Most states offer their residents the chance to resolve legal issues in small claims court. These are courts designed for less complex cases where disputes can be resolved quickly, efficiently and inexpensively. Each state sets its own damage limits for small claims court and provides its own rules. Tennessee small claims court cases are heard in the General Sessions Court according to rules determined on a county-by-county basis.
What Is Small Claims Court?
Litigation in the 21st century has become an expensive and time-consuming activity, and this is as true in Tennessee as in other states. Civil court rules are complex, and the time frame to get through trial can be several years. Most parties will need to hire attorneys, and the legal fees can be prohibitive. This is why many Tennessee residents flock to small claims court for an easier, cheaper way to resolve disputes.
In small claims court, the rules are modified to allow for a quicker resolution. The procedures are relaxed and, while a party can hire an attorney to advise them and represent them in the small claims court trial, it isn't necessary or required. Parties may appear on their own to present their cases, and many people do not engage an attorney for a small claims court trial. The very purpose of small claims court in Tennessee is to hold costs down.
Which Cases Are Eligible?
Not every case is eligible for small claims court in Tennessee. The court in which small claims cases are heard is called the General Sessions Court, and each county sets its own rules. Generally, small claims court in Tennessee is open only to parties bringing a case for money damages of $25,000 or less. A party can also file in this court if they bring an eviction action against a tenant or to recover property; the $25,000 limit does not apply. For example, if a plaintiff sues to recover their car from an auto mechanic, they can sue for the car even if it is worth more than $25,000. However, if the car was destroyed and cannot be recovered, the most the plaintiff can recover in damages would be $25,000.
Other types of cases must be filed in different courts, including all cases seeking more than $25,000, divorce cases, class actions and bankruptcy matters. Note that small claims courts hear only civil cases, not criminal ones.
To file a lawsuit in Tennessee small claims court, a person must be at least 18 years old. They must bring their case for damages within the court's limits and must be prepared to either appear with an attorney or argue their position without an attorney.
Overview of Small Claims Court
The person bringing an action in Tennessee small claims court is termed the plaintiff, while the person being sued is called the defendant. Generally, the claim is initiated by filling out a small claims court complaint form. This is a simple form on which the plaintiff identifies themselves and the defendant, describes the dispute and explains why they believe they are entitled to money from the other party.
The plaintiff must have the complaint served on the defendant. This can be done by certified mail or by having someone other than the plaintiff hand the document to the defendant personally. The defendant files a response to the complaint, setting out their version of events.
Both parties appear at the court on the date set for trial, together with their witnesses, if any, and their documentation. The judge listens to the parties present their cases and makes a decision.
How to File in Tennessee
Filing a complaint in Tennessee small claims court is not difficult. The court website includes a self-help center that points the way to the appropriate forms and provides instructions about how to fill them out. Anyone not comfortable with online help can go to the court in person and ask a court clerk for help getting started.
Essentially, filing a claim in small claims court involves filling out a claim form. This includes the name and address of the person bringing the action and the name and address of the person or company being sued. It's necessary to set out the details of the dispute, including dates, but no legal language is required. The plaintiff just describes what happened and how they were damaged by the defendant's actions. There are other necessary forms including the summons.
Costs of Small Claims Court
Remember that each county sets its own rules for General Sessions Court, including the costs of filing the case. Most counties in Tennessee charge $250 to file a small claims court case. The clerk of the court can confirm the amount of the filing fee, and there are other applicable fees in addition to this.
After filing the complaint, the plaintiff must "serve" the other party with a civil warrant, as well as a summons form and a copy of the complaint. These legal documents require the defendant to appear on the date of the trial. There are inexpensive ways to serve the defendant, like using certified mail. If the plaintiff hires a process server to do this, it can cost $100 or more, depending upon where the party is located.
In some counties, the small claims court rules require a plaintiff to post a $500 bond to cover other potential court costs. This is to ensure that the court gets all of its fees paid. If a defendant files a counterclaim against the plaintiff seeking damages, they may also be required to post a bond. For example, if a small claims court plaintiff sues a defendant for damages in an auto accident, the defendant might file a counterclaim for their damages.
Where to File a Claim?
Small claims court matters are filed and heard in General Sessions Courts. But the state of Tennessee has many General Sessions Courts and anyone filing must be sure to file in the proper court location. This is also known as having the proper venue. If a case is filed in the wrong venue, the defendant can ask to the court to transfer the case to another court or even to dismiss it.
A person filing an action in small claims court in Tennessee should check the venue rules on the court's website. Generally, the appropriate venue will be in one of these locations:
- Where any defendant resides.
- Where the subject of the complaint happened (that is, where the cause of action arose).
- Where the obligation was supposed to be performed.
- Where it is located if the case involves property.
When to File: Statute of Limitations
The laws of all states set time limits to bring legal actions. This makes sense. If a person sues over an auto accident that happened a month ago, they can easily find witnesses and evidence about the accident. If they sue over an accident that happened 25 years ago, finding information about what happened and witnesses will be much harder. For that reason, states set statutes of limitations. The purpose of these limitations periods is to encourage people to resolve disputes within a reasonable time frame.
In the General Sessions Court, different statutes of limitations apply to different types of actions. For example, the time limit is different for actions based on contracts (six years) and for personal injury from an auto accident, which is one year from the date of the accident. That means that if the plaintiff wishes to bring an action in small claims court to recover damages they suffered in an accident, they must file the claim within one year of the date of the accident. If they do not, they are barred from bringing the lawsuit.
Preparing for Trial
It is perfectly appropriate for a person to represent themselves in small claims court in Tennessee. That is the very purpose of the court. However, that doesn't mean that it is acceptable to go into court without adequate preparation. It is always best to spend time organizing the evidence and deciding how to present the matter.
Each party to the action who is not represented by an attorney needs to prepare a compelling opening statement. This will give the court an overview of the dispute and their side of the story. The court also recommends that each party present any documentary evidence that supports their case, invite reliable witnesses with knowledge about the case and organize the order of the presentation.
Small Claims Trial Procedure
In a small claims court trial in Tennessee, each party gets a chance to present their case. The plaintiff goes first by laying out their version of the events, who did what, and details their damages. After that, the defendant has a chance to present their case.
Note that in Tennessee, a defendant is not obligated to file a written answer to the written claim the plaintiff files. If they do not file an answer but they appear at trial, they are still permitted to present their defense. But if they do not answer and do not appear at trial, the court usually rules in favor of the plaintiff.
Judgment and Collection
The judge can ask questions of either party. Once they are satisfied with the evidence, the trial is done. The judge may rule then and there, called ruling "from the bench," but often takes the matter under advisement. In that case, the judgment will be mailed to the parties when it is issued.
The court does not collect a money judgment for the winning party. The party who wins their case must take separate action to collect the amount themselves. They might levy the other party's bank account or garnish their wages.
Filing an Appeal from a Judgment
Any party to a small claims action can appeal the General Sessions judgment as long as they act quickly, within 10 days from the receipt of the judgment. An appeal means that there will be a new trial on the same matter in Circuit Court. A party can ask for a jury trial in Circuit Court, but, again, there is a short time frame. A jury trial request must be filed within 10 days of filing the appeal. The party seeking the jury trial will be asked to deposit jury fees, too.
When a defendant files an appeal, this stops all collection actions on the original judgment. The plaintiff is not permitted to levy the defendant's bank account or garnish their wages once the appeal is filed. A new trial is heard, and a new judgment is rendered.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. 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 M.A. and an M.F.A in creative 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.