In a handful of states, including California, Michigan, and Nebraska, you must appear in small claims court on your own. In many states, however, you can be represented by a lawyer if you like. But even where it's allowed, hiring a lawyer is rarely cost efficient. Most lawyers charge too much compared to the relatively modest amounts of money involved in small claims disputes. Happily, several studies show that people who represent themselves in small claims cases usually do just as well as those who have a lawyer.
The answer depends on the state in which you live. Many states allow the losing party to appeal within a certain period, usually between 10 and 30 days, and obtain a new trial. In some states, appeals must be based solely on the contention that the judge made a legal mistake, and not on the facts of the case. Other states have their own unique rules. For more information, see Appealing a Small Claims Court Case.
Yes. States establish rules called "statutes of limitations" that dictate how long you can wait to initiate a lawsuit after the event giving rise to the lawsuit occurs. Statute of limitations rules apply to all courts, including small claims. For more information about time limits for lawsuits, see Statutes of Limitations: Is It Too Late to Sue? For various statutes of limitations in your state, see Civil Statute of Limitations.
The limit is normally between $3,000 and $15,000, depending on your state. For instance, the maximum is $5,000 in New York, $10,000 in California, $15,000 in Minnesota, and $5,000 in Vermont. To find out the limit in your state, see 50-State Chart of Small Claims Court Dollar Limits.
Assuming the other party lives or does business in your state, rules typically require that you sue in the small claims court district closest to that person's residence or headquarters. In some instances, you also might be able to sue in the location (court district) where a contract was signed, or a personal injury occurred (such as an auto accident). Check with your small claims clerk for detailed rules.
If a defendant has no contact with your state, you'll generally have to sue in the state where the defendant lives or does business. Because of the distance involved, out-of-state small claims lawsuits tend to be expensive and unwieldy.
To learn more about the small claims system where you live, check out Overview of Small Claims Rules.
If you want what's owed to you, but you don't want to take on the trouble of bringing a lawsuit, you have a couple of options to consider. First, draft a demand letter explaining why you're owed money, and asking that it be paid within a specific timeframe, such as fifteen days. For more information, see Demand Letters: The Basics.
Also, many states offer community or court-based mediation designed to help parties arrive at a settlement with the help of a neutral third party. Mediation works best where the parties have an interest in staying on good terms, as is generally the case with neighbors, family members, or small business people who have done business together for many years. This type of dispute resolution can be remarkably successful. For more information, see Mediation, Arbitration & Collaborative Law.
Not necessarily. Even if the court decides in your favor, it won't handle collection for you—with the exception that some courts will monitor payments on money judgments. So before you sue, always ask, "Can I collect if I win?" If not, think twice before suing.
Ask yourself whether the person you're suing has a steady job, valuable real property, or investments. If so, it should be reasonably easy to collect by garnishing his wages if you win.
But some people and businesses are "judgment proof"—that is, they have little money and few assets and aren't likely to acquire much in the foreseeable future. If they don't pay voluntarily, you may have a hard time collecting your judgment.
For people who seem to have no job or assets, ask whether they are likely to be more solvent in the future since court judgments are good for 10 to 20 years in many states and can usually be renewed for longer periods. You'll want to consider now whether the person might inherit money, graduate from college and get a good job, or otherwise have an economic turn-around sometime down the road. For more, see Representing Yourself in Court.
In some states, you can countersue as long as your claim arises out of the same event or transaction. In fact, in some states, you must file a countersue if you have a claim against the other party. Those states don't allow you to sue over the same dispute in a later lawsuit.
If the amount you sue for is under the small claims limit, your case will probably remain in that court. If, however, you want to sue for more, check with your small claims clerk for applicable rules. Often, you'll need to have the case transferred to a different court that has the power to handle cases in which more money is at stake.
Whether you are a plaintiff (the person suing) or the defendant (the person sued), you need to back up your story with evidence. One of the best ways to prove your case is with letters or in-person testimony from eyewitnesses or expert witnesses. For more information, see Offering Witness Testimony in Small Claims Court. Depending on the facts of your case, you can also use photographs, advertisements falsely promoting a product or service, and written contracts to convince the judge you are right.
First, understand that the judge is busy and has heard dozens of stories like yours. To keep the judge's attention, get to the point fast by describing the event that gave rise to your claim. Immediately follow up by stating how much money you are requesting after you have clearly stated the key event. Double back and tell the judge the exact events that led up to your loss. For more information, see Presenting Your Testimony and Evidence in Small Claims Court.
No. Small claims courts primarily resolve small monetary disputes, and in a few states, evictions and restitution of property. No state allows you to 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). A few states also prohibit small claims suits based on libel, slander, false arrest, and a few other legal theories.
Learn more in What Types of Cases I Resolve in Small Claims Court?
Before you go to court, you might want to learn some common (and perhaps even not-so-common) legal terms. Get Nolo's Plain-English Law Dictionary, now available as a free iPhone app (also compatible with iPod touch). For a self-help book covering all aspects of the small claims process, try Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court by attorney Cara O'Neill.