Chances are, you probably know a little bit about small claims courts already. TV shows like Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, and The People’s Court—although staged to some extent—provide some basic insights into what a small claims court might be like. Small claims courts were created with the purpose to provide an inexpensive route to quickly resolving relatively somewhat simple legal matters. Accordingly, it is a much more relaxed environment than the big district courts in your state. However, while small claims courts are generally more relaxed, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t prepare or expect a time commitment. There are many things that can be learned about how to be a good advocate (especially given that you will likely be representing yourself as a “pro se” litigant) in the courtroom.
Here, we’ll discuss some basic details on what small claims court is, what cases they can decided, small claims court judges and what you can expect, how you can prepare when attempting to bring your claim to court, and the steps you’ll need to take to make sure your small claims petition—the initial step in the small claims process—is correct.
Small claims courts across the U.S. are courts that have “limited jurisdiction.” Meaning they are limited not only in the types of controversies they can hear and decide, but also in the “amount in controversy,” or the amount the petitioner (the person or entity bringing the lawsuit) claims to be owed. Broadly speaking, a small claims court cannot hear a case with an amount in controversy that exceeds $10,000. While $10,000 is generally the upper limit, many states have much smaller jurisdictional limits, such as $6,000, $3,000, etc. The amount in controversy permitted will depend on your state’s statutes. A little basic internet research should provide you with accurate data on what your state permits.
Matters Adjudicated by Small Claims Courts
As discussed above, small claims courts are courts of “limited jurisdiction’’—not only when it comes to the amount in controversy, but also concerning the type of cases the small claims court is permitted to adjudicate. The small claims court will typically preside over misdemeanor cases, motor vehicle violations, minor criminal violations, small debts, and landlord-tenant disputes. In addition, a small claims court can usually conduct a civil marriage. Like with jurisdictional limits, the types of cases the small claims courts in your state will depend on your state’s statutes, which can be located with a little online research.
Small Claims Courts and Non-Lawyer Judges
As mentioned above, small claims courts are courts typically more relaxed, as people involved in small claims disputes typically are representing themselves. The law recognizes that it doesn’t always take a legal expert—or even someone with basic legal training—to resolve some simple disputes. In this way, small claims courts can be inherently accommodating to pro se litigants because the small claims court judges are themselves predominantly not attorneys—meaning they aren’t licensed to practice law. That’s right: your JP judge likely has no legal training, and any legal training or education they do have is probably extremely limited. This makes the Court close to the people it serves, and more sympathetic to “regular” people. Indeed, you may be surprised to realize that small claims court judges are just like you: they are high school teachers’ realtors, insurance agents, business-people, etc. They have diverse backgrounds and a wide range of experiences that can give them a unique perspective that a judge who only has ever practiced law may not have.
However, having a non-lawyer judge can be a double-edged sword. Even though small claims court judges typically have no legal training, they are still permitted to decide cases that involve complex legal issues that could be perplexing to even a well-trained attorney. In this way, it can seem very impractical that someone with no legal training can make a binding decision regarding your personal legal matters. However, even small claims court’s decisions are appealable (meaning they can be challenged in a higher court, with a judge who is, or has been, licensed to practice law), when you have a viable basis to appeal the decision.
How to Prepare
While small claims court is generally relaxed compared to other courts—like district courts—you will want to do some basic research on your small claims courts’ procedures so that you can properly prepare. There are several steps that you will need to take when you bring suit and as the case progresses. Because small claims courts—in particular, small claims court clerks — are experienced in dealing with individuals who aren’t sure about how the process works, many small claims court clerks will be willing to provide you with assistance on the steps you need to take as the process proceeds—so do not hesitate to request help when you need it. At a minimum, the court clerk can likely point you in the right direction and tell you who might be able to answer your questions. Here, we’ll explain the initial step in the small claims process: completing and filing your small claims petition with the court.
