How to take someone to small claims court

Claudia Diaz - Small Claims Procedure - September 16, 2022

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Small claims court is often called the “People’s Court” because of its informal process, user-friendly procedures, and low cost. Unlike other types of courts, in small claims courts, people can bring disputes without the need for a lawyer. In fact, in some small claims courts, lawyers are not allowed at all! In this guide, we will explain how to take someone to small claims court, what types of cases you can file in small claims, and any other questions you might have about the small claims process.

What are Common Types of Small Claims Lawsuits? 

Can I sue someone in small claims court? Generally yes, as long as there isn't a better court to handle your lawsuit. For example, in most states, there is a specific court for evictions so you won't be able to sue in small claims to evict someone.

Here are some common types of small claims lawsuits:

  • Your tenant refuses to pay rent. 

  • Someone scratched your car and now they won't pay to fix the scratches.

  • A towing company caused damage to your car and won't pay to fix it.

  • A company won't give you a refund.

  • Your landlord did not return your security deposit.

  • Your clients won't pay you for services rendered.

  • You lent someone money and they won't pay you back.

  • You hired a mechanic to repair your car and they did a terrible job.

  • You contracted with a painter to come paint your home but they never show up. 

  • You paid a contractor to fix your roof but they never showed up.

Small Claims Guides by State

Many of the rules for taking someone to small claims court vary by state. Learn more in our state-specific guides:

How Much Can You Sue for in Small Claims Court?

This is also known as the "small claims court limits." This limit varies from state to state, and can even vary from one court to another. For example, in California and New York City you can sue for $10,000 if you are an individual but if you are outside of New York City, you can sue for $5,000 in some courts and $3,000 in other courts. If you want to know for sure, it is best to check with your local small claims court website to find the small claims court limit. 

Be aware that this information can also change if you are suing as an individual or as a business in some states.

What happens if I am owed more than what I can sue for? You can still sue for the maximum amount allowed but you usually agree to waive any additional amount over the limit.‍

For example, You are an individual and you paid $11,000 for someone to paint your home. They didn't paint your home. In California, the limit for you would be $10,000, therefore you can sue in small claims court for $10,000 and waive the remaining $1,000.

Why would I sue in small claims if I am owed more than the small claims limit? Small claims court is generally more efficient, quicker, and lower cost than filing your lawsuit in other types of courts, plus you generally don't need a lawyer to do so!

How Do I Calculate How Much to Sue for?

Having a hard time figuring out how much to sue for in small claims? Let's dive deeper. In general, you want to keep the small claims limit in mind when making this decision. This is because at the hearing you will need to explain how you calculated the money you are owed. Ultimately, it is up to the judge to decide how much you are owed, and although you may ask for a certain amount, the judge can award you less money if they decide that’s what is fair. 

Use receipts

The most obvious way to calculate how much you are owed is to look for your receipts, invoices, bank account, etc. 

Here are some examples:

  • You bought an item but never received it. How much did you pay for the item?

  • You hired a contractor to fix your roof, but they never showed up to fix it. How much did you pay the contractor to fix your roof?

  • Someone hit your car and you had to pay money to fix your car. How much money did you pay to fix your car?

  • You paid a mechanic to fix your engine but the mechanic damaged your car's paint job while fixing the engine. How much will it cost another mechanic to fix the car's paint job?

  • You gave your landlord a $3,000 security deposit, but your landlord did not return the security deposit. How much was the security deposit (this information may be on the lease)?

  • Your neighbor damaged your fence. How much will a new fence cost or how much to fix the existing fence?

  • You lent a friend money but they haven't paid you back. You should have a bank transfer of $1,000 to your friend.

Make sure you bring to the hearing all evidence that shows exactly how you calculated what you are owed. Avoid arbitrary or random numbers, especially if you cannot explain how you calculated them.

Feeling overwhelmed? PeopleClerk can help you prepare your evidence for your small claims hearing.

When in doubt, make an estimate

We know it can be hard to figure out exactly how much you are owed. Ultimately, it is up to the judge to decide how much you will win, as they are the decision-maker.

