What Is Small Claims Court?
In the United States, a small claims court is a court of limited jurisdiction tasked with adjudicating legal claims that fall within a specific statutory threshold. Depending on the state and the litigants involved, these limits may range from $3,500 to $25,000. However, small claims courts do not hear claims where the maximum monetary compensation exceeds $25,000. While small claims courts function like most U.S. trial courts, they do not function independently in most states. Rather, they are established as divisions of a superior court or a district court depending on the state. Small Claims Courts have jurisdictions to hear matters pertaining to:
- Loan repayment
- Security deposit disputes
- Damage to property during cleaning or repairs
- Personal injury matters
- Disputes regarding the terms of a service contract.
- Landlord/tenant disputes - including eviction
- Breach of contract
- Claims of slander or defamation of character
- Police brutality
Regardless of the circumstance, small claims courts cannot be hard-pressed to hear cases outside their judicial authority. Small claims courts do not hear matters pertaining to divorce, guardianship or child custody, bankruptcy, or requests for emergency relief. Similarly, claimants cannot file a suit against a federal agency or the government in a small claims court. Rather, small claim suits against the federal government are to be made to a federal court or the U.S. court of federal claims.
How Do U.S. Small Claims Courts Work?
Small claims courts are generally designed to resolve small claims in an inexpensive and timely manner. Unlike other courts, they operate informally but are presided over by a judge. However, like most civil suits, the claimant is considered the plaintiff, and the defendant is the accused or respondent.
Claimants may file a suit with a small claims court provided the nature of the complaint is within the jurisdiction of the court. Depending on the state, businesses and natural persons have varying limits on the claims they can make. Natural persons are private individuals or sole proprietorships while businesses in this context are registered organizations run by two or more persons.
Litigants are often restricted from filing more than two small claim actions within one calendar year, especially where the claims exceed a specific amount. However, where there are sufficient justifiable reasons to file multiple claims, each of the subsequent claims must be pegged within the statutory limit of the state.
Following a judicial proceeding in a small claims court, the judgment issued by the court will remain binding unless overturned in a subsequent proceeding. Litigants are typically offered a brief window within which they can appeal the judgment. If both parties fail to appeal the judgment the stipulated period expires, the court’s initial declaration remains binding.
The jurisdiction of the federal court of claims is outlined in 28 U.S.C. § 1491, also known as the Tucker Act. According to the Act and related statutes, the federal court of claims is authorized to hear specialized claims against the federal government. This may include contract disputes, military or civilian pay claims, tax disputes, copyright claims, and related matters.
How to Take Someone To Small Claims Court
Before opting to take someone to a small claims court, claimants are encouraged to consider alternative dispute resolution options. Civil suits that cannot be resolved through mediation or arbitration may proceed to court.
Claimants will be required to provide sufficient evidence to support their claim when filing a suit. Hence, the plaintiff must prepare any testimonies, documents, or files that can be filed as evidence before filing the suit.
While plaintiffs do not have to be U.S. citizens to file a small claim, the following parties are ineligible to file a small claims case:
- Parties below 18 years of age (Who aren’t filing through a parent or guardian)
- Establishments, including partnerships, co-operations, and companies located outside the jurisdiction of interest.
How to File a Small Claims Suit
To file a small claims suit, the petitioner must first determine the appropriate court for the filing. In most cases, it will be the district court or superior court in the jurisdiction where the defendant is resident.
The claimant will be required to request and complete specific forms from the clerk of court, or download the required form from the court’s website, if applicable.
Most courts provide instructions on completing and filing these forms in their small claims handbooks. When the claimant files the forms and pays all associated court fees, they will be assigned a case number after which a notification of the suit will be served to the defendant along with proof of the service. Where the plaintiff fails to notify the defendant of the suit or serve the defendant within the specified time, the case will likely be dismissed.
Defendants are typically served a notice of the claim along with a summons form, an answer form, a copy of the complaint, and all supporting documents. However, depending on the legal provisions of the state, the plaintiff may be unable to serve a defendant that is out of state unless ordered by a court. Where the defendant is in hiding, cannot be found, or is simply reusing to be served, the court can post a legal notice on their website or public platform, or the complainant may file a Notice to Absent Defendant Form with the court.
When the defendant is notified of the suit, the claimant must then file an Affidavit of Service and wait 20-40 days for the defendant to respond - depending on their location. Where the defendant fails to respond to the suit within the stipulated time period, the plaintiff can file for a default judgment which the court will deliver within 7 days of the filing.