Filing the Petition
The document that begins the small claims process is known as a “Small Claims Petition,” or sometimes, a “Small Claims Complaint.” Although small claims petitions vary by state on what needs to be included and other general requirements, you will certainly need to state who the opposing party is (who you are suing), by their name. You will also want to include the opposing party’s address (so they can be “served” with the petition), the amount in controversy (discussed above), also known as “damages” in the small claims petition, what you are suing the opposing party for (i.e., breaching a contract, etc.), and possibly some statements that can support what you’re suing the opposing party for (example: “My auto insurer breached the contract by not paying my claim within the required time period.”). You do not need to worry about legal jargon, citing statutes and regulations, or lengthy details about why you’re suing the opposing party; remember, the court understands that you are not trained in the law. Your petition should provide enough to meet the basic requirements outlined in your court’s rules and procedures.
Naming the Opposing Party
Naturally, you will want to make sure that you are suing the right person prior to suing. You can sue an individual, a corporation, or another entity. It is important that the individual, corporation, or other entity be correctly named, particularly because “served” the petition (i.e., the opposing party must receive notice that they are being sued so that they may respond). Generally, you will know whether you’ve named the right person, because the court clerk will likely deny your petition and require you to “amend” the petition.
Determining the “Amount in Controversy”
As explained above, the amount in controversy is the amount you’re hoping to obtain by suing the opposing party, also known as “damages.” It is always better to claim more than what you believed you’re owed rather than less, because a court can always award you a smaller amount than you’ve requested but can never award more than the amount requested. However, keep in mind that—no matter the amount you’re requesting—you’re bound to the court’s “jurisdictional limits,” discussed above. Certainly, you should attempt to keep the amount you’re claiming in damages consistent with the harm you’ve experienced. For example, suppose again that your insurance company didn’t pay your claim on time, and your claim is worth $250. You probably wouldn’t want to claim your damages as $10,000.
An allegation that you’re owed more than what the court is permitted to award can result in your case being dismissed or sent to another court—likely a district court—that has more rigid procedures and rules that you must abide by and is less practical and lenient when it comes to pro se litigants. However, if you are claiming more than the court is permitted to award, you may also be able to waive the amount exceeding the court’s threshold, limiting the reward you can receive to the court’s threshold or lower. Whether you want to take this route comes down to weighing the pros and cons in doing so. For example, although you might be entitled to more damages than you allege—and you don’t have the money to hire an attorney—claiming less damages might be the most convenient, inexpensive, and least time-consuming route, depending on your circumstances.
What You Are Suing For
While you’ll want to include the amount you’re asking for, you’ll also need to provide a basic explanation as to why you’re entitled to that amount. As discussed above, maybe it’s because the opposing party breached a contract they had with you, maybe you were hurt in a car wreck, maybe your landlord is not making necessary repairs, etc. Generally, something like the previous statements given will be a good starting point. Again, you aren’t expected to use complicated legal terminology or know all the details when you bring your claim, but you need to be able to articulate some basis to your claim. Like in other courts, a petitioner isn’t expected to have ALL their evidence ready when they bring suit. Usually, there will still be a lot that you need to know when you bring your claim, which will become more available as the case progresses through a process called “discovery.”
Filing in the Right Court
Now that you have met the basic requirements concerning the petition’s contents, you will want to ensure that you are filing your petition with the right court—the court that can properly hear and determine your case—to avoid having your case dismissed. Generally, you will want to sue in the court, in the town: (1) where the opposing party lives or conducts their business; (2) where you experienced the harm caused by the opposing party’s actions; (3) where the contract was entered into, or where the contract was breached; or (4) where you live. Provided that you did not file your petition in the right court and the case is dismissed, this does not prevent you filing your petition again in the right court.
When you are ready to file your petition with the court, you assuredly will be required to pay a filing fee to be able to get your claim filed. The good news is that most filing fees in any small claims court will be somewhat nominal, depending on the “amount in controversy” you’re claiming as damages in your lawsuit. Likely, the more you are suing for, the more it will cost to get the petition filed with the court. However, provided you are short on cash, there are options. For example, if the filing fee is beyond your monetary means, you can ask the court to waive the fee. While the court (or the court clerk) will have the authority to grant or deny it your waiver, it is worth a shot. Even if the court will not waive the fee entirely, they could potentially reduce it to something that you’re able to manage a bit easier.
Other Possible Requirements: The Demand Letter
As mentioned above, each court will vary in what they require you to do prior to filing your small claims petition and what needs to be attached to your small claims petition. Here, will discuss some other things that might be required prior to, or at the time, you file your petition. In particular, demand letters.
