Who can sue in small claims court? The answer is easy. You can–as long as you:
- are 18 years of age or an emancipated minor,
- have not been declared mentally incompetent in a judicial proceeding, and
- are suing on your own claim.
If you own a small business and are the sole proprietor, you will list both your name and the name of your business on your court papers. Generally, a sole proprietor must appear personally at the court hearing.
Does your business use a fictitious name? Most states require companies that use a fictitious name (such as Tasty Donut Shop) to file a declaration stating that you have properly executed, filed, and published a fictitious business name statement as required by your state's law. Check with the small claims clerk.
f you are filing a claim on behalf of a corporation, list the corporation itself as the plaintiff. In most states, the corporation may be represented at the hearing by either:
- an officer or director of the corporation, or
- an employee who is authorized to file claims on behalf of the corporation by the corporation's board of directors. If a nonofficer of a corporation signs the forms, the court clerk may want to see some documentation that the person suing is properly authorized.
Check your state laws for any special rules about corporations as plaintiffs.
Limited Liability Companies
List the limited liability company (LLC) as the plaintiff. Most states allow any member to appear in court. But check your local rules; procedures are still in flux in many states.
If you are filing a claim on behalf of a partnership, you should sue on behalf of the individual partners and the partnership itself. When it comes to appearing in court, most states allow either a partner or a regular employee to do so.
Nonprofits and Unincorporated Associations
If you are suing on behalf of a nonprofit corporation or an unincorporated association, the plaintiff's claim should list the name of the corporation or association and the name of an officer or director who will appear in court (such as, "ABC Canine Happiness Society, by Philip Pup, Executive Director"). An officer may represent the nonprofit or unincorporated association at the hearing.
If you are suing on behalf of a government agency such as a public library, city tax assessor's office, or county hospital, you should list the organization's official name as the plaintiff. When you file the papers, you must show the court clerk proper authorization to sue.
What if you and your spouse co-own a car that is vandalized by your neighbor's teenager? What if you and your spouse are both listed as payees on a bad check? These are called "joint claims" and you and your spouse can and should sue together. If you are a married couple with a joint claim, you should both list your names as plaintiffs. It is usually okay for one spouse to appear at the hearing on behalf of both spouses as long as:
- the claim is joint
- the represented spouse has given written consent, which you should bring to court, and
- the court determines the interests of justice would be served.
Prisoners and Military Personnel
In some states, prisoners are not allowed to bring small claims lawsuits. Other states have special procedures for prisoners who want to sue in small claims court. In California, for example, a prisoner who wants to sue in small claims court must file papers by mail and then either submit testimony in the form of written declarations or have another person appear on his or her behalf in court (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 116.540(f)).
In some states, military personnel who have been transferred out of state are also allowed to bring small claims court cases without having to appear in court personally. Check your state rules for information on how to do this.
Suits by Minors
If you are under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian must sue for you. The exception is that, in some states, emancipated minors can sue on their own. When your parents or guardians sue on your behalf, they must fill out a form asking to have one of them appointed your guardian ad litem and have the form signed by the judge. "Guardian ad litem" means "guardian for the purposes of the lawsuit." Ask the court clerk for the rules in your state.
Motor Vehicle Claims
When a claim arises out of damage to a motor vehicle, the registered owner(s) of the vehicle must file in small claims court. So, if you are driving someone else's car and get hit by a third party, you can't sue for damage done to the car. The registered owner must file the lawsuit.
Employees May Appear on Behalf of a Business
States used to require the owner of a business to show up in small claims court personally. This discouraged the owners of many small unincorporated businesses from using small claims court. For example, a dentist who wished to sue on an overdue bill would have had to show up in court.
These days, a number of states are more understanding of business time pressures. If a business (incorporated or unincorporated) wishes to sue on an unpaid bill, it can often send an employee to court to testify about the debt as it is reflected in the written records of the business. For instance, in many states, a landlord suing for unpaid rent can send a property manager to court to establish the fact that the rent was unpaid. For a business owner to invoke this time-saving procedure, the employee sent to court must be familiar with the company's books and able to testify about how the debt was entered in them.
Make sure that anyone who goes to small claims court on behalf of your business has firsthand knowledge about the dispute. For example, if your rug store is suing a customer who refuses to pay because a carpet was improperly installed, you will probably lose if you send to court only your bookkeeper, who knows nothing about what happened on the particular job. In this situation, some judges may postpone the case for a few days to allow the business owner to show up with the carpet installer and present testimony about the quality of the repair, but don't count on it–try to send the appropriate person the first time.
Some states do not let unlicensed contractors and other businesspeople who work without required licenses to bring suit on claims related to their business.
What If You Want to Sue but Can't Appear in Court?
People who will find it difficult or impossible to show up in small claims court to present their case often ask whether there is another way to proceed. For people in certain categories–prisoners, business owners, landlords, and certain military personnel stationed out of state–the answer may be yes (check your state's rules for details). Even if you don't fit into an approved category, a small claims judge has the discretion to hear your case through a nonlawyer representative if you convince the judge that for some good reason, such as bad health or advanced age, you need assistance and the person you send to court is familiar with what happened. To see whether this procedure will work in your situation, talk to your county's small claims court adviser.