Depending on state law and the facts of your case, you may be able to have your case transferred out of small claims court to a formal court. This may be called municipal, superior, district, county, justice, circuit, city, or civil court. Whatever the name used in your state, this court will allow lawyers and require formal rules of evidence and procedure, including far more paperwork than is required in small claims court.
Transfer rules vary greatly from one state to the next. Some states allow any defendant to transfer any case, while others allow it only if the defendant files his or her own claim (a counterclaim) for an amount greater than the small claims limit or makes a request for a jury trial. Still other states allow a case to be transferred only with the discretionary approval of a judge. And some states don't allow transfers at all.
If you are interested in transferring your case, look at the brief summary for your state in the Appendix to see if it's possible. Then, you absolutely need to consult your state's rules. But first it makes sense to ask yourself why you would want to transfer a case out of small claims court. My answer is that it is rarely a good idea. Because small claims court is cheaper, more user-friendly, and far less time-consuming than formal court, you'll usually want to defend your case right there, unless, of course, you want to file a defendant's claim (counterclaim) for an amount significantly over the small claims limit. Here are some other situations in which it might make sense to transfer your case:
- To get a jury trial (in states where transfer for this reason is allowed). In my view, nonlawyers are almost always better off trying a case before a judge under relaxed small claims rules than submitting to the extra level of formality a jury trial adds to the already fussy rules of formal court. But I know people who disagree, believing that there is no justice without a jury.
- Because you know how to navigate in formal court far better than the plaintiff–or are willing to hire a lawyer to represent you. Yes, this approach may be a tad cynical, but given the opportunistic nature of many plaintiffs, why not take full advantage of every possible edge you have.