How To Sue Someone In Small Claims Court

If you're wondering how to sue someone in small claims court, it's important to be aware of the statute of limitations in your state, as well as the legal process. Each state has limits on the amount you can sue for in small claims court, usually up to $25,000, although California caps small claims lawsuits at $10,000. Even if you win in small claims court, you may still have trouble receiving compensation.

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Camila is an attorney and the CEO of People Clerk. Her mission is to highlight the struggles of people without an attorney when interacting with courts and government agencies.  People Clerk was set up to help Americans navigate the small claims court process for disputes under $10,000 (security deposits, fender benders, contracts). People Clerk helps you prepare, file, serve, and most importa...

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Written by Camila Lopez
Attorney Camila Lopez

UPDATED: Dec 22, 2021

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  • You should always try to settle a dispute outside of court before filing a lawsuit
  • There is a statute of limitations in each state that determines how long you have to file a suit
  • Winning in court doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get paid what you’re owed

If you are wondering how to sue someone in small claims court, it’s essential to understand a little more about the process and the rules that surround it.

Small claims courts primarily focus on resolving minor monetary disputes, and in some states, restitution of property and eviction cases are also heard. However, you cannot use a small claims court for other issues such as divorce, bankruptcy in any state, and a select few also prohibit any suits that are based on false arrest, slander, or libel, to name a few.

However, mall claims court can help you if you’re owed money. Here’s a guide to help you to better understand the process but make sure to do your own research as each state has its own rules, and they may change at any time.

If you need legal advice regarding your small claims court case, enter your ZIP code above to be connected with a lawyer near you.

Before Filing Your Claim in Small Claims Court

If you are looking to sue someone who owes you money, then small claims court is where to do it.

However, it is essential that you attempt to settle the dispute outside of the court system first. Many states require that you certify that you have made genuine efforts to resolve the dispute and collect the claim prior to involving the courts.

What can I do to resolve the dispute before going to small claims court?
You can send a letter explaining why you feel you are owed money and request that they pay you within a specific timeframe, such as 20 days.

If this does not resolve the issue, many states offer court or community-based mediation services. Mediation is designed to assist parties in arriving at an agreement to resolve the dispute outside of court.

Which state do I file my case in?

Contact the small claims court in the county closest to the business or residence of the person you intend to sue. While you may want to sue in the county closest to where you live, you can’t always sue in the county where it is most convenient to you.

There may be some exceptions in your state. For example, if you are suing a landlord about a security deposit, you may also be able to sue in the county where the rented unit was located, or if you are suing about a car accident, you may also be able to sue in the county where the car accident occurred.

Do I have a limited time in which to file my small claims court case?

Yes. Each state has rules called “statutes of limitations” that determine how long you are permitted to wait before initiating a lawsuit after the incident in question occurs.

You must check the relevant  state law and codes by conducting research online. Or, if you don’t feel comfortable doing your own research, you can contact a lawyer.

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Filing a Claim in Small Claims Court

Most states have a form that you need to use to prepare the small claims lawsuit, and it usually goes by the name “Statement of Claim.” Once you prepare the small claims lawsuit, you will need to file it at the court clerk’s office along with the accompanying fee.

The fee for filing this form varies between states but typically ranges between $20-$100. The form itself usually includes questions regarding the nature of your claim, the dollar amount you intend to sue for, and the details of any relevant documents that you wish to submit as evidence.

How much can I sue for in small claims court?

The amount that you can sue someone for in small claims court differs between states but typically ranges from $2,500 to $25,000. For example, in New York City, the maximum is $10,000; in California, it is $10,000; and in Minnesota, you can sue for a maximum of $15,000.

A copy of your small claims lawsuit must then be delivered to the defendant. This is called “serving”, and there are very specific rules around how you successfully provide notice of the lawsuit to the other party. You may be able to use a private server or the local sheriff to serve the documents. The court clerk or the court website can provide you with information regarding the serving process.

What happens once the defendant is served?

The party being sued may be required to respond to the claim. If you have been sued, make sure to review any documents you received as they usually will notify you of how long you have to respond to the lawsuit. However, in most states, the defendant does not have to respond to the lawsuit before the hearing date.

Once the defendant has been served, several things could happen:

The defendant may send you the money they owe. If this happens and you are satisfied with the result, you must notify the court that you would like the case to be dismissed.

The defendant may file a counterclaim. You will then have 20 days to file your response; otherwise, your case will be automatically dismissed.
The defendant may request a new hearing date if they are not available for the hearing.

In some states, you may be required to attend mediation which is a meeting with a neutral third party to attempt to come to an agreement. Some states have been testing online dispute resolution or ODR to have the parties communicate with each other in an attempt to reach an out-of-court resolution.

Going to Trial in Small Claims Court

If the matter does go to trial, both parties will have the opportunity to explain their version of the story. This will, of course, be under oath.

Can I bring a lawyer to small claims court to represent me?

Some states insist that you represent yourself in small claims court, including California, Nebraska, and Michigan. However, in most states, you can have a lawyer represent you if you prefer. Nevertheless, given the scope of potential financial outcomes, hiring a lawyer for small claims court cases rarely makes economic sense.

You will be asked to present your side first. Be sure to validate your claims with as much evidence as possible. Take care to explain what has happened clearly and concisely. Present any relevant evidence and call any witnesses that can assist you in supporting your side of the story.

The defendant will then present their version of events after you. Make sure you write notes during this time, particularly if you feel that they may expose any cracks in their story and thus expose the truth. Once they are done speaking, you normally have an opportunity to address any inconsistencies with the judge.

Once you have both presented your arguments and any supporting evidence, the judge will issue their ruling. This could happen immediately, or the judge will advise you as to when to expect a decision.

Will I be paid if I win in small claims court?

Unfortunately, being paid is not guaranteed even if you win your case. The courts do not typically handle money collection on your behalf.

So, you must ask yourself some important questions before deciding to sue someone in a small claims court. For example, does the person you’re suing have a regular income, valuable assets, or investments? What is the likelihood of the defendant paying up if you win?

One thing to keep in mind is that court judgments typically hold firm for up to 10 years and can sometimes be renewed for longer still. This means that the defendant may not be financially able to compensate you immediately, but if they are likely to become more solvent in the future, then it may still be worth getting the judgment in your favor while you can.

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Can I appeal if I lose my case?

Many states do allow a losing party to lodge an appeal within a set period of time, which is typically up to 30 days. So long as the appeal falls within the timeframe, a new trial will be scheduled.

In some states, however, appeals are only permitted in cases where the judge has made a legal error. Some other states have other unique rules regarding appeal procedures, so it is important to check with your own local small claims court.

Final Thoughts: How to Sue Someone in Small Claims Court

As you can see, the process of a small claims court case can be straightforward or complicated, depending on a number of factors. Consider carefully whether the time and money it may take to pursue the case will likely pay off, either now or in the future.

If you do decide to proceed, focus on following the correct procedures and preparing your evidence to maximize your chances of success at the hearing.

Before filing a small claims lawsuit, it’s a good idea to get legal advice. Enter your ZIP code below to get free legal help now.

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