaintiff.
Trial by jury is seldom or never conducted in small-claims courts; it is typically excluded by the statute establishing the court. Similarly, equitable remedies such as injunctions, including protective orders, are seldom available from small-claims courts.
Separate family courts may exist to hear simple cases in family law. For reasons having more to do with history than with the sort of case typically heard by a small-claims court, most US states do not allow domestic relations disputes in small-claims court.
Winning in small-claims court does not automatically ensure payment in recompense of a plaintiff’s damages. This may be relatively easy, in the case of a dispute against an insured party, or extremely difficult, in the case of an uncooperative, transient, or indigent defendant. The judgment may be collected through wage garnishment and liens.
Most courts encourage parties with disputes to seek alternative dispute resolution, if possible, before filing suit. For example, the Superior Court of California, Santa Clara provides guidelines for resolving disputes out of court. Both parties can agree on arbitration by a third party to settle their dispute outside of court, though while small-claims court judgments can still be appealed, arbitration awards cannot.