You don't want to regret after the hearing not asking for the full amount you think you are owed just because "you weren't 100% sure." When in doubt, remember the small claims court maximum amounts you can sue for and try to make a reasonable calculation based on what you are owed.

The judge DOES NOT expect you to:

  • Be an attorney or have the same level of knowledge as an attorney.

  • Pay lots of money to an attorney to calculate the amount you are owed for you.

  • Conduct hours of extensive research to try and figure out the amount you are owed.

Here are some common mistakes people make when establishing how much to sue for in small claims:

  • Not asking for the full amount you are owed. For example, you only sue for $6,000 but you are actually owed $10,000. The judge may not give you more because you did not put the person you are suing on notice that they may stand to lose $10,000 (you only notified them that they could lose up to $6,000). That said, some judges will give you more, even if you sued for less, but you shouldn’t expect this. 

  • Using arbitrary numbers in your calculations. For example, the judge asks you why you are suing for $10,000 and you say "I don't know, the person I am suing is a bad person and they should pay the maximum." Here is a better way: "I am suing for $10,000 because that is the amount I paid to fix my car, after the person I am suing hit my car."

  • Not having clear evidence. For example, you show up to the hearing with receipts thrown in your purse or backpack and expect the judge to add them up for you. Instead, you can use our evidence uploader and organize your receipts with dates, titles, and amounts.

What are punitive damages?

In general, small claims court isn't meant for you to come out winning more than what you are owed. The exception to this rule is if there is a law that allows you to recover punitive damages. If you are awarded punitive damages you will receive extra money (on top of your judgment) from the person you are suing as a way to punish that person. 

‍Some laws require that you directly ask for punitive damages. Other times, even if you don't refer to any law that allows punitive damages, the judge can add punitive damages on their own, even if you never mentioned it.  

Here are some examples:

  • Security Deposits: In some states, you can sue for 2x the amount of your security deposit if your landlord did not return your security deposit in "bad faith." 

  • Towing: If your car is towed and the towing company did not provide proper notice to local law enforcement, you may be able to sue for three times the amount of the towing and storage charges in certain states.

In order to prove that you are owed this additional amount of money, you need to make sure your evidence is in order. This is because you may need to show the judge why the person you are suing acted so badly that they need to be punished. The best way to show this is through your evidence. 

Common questions when deciding how much to sue for

  • Can you add attorney fees to your lawsuit? It depends on your contract or the law you are relying on. Does your contract say you can sue for attorney fees? Make sure you bring a copy of your contract to the hearing. When in doubt, it will be up the judge to decide if you can recover attorney fees. 

  • Can you add court fees or serving costs to your lawsuit? This often varies from state to state. However, you can let the judge know you would like to be reimbursed for these, and the judge may decide at the hearing whether you are eligible for reimbursement for these costs.

  • How can I be more sure of the amount I am suing for? The best thing to do is to conduct your own research or hire an attorney to help you figure this out. Remember that it is all a cost vs. benefit analysis. The judge knows you are not a lawyer and is not expecting you to act like one. However, they do want you to bring all your evidence and explain to them how you calculated how much is owed to you. 

How Much Does it Cost to Sue in Small Claims Court?

States have made filing in small claims court accessible. Most small claims court charge between $10-$75 to file a lawsuit. 

  • Small claims filing fees vary by state and sometimes even by court.

  • Fees can vary depending on how much you are suing for. 

  • If you are low-income you may be able to request that the court waive your fees.  

  • For most up to date fees, visit your local court's website.

Once your lawsuit is filed, you have to notify the other party that they have been sued. This is called serving. Here is what you can expect to pay to serve your small claims lawsuit:

  • There are several methods of serving at varying prices. Not all courts accept all methods of serving so you will have to confirm what options are available to you.

  • Come courts include serving the small claims lawsuit in the filing fee when they have serving by mail as an option. 

  • One option may be to have a friend or family member serve your small claims lawsuit. This would cost $0.

  • If you qualify for a waiver of your court fees, you may be able to serve with the sheriff for $0.

  • The sheriff may be able to serve your lawsuit depending on the county where the other party is located, this fee varies but is usually $40 - $70.

  • Another option may be to hire a process server which is someone licensed to serve lawsuits and they charge anywhere between $50 - $125.