To begin, small claims courts, like most courts, want cases to be resolved outside the court. If the court places no restrictions on the petitioner (the person or entity bringing the lawsuit) to bring a claim, there would be a huge increase in litigation—likely more than the court could handle. In addition, there is a widely held view that the parties should make their best attempt to reach an amicable resolution without court involvement, and this makes good sense—litigation usually doesn’t result in feelings of goodwill and happiness. At least one party will leave disappointed, and probably with a heavy dent in their pocketbook.
For this reason, courts are likely to require that the petitioner take reasonable steps to settle their claims prior to filing their petition and continue to attempt to settle once the petition has been filed.
Some courts may require that you file a demand letter prior to filing your petition. This is assurance to the court that you’ve taken reasonable steps to resolve your claim without the court’s help and that the opposing party isn’t willing to negotiate. A court hearing shouldn’t be the only time you’ve ever tried to settle your claim. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised at how willing someone might be to settle when threatened with a lawsuit. However, provided an agreement can’t be reached and it is realized by you—and the court—that the other party cannot or will not negotiate, you’ll be permitted to bring your claim into court. Now, let’s discuss some details about what a demand letter is and how it’s received.
A demand letter is exactly what it sounds like: a demand. You will want to send a demand letter to your opposing party expressing what it is that you want and why you are entitled to it. A demand letter should look professional and be clear and concise. Unless there is no way to avoid it, try to ensure that it is typed rather than handwritten. Aim to express your point in simple, understandable terms that avoids any personal attacks on the person’s or business’ character. A court will likely see the demand letter you’ve sent, so question, as you’re creating your demand, is this something I’d be OK with the court reading?
Generally, if you’re required to provide a demand letter prior to getting your case filed with the court, you’ll be asked to send the demand letter to the via certified mail. This is used to prove that the opposing party received the letter and that you sent it. Provided that a demand letter is required prior to you being able to file your claim with the court, you’ll want to wait and receive a response prior to making the decision to file your claim with the court.
I’ve Filed the Petition, Now What?
Once you’ve paid the filing fee and the petition gets filed, what next? Now that the initial step in the small claims process is complete, your lawsuit officially “begins.” Now, your opposing party needs notice that they’re being sued. The process of providing the opposing party with notice that they are now a party to a lawsuit is known as “serving of process.”
“Serving” the Opposing Party with Process
The idea of “service of process” is essentially the same in the context of small claims court as it is in the district court, although the timeline may vary somewhat. To begin, once you’ve filed your petition, there will need to be an independent third-party, someone who is not a party to the lawsuit you’ve brought, to physically hand the opposing party your complaint. Once the opposing party is handed the complaint, the opposing party will be asked to sign a document, verifying that they were served with the complaint, also known as “Proof of Service.” Proof of Service must be filed with the court to verify that the opposing party was indeed served.
Although it may vary by state, you are required to have the opposing party served no later than 10 days before your trial date (the trial date will be given to by the court clerk when you file the case). 10 days tends to seem like short notice, but it also will put a strain on you, as the petitioner, if you can’t find the opposing party and you are approaching 10 days prior to trial. It is always better to avoid procrastinating under circumstances like this. If you fail to serve the opposing party within 10 days, you’ll have to file a Motion for Continuance with the Court and get a new hearing date—and you’ll want a good reason for delaying service, too.
Also, there are good reasons to avoid serving the opposing party late in the game. Your trial date will likely be set several months from the date you filed your claim with the court. During that time, as discussed above, you will likely want to get additional information from the opposing party, you do this by requesting to conduct “discovery.” Although court rules will vary by state, most courts permit you (with the court’s permission) to conduct discovery, which allows you to request that the opposing party produce certain documents, admit, or deny certain statements, and ask specific questions about your claim.
This article has hopefully provided you a basic understanding about small claims courts, the matters they can decide, and the steps required to get your claim going, but you shouldn’t limit your research to what is contained here. You’ll want to gather some basic information on the court and their procedures prior to getting started. You should know that many courts have filing forms and other forms the court uses available on their website, which are generally free to access and use. And, as stated above, contact the court’s clerk if you’re struggling, they have a plethora of good information, and you will usually find they are happy to assist you.