Do I Need a Lawyer for Small Claims Court?
Small claims court is where anyone can bring a civil case in front of a local judge if it is under a certain amount of money. It provides relatively fast resolution to disputes at a low cost. This option is good for people who cannot afford an attorney or who believe their case is simple.
The court process is simplified on purpose, so people without a legal education can understand what to do. You will likely have a fighting chance in small claims court if your case is straightforward.
Should I Hire a Law Firm for Small Claims Court?
If you decide to not hire an attorney, you can usually keep costs under $200. The downside is that things may take longer, you may need to invest hours of your time in research, and you could make mistakes or leave money on the table.
You do not need a lawyer for small claims court, and some states don't even allow you to have one. Read an overview of your state's small claims court laws first.
There are many advantages to seeking legal help from an attorney, but you would likely have to pay attorney's fees. Only you can decide if representing yourself in court is right for you.
Can I Sue Someone in Small Claims Court?
If you are a legal adult (usually over 18 years old) or a legally emancipated minor, then you can go to court. You do not need an attorney to file a claim or start a lawsuit. Most businesses can also handle minor issues in small claims court if your state allows it.
Depending on the state you live in, the amount of money you ask for in your case may need to be under $2,500 (Kentucky) or could be as much as $25,000 (Tennessee). Most states' limits fall in the middle of those amounts.
Your case might involve other government agencies. This applies to situations like discrimination from an employer. You will need to talk to and file complaints with other agencies before you can go to court. This is called "exhausting administrative remedies," and you will need to prove that you took all possible steps to find a solution before going to small claims court.
Types of Cases Handled in Small Claims Court
It is common to see cases involving two people with a simple dispute. Often, the case will involve clear state laws, but one person is acting in the wrong. Most people consider a small claims court case when they are suing someone else for:
- A landlord not returning a security deposit
- Gym contract disputes
- Overcharges for car repairs or faulty work
- Unlawful eviction notices
- Neighbor disputes
- Unpaid bills
- Sales where the property or money was not received
- Pet disputes
Timing, Costs, and Fees for Small Claims Court
Most states have a statute of limitations of two years for many minor cases handled in small claims court. This means you will need to assess the problem and file the claim at your local court within two years of the day the problem occurred. Some states allow up to four years if the issue involves a spoken or written contract.
You can expect to pay:
- A filing fee up to $150
- Court clerk services costs
- Court fees
- Any specific dollar amount a judge decides for settlement
Remember: There is a dollar limit on the money you can win in a small claims case. It is common for states to cap it at $3,000-$20,000. If that amount is not good enough, then you need to consider taking your case to a different court (which may require you to get an attorney).
What Should I Expect in the Process?
During the small claims lawsuit filing and preparation for your case, you can expect to:
- Gather your own evidence and be able to summarize your side of the story (called a statement)
- Talk to witnesses you can use in your defense
- Figure out the correct name and address of the person you want to sue (or the business name and address)
- Decide how much money you want from the other person (called the defendant) and be able to discuss why this is a logical amount
- Fill out the correct forms in the county where you live or the county where the problem took place
- Pay all fees and court costs on time and to the correct person
- Have a court date set and serve the other person with the claim (in some cases, you may have to tell them about the court date yourself)
- Wait for the other side to answer you (if they do not fight back before the court date, you will automatically win)
Once you actually go to court, you can expect to:
- Attend your hearing date (this can be frustrating or emotional as both sides blame the other for the problem)
- Attend all jury trial dates if the judge determines the case needs a trial
After the case concludes, you will:
- Hear the final result (called a "court judgment") or receive a "money judgment" by certified mail
- Follow the judge's instructions to return personal property, pay fines, be paid a settlement, or other retribution, or file an appeal if you do not like the outcome of the case.
Appeals often need to be filed quickly, so it is in your best interest to file the appeal right away. There are also more nuanced instructions and processes during the appeal. This might be a good time to get an attorney so your case has a better chance the second time around.
Getting Your Money After Winning
If you won the court judgment or money judgment, your battle might not be over yet. Some people will refuse to pay you, or they may need a payment plan. The courts will not help you get the money you won.
You will have to take steps to get the money, which could include:
- Getting "levy" access to their bank account
- Taking their wages directly from their paycheck
- Taking property valued at the same amount of money (taking their car if they cannot pay)
- Using the local courts to find out what assets the person has
- Sending a questionnaire asking how the person will pay or what assets they own
- Asking the other person questions about their assets while they are under oath
You can also consider getting an attorney just for this part of the case because it can be troublesome or time-consuming. If you know you are trying to collect $10,000, then an attorney's fees can feel like less of a burden. Or you may need to make a choice between not getting your money or paying an attorney to help you.
Carefully consider your options and decide what creates the best outcome for you.
Example of a Common Small Claims Court Dispute
An example situation is paying $8,000 for a year-long gym package that comes with membership and personal training. Over the year, the gym staff repeatedly does not give you training sessions. As the end of the year approaches, you are fed up and realize they cannot fit you into their training schedules.
You decide to take the case to small claims court and get all the paperwork to file. You must gather all your communications with the gym (copies of emails or texts), the date you signed up, and the amount of money you lost by them not fulfilling their end of the deal. You might bring your gym's contract to court and highlight the parts of the contract the gym did not fulfill. Then you conclude by saying you want $10,000 back in lost personal training sessions, unused months of the membership, and the time it took you to take them to court.
The judge will listen to all of this and then will hear the gym's side of the story. With luck, the judge might decide the gym is in breach of contract and award you the money you asked for.
The other party can submit a counterclaim. This means their staff or lawyers will try to prove the unfulfilled personal training sessions were your fault. They may come with evidence showing the emails they sent you trying to schedule your sessions, and the phone calls you ignored. They might ask for $5,000 to cover their attorney's fees.
A counterclaim may come down to whoever has the stronger evidence that most aligns with the state laws, and in this situation, whoever followed the signed contract more carefully.
DIY or Legal Services for Small Claims Court
If you decide a lawyer will save you time and get a better result, you can find a small claims lawyer for your specific problem. Many offer a free consultation by phone call.
If you decide to try the DIY approach, you can often find more information in your local courts or on their websites to get you started.