Reducing or Splitting Your Claim to Meet Small Claims Court Limits

The maximum amount for which you can sue–or be sued–in small claims court varies from state to state. For example, it's $7,500 in Minnesota, $2,500 in Kentucky, and $10,000 in Texas. These amounts can change so you'll always want to check the limit in your state by calling your local small claims court clerk or checking your local court rules. With some exceptions, small claims courts do not hear cases unless they are for money damages. Thus, you can't use small claims court to get a divorce, stop the city from cutting down your favorite oak tree, change your name, or do many of the thousands of other things that require a solution other than one side paying money to the other. One exception to the "money only" rule involves equitable relief. This is legalspeak for a court's power to order a person or business to do something specific, such as return a uniquely valuable piece of property or change a contract that contains an obvious mistake. Another exception to the money-only rule involves evictions. In some states, a landlord can use small claims court to evict tenants in certain situations.

Reducing Your Claim

It is legal to reduce a claim that is too large so that it will fit into small claims court. Thus, you could take a $5,300 debt and bring it into small claims court in North Carolina (where the dollar limit is $5,000) asking for only $5,000. (Costs for filing and serving papers are always recoverable in addition to the dollar limit. But if you do this, you forever waive the $300 difference between $5,000 and $5,300. In legal parlance, this is called "waiving the excess." Why might you want to do this? Because the alternative to small claims court involves filing your suit in formal court with dozens of complicated rules and the likelihood that you'll need to hire a lawyer, who will surely charge considerably more than $300 to represent you.

Splitting Your Claim

Unlike reducing your claim (which is legal), it is not legal to split an over-the-limit claim into two or more pieces to fit each into small claims court. Taking the $5,300 figure we used above, this means you couldn't sue the same person separately for $3,500 and $1,800 based on the same claim. As with most rules, however, a little creative thought can sometimes point the way to an exception. Start by understanding that it's perfectly okay to bring multiple suits against the same person, as long as they are based on different claims, and that there is often a large gray area in which it is genuinely difficult to differentiate between one divided claim and several independent ones. This, of course, is where the creativity comes in.

If you can reasonably argue that a $5,300 case actually involves two or more separate contracts or injuries to your person or property, you may as well try dividing it. The worst that will happen is that a judge will disagree and tell you to choose between taking the entire claim to formal court or waiving any claim for money in excess of $5,000 and staying in small claims court.

Some states limit the number of small claims cases you can bring in a year.  If you're thinking of splitting a small claims case into two cases below the maximum dollar amount, first check your court's rules to make sure that your state doesn't limit the number of cases you can bring each year. California, for example, allows only two claims of over $2,500 each year.

Example 1:  One morning, a man in the private telephone business came into small claims court with two separate lawsuits against the same defendant for a combined total of $8,100. One claim, he said, was for failure to pay for the installation of a number of new phones, and the other was for failure to pay for moving phones to a different location. The man claimed that each lawsuit was based on a separate contract. The judge, after asking a few questions, told the man that he was on the borderline between one divided (not acceptable) and two separate (acceptable) claims. Nevertheless, the judge decided to give the man the benefit of the doubt and allowed him to present each case. The man won both and got one judgment for $4,600 and a second for $3,500.

Example 2:  Another morning, a woman alleged that she had lent a business acquaintance $4,000 on two separate occasions and was therefore bringing two separate suits, each for $4,000. The defendant objected, claiming that she had borrowed $8,000 to be repaid in two installments. A different judge, after briefly listening to each side of the argument, agreed with the defendant. The judge told the plaintiff that only one claim was involved and that if she didn't want to waive all money over $5,000, she should go to municipal court, which had a top dollar limit of $25,000.

Even the experts are challenged by claims splitting.  Claims splitting is complex, and small claims judges are sensitive to the issue. It's a good idea to seek some kind of advice, either from the court clerk, the small claims adviser, or a lawyer before making a final decision on what to do about filing multiple claims.

Check out the court just above small claims. In most states, there are several levels of courts with different monetary limits. A case that doesn't fit into small claims court may be appropriately filed in an intermediate level court (possibly called circuit, district, or county court, depending on the state). In recent years, these courts, which typically hear cases worth between $10,000 and $25,000, have gradually begun to be "delawyered" and have become more user-friendly as more and more people represent themselves.

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