How Much Can You Sue For in a Small Claims Court?
In the United States, small claims courts have varying financial limits depending on the state where the court is situated. The upper financial limits for most courts range between $2500 to $25,000 depending on the plaintiff or defendant.
In some cases, the exception to the maximum limit of the court may be wage claims, personal injury claims, or selected contract disputes. Additionally, there may be a special clause for suing specific defendants such as guarantors.
How to Defend Yourself in a Small Claims Court
In a U.S. small claims court, the defendant must be at least 18 years or older, a business or sole proprietorship based within the judicial district of the court, or feuding parties whose dispute originated while within the jurisdiction of the court.
Since small claims courts attend to civil suits, neither party is at risk of jail time. Rather, the winning party in a small claims suit will likely be awarded monetary compensation which must be paid by the losing party on the order of the court.
Hence, when the complainant notifies the defendant of the plaintiff, they must respond to the suit within 20 - 40 days of its filing. The defendant is required to send their response along with any associated fees to the clerk of courts in the court where the suit was filed. Failure to respond within the stipulated deadline may lead to a default judgment being entered against the defendant. Depending on the state where the suit was filed, the defendant may also choose where the case will be heard - in a small claims court or a district/superior court.
Most importantly, the defendant must understand the nature and severity of the plaintiff’s defense in order to offer a substantial defense against the claim. Defendants and their legal advisers must then prepare to present all the exonerating facts during the judicial proceeding.
How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court?
All U.S Small Claims Courts have statutes of limitations on small claims suits. After the statute of limitations expires, the defendant is no longer liable and the plaintiff loses their right to make a claim. The statutes of limitations on a dispute primarily depend on the nature and severity of the dispute but may also be impacted by the legal provisions of the judicial district where both plaintiff and defendant are resident.
Where the complainant suffered a personal injury, the claim must be filed within two years after the incident. If the dispute is a contractual disagreement, it must also be filed within two to four years of the agreement being broken. Similarly, if the dispute is fraud-related, the claim must be made within three years of its discovery. However, if an individual seeks to make a claim against the federal government or a federal agency, the suit must be filed within six months of the dispute, injury, or loss. Notwithstanding, if the plaintiff is not a legal adult at the time of the incidence, the statute of limitations does not go into effect until they are no longer minors.
What Happens if You Don’t Show up for a Small Claims Court?
When the notice of a civil suit is filed to an individual, the defendant is required to respond to the suit before the scheduled hearing. If following the service of process, the defendant neither responds nor shows up to trial, the trial will proceed and the court may dismiss the case or enter a default judgment against the defendant.
When a default judgment is entered against an individual, they may file a motion to vacate the judgment or set aside the order depending on the case. It is within the discretion of the court to grant the motion, but it will depend largely on the defendant’s explanation for failing to respond to the suit and missing the trial. for missing the trial.
Where the judge denies the defendant's motion to vacate or set aside the judgment, they may file an Appeal Notice with the Court Clerk and r quest a new trial. However, if the appeal request is also denied, the defendant will be required to pay the monetary claims of the plaintiff in the original judgment.
What are Small Claims Court Records?
A Small Claims Court record is a court document generated during the judicial proceedings of a small claims court. Like most court records, it contains details of the suit as well as the personal information of the parties involved and the final judgment made by the court following the proceeding. Under the U.S. public record laws, these records are maintained by various courthouses and repositories and can be assessed by interested members of the public, provided they haven’t been restricted or closed by court order.
Where Can I Find Small Claims Court Records?
All small claims court records are maintained in the respective courthouses where the case was heard, by the office of the clerk of courts. While copies of local small claim court proceedings can be found in their respective jurisdictions, court records of the court of federal claims can be found using PACER - a federally managed record management system.
Persons interested in obtaining copies of small claims court records from local courts may query the court clerk’s office or a court's records department in person, by mail, or online. However, records of the proceedings in the court of federal claims can be obtained by calling the Clerk’s Office at (202) 357-6406 or following the instructions outlined in the online record request pamphlet. Requestors will be charged $11.00 per certified copy requested in addition to the copying costs of $0.50 per page.
To request a small claims court record from a local court, interested parties may use the court location tool on the state court website to get the appropriate contact information of the relevant courthouse. Alternatively, requesters may search using third-party aggregate websites which provide court record information for a small fee. Whichever the case, the requesting party will be required to provide information with which to facilitate record search including the identifying information of the plaintiff and complainant, the date and place the suit was filed and the case number of the suit - if applicable.