Ultimately, taking someone to small claims is a cost v. benefit analysis. Here is how some of our clients measure the cost v. benefit of going to small claims:

  • Cost. Spending between $70 and $150 to get back $1,000 is very affordable.

  • How soon will you find out whether you won? Most judges make a decision a few weeks after the hearing, this varies state by state and even by court. 

  • Time spent? This one can be tricky because our court system is outdated and oftentimes very frustrating. You may have to go a few times to court to file the lawsuit, especially if you need more information or do it wrong. The good news is that with People Clerk, you can prepare and file your small claims lawsuit from home as we take care of the logistics. Depending on your county, you may also have the option of attending your hearing virtually.

  • Justice. For some, it isn't about time or money. It is about making sure the other person understands that what they have done is wrong so that they don't continue to do the same to others.

What is the Small Claims Statute of Limitations?

The statute of limitations is a deadline that determines how much time you have to sue someone. Statutes of limitations vary by state. In general, many statutes of limitations range between 2-6 years and are the same for a small claims lawsuit as for other types of lawsuits.

Here are some common questions about the statute of limitations:

  • Does my hearing have to be before the statute of limitations? Generally no, but your case has to be FILED with the court before the statute of limitations.

  • Can I still file my small claims lawsuit if the statute of limitations already passed? Yes. It is up to the judge to determine whether it is too late to file your lawsuit and not up to the court clerk. However, if the statute of limitations has passed, you may lose your small claims case.

  • How do I get more certainty about the statute of limitations? (1) consult a lawyer before suing in small claims, (2) review the statute of limitations on your state legislature’s website, or (3) let the judge decide at the hearing (most people likely choose this option since going to small claims is very affordable so the risk is low if the judge decides to dismiss the case).

Should I wait until the last minute to sue someone in small claims court? It is not recommended. Here is why:

  • If you file your lawsuit incorrectly and need time to refile your lawsuit, your second lawsuit may miss the statute of limitations and you will lose your case.

  • You begin to lose your evidence the more you wait. Many small claims lawsuits have text messages as evidence and if you lose your phone and a backup you may not have access to those text messages or other evidence that would have resulted in you winning your case.

  • You begin to lose credibility the more you wait. The judge will be curious to know why you waited so long to file your lawsuit.

How do I look up the statute of limitations for my case?

To look up a specific statute of limitations period you can go straight to the source on your state’s legislative website. There you can find the Code of Civil Procedure that lists all the statute of limitations periods.

Who Can Represent You in Small Claims Court?

Small claims courts were intended to allow individuals to file, and represent themselves without the need for a lawyer. The informal nature of small claims court means that people can represent themselves without the need for a lawyer. 

Here are some general points about who can represent you in small claims court (keep in mind that these rules vary by state): 

  • Check to see if your local small claims court allows lawyers to represent individuals in court. It may be hard finding a lawyer to represent you in small claims as the cost of hiring a lawyer may be more expensive than the amount you are suing for. 

  • In some states, you may be represented in court by a spouse, but generally only if you and your spouse share an interest in the claim. 

  • If you are the only owner of a business, you may want to consider an employee with knowledge about the dispute to represent the business in court. 

  • If the business is a corporation, it may be represented in court by an officer or director, as long as they are not the corporation’s lawyer hired solely to represent the corporation. 

  • If you are the owner of a rental property, you may be represented by a property agent, as long as they were hired to manage the property and not to represent the owner in court. These are some of the possible people who can represent you in your small claims trial, although you will want to confirm with your court before your hearing date.

  • Individuals who represent a party in small claims court will likely have to sign an Authorization to Appear form, and if none of the exceptions listed on your court's website apply to you, you’ll represent yourself. This might sound scary, but it is actually for your benefit. Removing the need for lawyers in the courtroom means that the playing field is even, and both parties have a fair shot at justice.

What to do Before you File in Small Claims Court?

