The procedure for filing a small claims court lawsuit depends on the law of the state and/or county where you wish to file. Often, states' courts' website will provide guidance on what you need to do (see "Small Claims Court" for state-specific links). Some states or counties also offer small claims advisors who can help you navigate through the small claims court system, often for free.
While all states have small claims courts, they sometimes are called "magistrate court," "justice of the peace court," or "pro se court." Only civil complaints involving relatively small amounts of money may brought before small claims court, as the name suggests. But "small" is a relative term and monetary limits vary from state to state. The following is a selection of state limits for small claims:
Most claimants represent themselves and some states and/or counties prohibit lawyers, so check your local court's rules if you wish to be represented by an attorney. For example, you may have an attorney present in a Florida small claims court, but parties are subject to discovery if attorneys are used. But lawyers are not allowed in California small claims courts.
As with other legal actions, small claims are subject to a statute of limitations. This means you must file your claim within a certain period after the alleged incident occurred. Texas has a two-year statute of limitations for small claims, while Massachusetts allows small claims within three years of the alleged incident.
Generally, a lawsuit begins with the filing of a complaint that describes the defendant's alleged conduct and the amount of money you believe the defendant owes you. States differ, but usually you must file your suit in the county in which the defendant resides. Often, you will be charged a filing fee.
Once you file the complaint with the court, you must arrange for the defendant to receive a copy of it in a manner that complies with state law. The defendant has a certain number of days in which to answer the complaint or else risk default (and thus, assume liability for the claim). In Arizona, for example, defendants have 20 days to answer a plaintiff's complaint.
Since rules vary from state to state, and sometimes among different counties, make sure you check your local court procedures before pursuing a small claims court lawsuit.