When does it make sense to go to small claims court?

Small claims court is a useful and relatively inexpensive tool for resolving certain kinds of legal disputes in certain situations. Small claims courts across the United States have their own sets of rules and procedures that differentiate them from local superior courts or other legal dispute resolution venues. These rules are part of what makes small claims court so accessible, but they also limit its applicability. The following considerations can help you decide if small claims court is the best option in your particular situation.  

Small Claims Limitations

In any jurisdiction, the clearest limitation to this type of court is the fact that it is designed for only small claims. Most jurisdictions place the limit on the value of the claims they will consider somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 dollars. In Florida, for instance, the limit for individual claimants is 5,000 dollars. In California, it's 7,500. In Texas, the limit is 10,000. In all jurisdictions the limit is absolute. If you make a claim for a larger amount, your case will be dismissed and you’ll have to re-file it in a higher-level court. You’ll need to pay the filing fees all over again, and hope that the statute of limitations on your claim has not expired in the meantime.

Because of limitations like this, if your claim’s value is only slightly beyond the legal maximum, then consider reducing the dollar amount of your claim to the legal maximum if you want to preserve your ability to use the small claims court. Ultimately, the cost and time spent re-filing could more than outweigh this slight devaluation.

Finding an Alternative to Small Claims Court

Before your case is heard and decided by a judge in small claims, you will have to submit an affidavit or otherwise swear that you have already made a serious, good faith effort to settle the matter without using up the court’s time and resources. If not, you risk losing your case. If you lose as the claimant in small claims court, you don’t get to appeal or sue the defendant again later. If you think your claim is worth bringing to court, then it certainly is worth making a good faith effort to resolve it out of court first.

Do you and the other side have any shared interests that should be considered? Are there any other consequences, whether to your long-term relationship with the party, or to your time and mental energy, that might affect the true value of small claims court for your particular situation? There may be a way to arbitrate or mediate your dispute. Arbitration means using a neutral third party to decide on a solution. Mediation means engaging a third party to help both sides arrive at a solution on their own.

If you have more questions about the legal merit of your case, consult with an attorney. Though lawyers are not allowed to represent you in small claims court, you certainly can and should seek legal advice from competent legal counsel or a court-sanctioned small claims advisor before and after your claim is filed. A discussion with a lawyer may help you better understand all of your rights. If you have a legitimate claim, then a letter to the other side from the lawyer may help show that you are serious, and may motivate the other side to act. A lawyer’s letter can often produce results that you may never get in court, and can save you a great deal of time and anguish.