Small claims courts primarily resolve relatively small monetary disputes. Lawsuits in small claims court are limited to between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on your state -- for your state's limit, see How Much Can I Sue For in Small Claims Court?. However, not all types of claims are allowed in small claims court, even if they fall within the dollar limit.
Common types of claims involve failure to repay a loan, fix a car or appliance properly, return a security deposit, or meet the terms of a service contract -- for example, properly remodel a kitchen or install a new roof.
In a few states, small claims courts may also rule on a limited range of other types of legal disputes, such as evictions or requests for the return of an item of property (called "restitution" in legal jargon).
When it comes to disputes involving money, you can usually file in small claims court based on any legal theory that is allowed in any other court -- for example, breach of contract, personal injury, intentional harm, or breach of warranty. Thus if you buy an expensive new "all-weather tent" and it leaks the first time you're out in a storm, you have the basics for a valid small claims suit based on breach of warranty. For information on gathering evidence for your case, see Offering Witness Testimony in Small Claims Court.
No matter where you live, you cannot use small claims court to file a divorce, guardianship, name change, or bankruptcy, or to ask for emergency relief such as an injunction to stop someone from doing an illegal act. And in some states, you also can't file a lawsuit based on libel, slander, or false arrest in small claims court.
In addition, lawsuits against the federal government, a federal agency, or even against a federal employee for actions relating to his or her employment cannot be brought in small claims court. Suits against the federal government normally must be filed in a federal district court or other federal court, such as the Tax Court or the Court of Claims. There are small claims procedures available only in federal Tax Court. (For more information, see Tax Court: The Small Case Division.)
To learn more about all aspects of taking a case to small claims court -- building a case, presenting evidence, what to expect -- get Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo).