Small claims cases in Tennessee are heard in the General Sessions Court. Each county may have slightly different procedures, but the general rules apply to all counties in the state. Find specific procedures at either the Tennessee Courts website or the county court.
Tennessee General Sessions Court
The Tennessee Courts website offers a self-help center with general information about state regulations. The website directs you to procedures, forms and filing locations. Cases are filed and heard by a judge at the county courthouse, specifically the General Sessions Court. This court is reserved for civil, misdemeanor, traffic and other limited matters that don't require lengthy trials.
Either the website or the court clerk can provide access to self-help court guides walking you through the entire process.
A Lawyer is Optional
Tennessee allows you to bring a lawyer to small claims court if you choose. Most people avoid this added expense, however, certain types of cases such as landlord/tenant issues benefit from legal expertise.
Forms and Fees
Most counties charge $250 for filing a small claims case in General Sessions Court. Confirm specific costs when contacting the clerk. In addition to filing the petition, you need to serve the other party with a Civil Warrant. This costs $100 but may increase if the process server need to travel outside of the county.
Along with the Civil Warrant, complete a Civil Summons form to serve the other party with notice of the pending court case.
Be Prepared for a Bond
In addition to the filing fees, courts might require plaintiffs to obtain a $500 bond covering other potential court costs incurred by the case. Every form filed increases costs; courts use bonds as financial security in small claims cases. The defendant will also be asked for a similar bond if he chooses to file a counterclaim. A counterclaim means he is not just defending your allegations; he is suing you on other grounds.
For example, you may sue your landlord for locking you out and keeping your stuff. He might countersue you for unpaid rent.
Dollar Limits and Types of Claims
Tennessee has dollar limits for small claims courts based on the size of the county. In counties with a population of 700,000 or less, the maximum award is $15,000. In counties exceeding 700,000 people, the award limit caps at $25,000.
The limits relate to the type of claim as well. There is no limit on claims of forcible entry and unlawful detainer cases in which a plaintiff seeks to recover specific personal property when locked out of his home by a landlord. If the property is not recoverable, then the limit is $25,000 as cash judgment. For example, if the case is over a motorcycle that cannot be repaired or returned, the maximum monetary reward is $25,000.
Statute of Limitations to File
The General Sessions Court has different statutes of limitations depending on the claim filed. In most counties, it is limited to one year from the time of incident. For example, if the suit is over a car accident that occurred on May 5, the suit must be filed with the court no later than the previous business day – May 4 in this case – of the next year.
Claiming a Judgment Won
Once a plaintiff wins a judgment and the court orders the defendant to pay (or vice versa as in a counterclaim), the next step is to claim the award. If the party refuses to pay outright, the judgment winner needs to take further action.
Three options exist: a bank levy, real estate lien or wage garnishment. Take the small claims court judgment to the bank, tax assessor's office or employer and show the right to collect.
Filing Appeals of a Judgment
Appeals must be filed with the General Sessions Court within 10 days. The appeal is then sent to Circuit Court to be reviewed. The winner cannot pursue the award claim until the appeal is heard and decided.