Small Claims

Introduction

Chasing down security deposits and getting paid for money owed are two of the most common reasons people file small claims suits. But apart from a few restrictions, just about any dispute can be taken to small claims court—provided the amount of money requested falls within the maximum allowed by state law. 

In small claims court, there are no attorneys, no jury and no special courtroom procedures. Most of the time, the only people involved are you, your opponent and the judge. 

And, in recent years many states have increased the maximum amount you can recover. Plus, court judgments have become increasingly simple to collect. 

If you've failed to settle your dispute with phone calls and letters, Certified Document Solutions takes the hassle out of filing a small claims case. You don't have to struggle with court forms or time-consuming filing procedures. We will create the necessary forms for you, and in some cases, even file them with the proper court.

 

Qualification - Maximum Claim

Only civil cases, and not criminal cases, can be brought in small claims court. Some of the most common types of cases include:

  • Property damage
  • Breach of contract and business disputes
  • Defective product or unsatisfactory service
  • Landlord-Tenant disputes
  • Fraud
  • Accidents and personal injury
  • Unpaid debts

However, many types of cases are not suitable for small claims court. For example, if you already have a court judgment in your favor but the person has not paid, then you would need to enforce your current judgment, not file a new case. Small claims court is also not appropriate for landlords seeking to evict a tenant (but it can still be used to collect unpaid back rent). 

Furthermore, every state has a monetary limit as to how much you can recover from a small claims case. Please see the chart below for the maximum claim amounts per state.

State

Amount

 

Alabama

$3,000

 

Alaska

$7,500

 

Arizona

$2,500

 

Arkansas

$5,000

 

California

$7,500

You can only file two small claims cases over $2,500 in any year. Also, the limit for suits involving a surety company or a licensed contractor is $4,000, and the limit for suits brought by a corporation or LLC is $5,000.

Colorado

$7,500

 

Connecticut

$5,000

No limit in landlord-tenant security deposit claims

Delaware

$15,000

 

District of Columbia

$5,000

 

Florida

$5,000

 

Georgia

$15,000

No limit in landlord-tenant cases

Hawaii

$3,500

No limit in landlord-tenant residential deposit cases. For return of leased or rented personal property, the property must not be worth more than $3,500.

Idaho

$4,000

 

Illinois

$10,000

 

Indiana

$3,000

In Marion and Allen counties, the limit is $6,000

Iowa

$5,000

 

Kansas

$4,000

 

Kentucky

$1,500

 

Louisiana

$3,000

 

Maine

$4,500

 

Maryland

$5,000

 

Massachusetts

$2,000

No limit for property damage caused by a motor vehicle.

Michigan

$3,000

$500 limit on motor vehicle damages in no-fault traffic accident

Minnesota

$7,500

$4,000 limit for claims based on a personal or household consumer credit transaction

Mississippi

$2,500

 

Missouri

$3,000

 

Montana

$3,000

 

Nebraska

$2,400

 

Nevada

$5,000

 

New Hampshire

$5,000

 

New Jersey

$3,000

 

New Mexico

$10,000

 

New York

$5,000

In town and village justice courts, the limit is $3,000.

North Carolina

$4,000

 

North Dakota

$5,000

 

Ohio

$3,000

 

Oklahoma

$4,500

 

Oregon

$5,000

 

Pennsylvania

$8,000

In Philadelphia Municipal Court, the limit is $10,000

Rhode Island

$1,500

 

South Carolina

$7,500

 

South Dakota

$8,000

 

Tennessee

$15,000

The limit in Shelby and Anderson counties is $25,000. No limit in eviction suits or suits to recover personal property.

Texas

$5,000

 

Utah

$7,500

 

Vermont

$3,500

 

Virginia

$2,000

General district courts hear cases from $4,500 to $15,000

Washington

$4,000

 

West Virginia

$5,000

 

Wisconsin

$5,000

 

Wyoming

$3,000

In the circuit court, the limit is $7,000

 

Statute of Limitations

Each state has a time limit as to when a small claims case can be filed. For instance, if your neighbor owed you money 20 years ago, you cannot file a small claim today to get that money back. The "statute of limitation" has expired. 

Time limits differ between states and depending on the type of claim. The statute of limitation for written contract disputes is often longer than for personal injury claims. See the chart below for the statute of limitations (in years) for some typical cases.

