How to Sue a Government Agency in Small Claims Court

Different rules apply to lawsuits against the government and in police brutality claims

By , J.D. · New York University School of Law

Many states have special rules and procedures that must be followed before a suit can be brought against a state or local government agency. Often, you have to file your suit very quickly or you lose your right to sue. Your local small claims court will have information on the procedures you must follow and time limits you must meet. Check your state's small claims court website or call your local small claims court.

Typically, before you can sue a city because your car was illegally towed or a city employee damaged your property or injured you, or the city did anything else to you involving personal injury or property damage, you must file a claim with the city and have it denied. To do this, get a claim form from the local city clerk. For cases involving personal injury or damage to property, your claim usually must be filed within six months of the date of the incident. For breach of contract claims or real property damage claims, you usually have one year to file. Often, the city attorney will be in charge of reviewing your claim and making a recommendation to the city council. Sometimes the recommendation will be to pay you, but often it will be to deny the claim. After the city acts, you usually have a certain time period (six months is typical) to file your small claims case. Save a copy of your denial letter from the city, the small claims court will want to see it. To serve your papers, call the governmental body in question and ask who should be served. Then follow your local rules for service of process.

The rules for suits against counties and districts (for example, school districts) and the state are usually the same. You'll need to file a complaint against the governing entity before you can go to small claims court. Get the complaint form and file it promptly (within six months for personal injury or property damage and one year for breach of contract or damage to real property). If you claim is denied, you usually have six months to file in small claims court.

No lawsuits against the U.S. government in small claims court. You can't bring a small claims suit against the federal government, a federal agency, or even against a federal employee for actions relating to his or her employment. The federal government may not be sued in any state court without its consent. Suits against the federal government normally must be filed in federal district court.

Police Brutality Cases

Prior to the 1970's, a citizen's complaint of police brutality fell on deaf–or non-existent–ears. Many police and sheriff's departments had internal complaint mechanisms, but they were staffed by officers, not neutral third parties. Today, citizen police review boards are increasingly popular. Typically, these boards are comprised of non-policemen who hear appeals from the internal complaint process. The most effective have the power to subpoena witnesses, compel testimony, and make recommendations as to punishment. Review boards do not generally have the power to order officers to pay damages, but starting with a complaint and an appeal to the board, if necessary, may significantly affect your ability to eventually go to court and obtain money damages. Most major cities (covering about 80% of the population) have citizen review boards (for a partial list, visit the website of the National Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement,, or call your city government and inquire).

If you feel that you've been seriously mistreated by a police officer, start by consulting an attorney. Police brutality cases are very complex, involving municipal immunity from lawsuits and confidentiality of police records, for example. For this reason, they are expensive to bring, and unless you have a very good case, an attorney will not invest time in it (attorneys are typically paid "on contingency," which means that they won't be paid for their time if they lose).

If an attorney will not take your case (or, in some instances, even if you found one who will), the next step may be to file an internal complaint with the police department. If you lose, consider appealing to the review board. Depending on the powers given the board by the legislation establishing it, you may learn a lot about your case and the defendant-policeman. And that information could be key if you later decide, whether or not the policemen is disciplined internally, to pursue a civil action and ask for monetary damages.

Many civil rights attorneys will recommend going through the internal complaint-review board process simply in order to get information, known in legalese as "discovery." If your experience with the board is fruitful–if you appear to have a good case, by unearthing lots of good evidence about the policeman's background and the details of your encounter–you may be able to find an attorney who will represent you, even if you were turned away before. There's good reason to hire a pro, because these cases can be hard to prove and involve tricky legal issues, as noted above.

On the other hand, if you've lost before the board and have nothing much to show an attorney except your own version of what happened, the lawyer will probably decline to represent you. If you go it alone in small claims court, you'll probably be outgunned by city attorneys and policemen who are adept at testifying. The few cases that show up in small claims court usually lose.