When To File in Small Claims Court
Is it time to sue?
Maybe. Depending on the value and complexity of your complaint, it may be wise to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit. However, for smaller monetary claims with easy-to-prove evidence, you might have an easier, cheaper option: small claims court.
- See the Lawyers.com guide for how to sue in small claims court.
Are You Owed Thousands?
In small claims court, cases for relatively small amounts of money are filed in an expedited process and argued before a judge, magistrate or arbitrator. Think Judge Judy. Only monetary awards can be given (in the case of the clogged toilet, the judge could not force the plumber to do a better job, but could order your money returned).
The award limit for small claims varies by state. For example, California claims can be filed for up to $7,500, while Illinois goes as high as $10,000. Alabama, on the other hand, sets the limit on the low end at $3,000.
Fees for filing can range from $30 to $300, depending on the amount being claimed.
- Lawyers.com maintains a directory of detailed small claims information by state.
Even if you are owed money over your state’s limit, there could be situations where you are best served by filing in small claims court for the limit and writing off the extra, to save the time, headaches and expense of a full-blown lawsuit. “Sometimes people, even though their claim is above that limit, will decide on the small claims court in order to be cost effective and they will sue for the amount that meets the jurisdictional limit of the court and will waive the amount above it,” Gould writes. Of course, if you are owed tens of thousands, a full lawsuit would be the way to go.
Can You Settle Out of Court?
Before engaging in litigation, it’s always helpful to check and see if informal mediation is offered through a consumer affairs office or dispute resolution office.
“During any given year, many cases are filed in small claims court which could have been resolved without a lawsuit,” Texas attorney Richard Alderman writes on his website. “If you do file a lawsuit, you will find that you must spend time preparing your case. You will also have to pay certain fees to have your case processed. A trial in small claims court can be a time-consuming and emotionally draining experience.”
- “In a dispute with your landlord, you may be able to get the matter resolved by the Apartment Association.”
- “In a dispute with a business, the Better Business Bureau may be helpful.”
- “The Dry Cleaners Association may be able to resolve a problem with your dry cleaner.”
- “In a dispute over wages or involving deceptive trade practices, a call to the attorney general’s office may be worthwhile.”
- “Sometimes a local television station or newspaper will have a consumer action department.”
“Occasionally, such departments are extremely effective in recovering money for consumers and are sometimes successful in recovering money where a suit in small claims court would fail,” he writes.
When To Sue in Regular Court
In complicated cases, it may be best to hire an attorney and go through the extended lawsuit process. “If your case is on the regular civil docket, you do not give up the right to a jury trial or the right to appeal as you do in small claims court,” Attorney Renee Walsh writes on her legal reference blog. “More importantly, you get to have an attorney – a hired gun if you will, who can easily articulate your claims for you, present witnesses on your behalf and cross examine your opponent.”
What’s more, if you win a judgment, an attorney can help make sure you actually collect your award. Plus, as a bonus, Walsh adds, “If you have hire an attorney to represent your interests and you win your case, your opponent can be made to pay your attorney fees.”
Another option is to hire a lawyer to help with your small claims case—depending on the state, they may or may not be allowed to appear in court with you. If you have several thousand dollars at stake, a few hundred in legal fees might be worthwhile to help dot your I’s and cross your T’s.
So, Is Small Claims for You?
When deciding how to go about seeking restitution, ask yourself if you:
- Are engaged in a monetary dispute and have evidence that you have been wronged
- Are in a situation where informal mediation won’t work
- Only need restitution up to your state’s claim limit, or are willing to write off any extra
- Are comfortable making your case without a lawyer present (depending on the state)
- Are okay with no option of appeal if you lose
Then small claims court might be your best option.
- More Lawyers.com small claims information and resources.
Aaron Kase is a news reporter for Lawyers.com.
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