Statute of Limitations (Years)

State

Written Contracts

Oral Contracts

Personal Injury

Property Damage

Alabama

6

6

2

6

 

Alaska

3

3

2

6

(real estate)

 

2

(personal property)

Arizona

6

3

2

2

 

Arkansas

5

3

3

3

 

California

4

2

2

3

 

Colorado

6

6

2

2

 

Connecticut

6

3

2

2

 

Delaware

3

3

2

2

 

District of Columbia

3

3

3

3

 

Florida

5

4

4

4

 

Georgia

6

4

2

4

 

Hawaii

6

6

2

2

 

Idaho

5

4

2

3

 

Illinois

10

5

2

5

 

Indiana

10

6

2

6

(real estate)

 

2

(personal property)

Iowa

10

5

2

5

 

Kansas

5

3

2

2

 

Kentucky

15

5

1

5

(real estate)

 

2

(personal property)

Louisiana

10

10

1

1

 

Maine

6

6

6

6

 

Maryland

3

3

3

3

 

Massachusetts

6

6

3

3

 

Michigan

6

6

3

3

 

Minnesota

6

6

2

6

 

Mississippi

3

3

3

3

 

Missouri

5

5

5

5

 

Montana

8

5

3

2

 

Nebraska

5

4

4

4

 

Nevada

6

4

2

3

 

New Hampshire

3

3

3

3

 

New Jersey

6

6

2

6

 

New Mexico

6

4

3

4

 

New York

6

6

3

3

 

North Carolina

3

3

3

3

 

North Dakota

6

6

6

6

 

Ohio

15

6

2

4

(real estate)

 

2

(personal property)

Oklahoma

5

3

2

2

 

Oregon

6

6

2

6

 

Pennsylvania

4

4

2

2

 

Rhode Island

10

10

3

10

 

South Carolina

3

3

3

3

 

South Dakota

6

6

3

6

 

Tennessee

6

6

1

3

 

Texas

4

4

2

2

 

Utah

6

4

4

3

 

Vermont

6

6

3

3

 

Virginia

5

3

2

5

 

Washington

6

3

3

3

 

West Virginia

10

5

2

2

 

Wisconsin

6

6

3

6

 

Wyoming

10

8

4

4

 

 

Demand Letter

For many people, using the court to settle their dispute is seen as a last resort. For that reason, many courts require you to first request payment from the other party before you can sue. You can make your request personally, by phone or in writing.

One of the best ways to meet this requirement is to send a "demand letter" via certified mail. The letter should be written in a very clear but non-abusive manner. It should start with the facts of the case and tell them why you feel that payment is justified. It should also contain exactly what you are seeking and a deadline for when you want to receive payment. 

By keeping a copy of the letter, as well as the confirmation receipt of delivery, you can show the judge that you have made your best effort to collect the money without going to court. 

Often, a well-drafted demand letter will open up conversations of settlement. In other situations, a demand letter, coupled with the fact that you've already filed the suit, brings the other party to the negotiating table.

 

Settling your claim

You should always try to settle your claim before going to court. After sending your demand letter, you should contact the opposing side to see if they will pay you before going forward. If settlement talks do not work, you should again try to settle after your claim is filed and served. A filed claim in court often gets the other side to take you seriously. Sometimes, just the peace of mind from getting the claim over with can bring you more happiness and fulfillment than money. 

When thinking about settling, you should start by taking 10-20% off the payment owed in exchange for a quick settlement. This should get the other side to think about accepting the settlement. But if all else fails, tell them you will see them in court. 

If you reach an agreement, write down the terms of settlement. In exchange for paying you the money, the other party may ask you to sign a "release" giving up further claims against him. A release is very simple. Just write down that you will not sue the other side or claim other damages for the same case. Sign it over after receiving your settlement money.

 

Filing Your Case

In order to initiate your small claims action, you must prepare the proper legal documents and file them in the appropriate courthouse. 

The legal documents are typically known as "pleadings" or "statements of claim." They set forth the basic facts of the case, such as what happened, where and when, how much you hope to recover, and what attempts you made to obtain payment. 

If your case involves a business you own, then you will need to bring the small claims case on behalf of your company. Corporations, LLCs and sole proprietorships can all take advantage of small claims court. 

However, you should be aware that sole proprietorships operating under a trade name or DBA must have the DBA registered with the proper government authority. For instance, if John Smith, a sole proprietor, operates his business under the name "Speedy Plumbing," then the trade name "Speedy Plumbing" must be registered before he can bring the small claims case. (If you need to register a DBA for your business, Certified Document Solutions can do it in conjunction with your small claims case.) 

Make sure you know the legal name of the person or business you're trying to sue, along with their address and telephone number. Any other information you may obtain, such as the defendant's employer or Social Security number, can help you in locating him or her and later, in collecting on a judgment. 

The general rule as to where to file your case depends on where the defendant lives, or where the action that led to the dispute took place. If you ordered something over the Internet, by mail or telephone, your local court will usually have jurisdiction, since your part of the transaction took place locally. 

There are of course some exceptions to jurisdiction rules. You can sue a business in your state if the business has an office, warehouse, retail location, or any significant business dealings in your state, even if that business is headquartered somewhere else. If you were involved in an accident or purchased an item through an installment program, then you can bring your suit in the area where the accident or sale occurred. 

Certified Document Solutions Small Claims service simplifies the legal rules. By taking you through an interview, we will provide you with options on where you can file your case. That way, you can choose the location most convenient for you.

