When an individual wants to file a lawsuit that doesn't have a high dollar value, hiring an attorney can cost more than the case is worth. Small claims is a special division of the civil court that allows for the resolution of disputes quickly and cheaply.
In Shelby County, where Memphis is located, an individual wishing to file a small claims action does so in General Sessions Court, which hears cases under $25,000.
What Is Small Claims Court?
Filing a lawsuit in Tennessee state court is complex and typically requires an attorney. When a party has a case that doesn’t have a high dollar value, hiring an attorney can cost more than the judgment being sought.
Parties who have a low dollar value case may present that case to a judge without the formalities and costs of a traditional court hearing through small claims court, which allows for the resolution of disputes quickly and cheaply. They are not required to be represented by an attorney.
Who Can File a Small Claims Action in Memphis?
An individual who is at least 19 years of age can file a small claims suit in Memphis, as can an emancipated minor. Most small claims courts also allow businesses such as partnerships or corporations to file in small claims court.
Small claims court cases in Memphis are heard in Shelby County General Sessions Court. The maximum a person can sue for is $25,000. Either party may appeal the court’s decision. Eviction and property recovery cases have no monetary limits.
Deadline for Filing a Small Claims Action in Shelby County
Plaintiffs have a limited time to file a small claims action. The statute of limitations varies depending on the type of case the plaintiff brings. For example:
- Personal injury cases: one year.
- Property damage cases: three years.
- Contract cases: six years.
That time is not necessarily continuous. In instances where the plaintiff is incarcerated or is a minor, the statute of limitations can be stopped temporarily, or tolled.
How to File a Small Claims Action in Shelby County
The party (plaintiff) intending to file a small claims action in Memphis should go to the County Clerks of the General Sessions Civil Court, 140 Adams, Room 106, Memphis, TN 38103 to file their complaint.
The plaintiff will obtain the necessary forms from the clerk's office. They will enter the name and address of the party being sued (defendant) and the amount of damages they are seeking. They’ll also pay required fees when filing.
The state of Tennessee does not require small claims defendants to file an answer before the court date. Instead, they can avoid an automatic default judgment by appearing in court and putting forth a defense at the time of the hearing.
Serving a Defendant in Shelby County
Serving a defendant lets them know there is an action against them and gives them information on when to appear in court. Tennessee allows plaintiffs to use an authorized officer or court-approved process server to serve papers on the defendant. Mailing the notice via registered or certified mail with a return receipt request is also an option.
The plaintiff should confirm certain information with the court clerk:
- That they are filing in the right court.
- That they are using the appropriate form of service.
- How much time they have to serve the defendant.
- When they need to file proof of service
this document lets the court know that the defendant received notice of the claim.
Preparing for Tennessee Small Claims Court
Before entering the courtroom, both the plaintiff and the defendant must do their best to make their statements compelling to the court when they appear. They should collect relevant documents such as contracts, credit card statements and photographs to support their case and select reliable witnesses to tell what they know about the case.
If one side fails to show up at the hearing, the other side automatically wins by a default judgment. If the plaintiff wins, they won’t automatically get what they asked for in their claim. They must explain to the court how they determined the amount of the claim they’re seeking and show supporting evidence.
Winning a Small Claims Judgment
When the plaintiff wins a small claims case, the judge will order the defendant to pay a specific amount of money to them. The court clerk typically enters and mails the money judgment order to the defendant a few days after the hearing.
The court does not collect the money for the plaintiff – it is up to them to take steps to collect the judgment. Some plaintiffs will garnish the defendant’s wages or levy their bank accounts to collect the judgment.
The winning plaintiff must know that the person owing the judgment owns personal property or land in order to issue a levy. They must also know who the debtor’s employer is when garnishing wages or have knowledge of their bank accounts.
Appealing a Small Claims Judgment
The plaintiff or defendant may disagree with the small claims court’s decision. The losing party has 10 days after the decision to appeal to the Circuit Court. A different judge and court will hear the appeal case. If the party appealing the judgment wants a jury trial, they’ll need to make this request within 10 days of filing the appeal.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.