Small claims courts are, obviously, intended for small claims only. But we aren't talking nickles and dimes here. Some debts are so small that nobody in their right mind would sue over them, like $5, $10, even $20. Others are big enough that they are worth taking some action, but not worth the filing fees and wait times of regular courts. That's the sweet spot for a suit in small claims court, although the maximum amount you can sue for varies widely among states.
Opening Wide the Courthouse Door
The American justice system is technically for everyone, but if you've ever been to court, you know how expensive it can be. The fee to file a case may be more than your weekly paycheck, and if you need to hire an attorney, kiss your savings goodbye. You'll have to prepare for a court battle that will probably last a few years, with expert witnesses, paralegals and case administrators. The type of investment required is just not in the range of reason for many Americans.
Small claims court opens wide the courthouse doors to anyone and everyone. With filing fees under $20, no need for an attorney, and a quick case turnover, it is justice made simple and equitable. Did your landlord cheat you out of a cleaning deposit of $200? Small claims court is perfect. Does someone owe you $2,000? Head to small claims court. And, in some states, collect up to $10,000; in others, up to $25,000 in small claims court actions.
Small Claims Rules and Limits
To zip you through a court procedure so quickly and cheaply, small claims court rules are different than the rules for trial courts. In many states, like California, only the parties can appear and talk when the case is heard – attorneys are not allowed. Procedures are simple: Fill out a form, sign it and have someone personally deliver a copy to the defendant, the person you are suing. He responds by filling out and submitting his own form, and the court sets a date. Then both parties appear to tell their case to the judge.
In California, the maximum amount you can sue for in small claims court depends on whether you are an individual or a corporartion. Individuals can seek up to $10,000, and corporations are limited to $5,000. Nobody can file more than two claims per year for $2,500 or more.
In Tennessee, the small claims limit is $15,000 in smaller counties. In counties of more than 700,000 people, the limit is $25,000. This is among the highest limits. Many states limit small claims damages to $5,000 or less, including Kentucky and Rhode Island ($2,500), Ohio and New Jersey ($3,000), Arizona and Mississippi ($3,500), Nebraska ($3,600), Kansas ($4,000), and plenty of states have $5,000 limits.
Read More: How to File an Out-of-State Small Claims Suit
In some states, you can sue for a maximum of $2,500 in small claims court, while others allow "small" claims for up to 10 times that amount. Check the jurisdictional limits in your own state.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.