 

Serving your papers

After your small claims case has been filed, you must present a copy of that filing to all defendants in the case. This gives them official notice they are being sued and is called "service of process." Your lawsuit is not complete without it. 

By presenting the defendant with your claim, he or she will know what the case is about, how much you are suing for, and when and where the hearing will take place. You must file a "Proof of Service" form before your court hearing. 

There are two basic methods for serving the defendant. The first and least expensive method is by certified mail. However, it's also the least effective means of serving process. The reason is that the defendant must personally sign the letter -- otherwise, the case will be dismissed. It cannot be signed by someone living with the defendant, such as the person's roommate. In order to serve process by certified mail, you must have the court clerk do it on your behalf. 

Small claims courts have reported that 50% of all attempts to serve process by certified mail fail. That's why the second method, personal service, is a more popular choice. With this method, someone over the age of 18, other than the plaintiff, personally gives a copy of the filed claim to the other party. Leaving the papers in the mailbox is not enough. 

You can have a friend or relative serve the defendant personally. It's usually best to hire a sheriff, marshal or professional process server. If you win, the judge will usually allow you to be reimbursed for the money you spent serving the defendant.

 

Presenting your case

When presenting your case in small claims court, the most important point to remember is to be brief and clear. Judges reward organization and clear thoughts. Here are some suggestions:

  • Organize the main points you want to make.
  • Be able to explain what you wrote in your complaint.
  • Be clear on the damages that you're seeking, and why the defendant owes you that amount.
  • Organize your documents (receipts, cancelled checks, record of telephone calls, etc.) so you won't fumble when retrieving them to back up a point.
  • Line up witnesses with direct knowledge of the facts or "expert" witnesses (a mechanic, for example), and have a pretty good idea what they'll say.

The more evidence you have that can be presented in an organized manner, the better. For instance, bring any letters you sent to the other side, including checks, contracts, records of telephone calls, dates of when you tried to settle, and anything else which can show the judge you have made efforts to collect. 

You can also bring photos, diagrams, police reports, estimate from third parties, and witnesses to court. Basically, anything that can help your case. Be sure to make copies for the opposing side.

 

Courtroom procedure

On the date of your hearing, you will first check in with the small claims court clerk's office. When your case is called, the bailiff will swear you in. The plaintiff presents their case first after which the defendant or the judge can ask questions about what you've said. 

Again, be as brief as possible. You should basically tell your story within a minute or two. The longer your statement takes the more likelihood the judge will get bored or frustrated. 

When the testimonies for both sides are finished, you sometimes won't get an instant decision. The judge may issue a written decision, which the clerk's office will mail to you.

  • A decision in your favor is called a "judgment."
  • If the other side doesn't appear in court (despite having notice of the case), the judge can award you a "default judgment", one awarded to the party present when the other doesn't show.

Courtroom basics:

  • Direct your remarks to the Judge, not the other party;
  • Speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard;
  • Maintain eye contact with the Judge; and
  • Use exhibits wisely.

Collecting your judgment

If you win your case, you become a "judgment creditor." The party that owes you money is the "judgment debtor" and has 30 days to pay. If he doesn't, you take on the dual role of judgment creditor and collections agent. If the defendant does not pay, then you can ask the court clerk to help you find the defendant's property out of which your judgment could be paid. This is known as a "judgment debtor exam" and is often filed by mail. 

If you've discovered all you can about the defendant's assets but can't convince him to part with any, the law has more drastic remedies up its sleeve:

  • Garnishment. If the defendant has a job, or a checking or savings account, you can "garnish" cash from any of these. Garnishment allows you to claim money owed and set up a payment plan. For instance, a portion of the debtor's weekly paycheck could be paid directly to you. Things which can't be garnished include unemployment checks, social security payments, workman's compensation and welfare benefits.
  • Liens. If the debtor owns any real estate, you can file a lien on it through the Court Clerk's office. When the property is sold, you recover the amount owed. Liens typically need to be renewed every five years.
  • Writ of Execution. This is a more drastic remedy where you can seize the judgment debtor's property, get it appraised, and sell it to satisfy your judgment. If you're planning to have the deadbeat's yacht sold at auction, you'll pay incidental expenses incurred to get to that point, but you can normally recover what you're owed.

Collecting from a reluctant defendant can be long and tricky. You may want to consult an attorney or collection agency for help.

         info@mydocsolution.com

Certified Document Services (CDS) prepares legal documents for non-lawyers in their own legal actions. CDS offers no legal advice, recommendations, mediation or counseling under any circumstance. CDS are not Lawyers, are not employed by a Lawyer, cannot give any legal advice and our employees are not acting as your Attorney. CDS can give you general factual information pertaining to legal rights, procedures or options available to you in a legal matter when you are not represented by an attorney. CDS cannot give you specific advice, opinions or recommendations about your legal rights, remedies, defenses, or strategies.