Here are the steps to take before you file a small claims lawsuit:

  1. Ask the other party to pay you back.

  2. Figure out where to file the lawsuit.

  3. Determine who needs to sue (the "plaintiffs").

  4. Determine who needs to be sued (the "defendants").

  5. Make sure to have the information you will need to prepare the small claims lawsuit

Ask the other party to pay you back

In some states, before you can file a small claims court lawsuit, the court may require that you formally request your money or your property back from the person you intend to sue through something like a demand letter. For example, in California, you are required to demand payment before filing a lawsuit in small claims court. 

Even if you live in a state where this is not a mandatory part of the process, we highly recommend you send a demand letter before filing. With this demand letter, the other party may decide to pay you what you are owed or settle the debt in order to avoid going to court.

How do I demand payment? You can demand payment verbally or in writing but you tend to be taken more seriously when you do so in the form of a letter. Also keep in mind that this demand letter could be great evidence to present to your judge, for this reason, it is often suggested that you do not make your demand verbally but through writing.

Figure out where to file the small claims lawsuit

Unfortunately, it isn't about which court is closest to you or the most convenient to you in many situations. Before going to your nearest small claims court to file your small claims lawsuit, take some time to figure out which court has "authority" over the other party. This is known as "jurisdiction."

  • Why can't all courts have authority over the other party? It may not be fair to the person you are suing to have to travel very far for the hearing. 

  • ‍What happens if I file in the wrong small claims court? You will likely still be able to file your lawsuit, but on the day of your hearing, the judge reviewing your case may decide that you have filed in the wrong court. This means they may close your case and you will have to file in the correct court. This is risky because if the statute of limitations has passed, then you won't be able to win even if you file in the right court the second time.

  • Once you narrow down the county you can sue in, then you need to select the correct court. For example, if you have decided that you can file the small claims lawsuit in LA County, the next step is to narrow down which court in LA County you can sue in. There are zip codes and cities associated with each LA County courthouse.

Determine who needs to sue (the "plaintiffs").

The person or business doing the suing is called the plaintiff. Deciding who needs to be included in a lawsuit as a plaintiff is normally an easy determination. Ask yourself, who is owed money? Anyone who is owed money should be included in the lawsuit.

‍ When in doubt, it is better to include everyone who potentially is owed money and let the judge decide at the hearing. If a judge doesn't think someone should be included in the lawsuit, they will take that person off the lawsuit at the hearing and leave everyone else as part of the lawsuit. If you fail to include someone who the judge determines is owed money, the judge may have you refile the lawsuit.

Here are some common examples:

  • Security deposits. You and your boyfriend gave your landlord a $4,000 security deposit. You both moved out and your landlord has not returned your security deposit. Both you and your roommate are owed the money so the judge will want to make sure you both are part of the lawsuit.

  • Car accidents. You were driving your mom's car and another driver hit you while driving. It will cost $3,000 to fix the car. Your mom should be included in the lawsuit since she is the registered owner.

Determine who you need to sue (the "defendants").

The person or business being sued is called the defendant. Ask yourself, who is responsible for what happened to me?

Here are some tips for determining who you need to sue:

  • When in doubt, sue everyone you think is responsible and let the judge decide at the hearing. You don't want the judge to close your lawsuit because even though they think you are right, you didn't sue the right person or business.

  • Security deposit lawsuits. The most common mistake we see is suing a property management company and not the landlord in security deposit cases. You want to make sure you sue the person or business listed on your lease or rental agreement as they are the ones holding on to your security deposit.

  • Car accident lawsuits. Don't forget to sue the driver that is responsible for hitting your car!

Make sure to have the information you will need to prepare the small claims lawsuit

How do I take someone to small claims court? As you are getting ready to take someone to small claims, you want to make sure that you have the correct information for the person or business you are suing.

Suing an individual in small claims:

  • How do you take someone to small claims court? You will need their full legal name and either a work or home address. 

  • What happens if I don't have the other person’s name or address? You will need to find this information before suing them. Try looking on Google, or Linkedin, or consider having someone run a report called a "Skip Trace" that looks for their information on different databases.

Suing a business in small claims:

  • After reviewing thousands of small claims lawsuits, we know that suing a business in small claims can be tricky. Why? Because most people don't spend the time figuring out the correct information to list on the small claims lawsuit. This leads to many problems when serving the lawsuit like knowing who to actually serve on behalf of the business.

  • You will need to narrow down a business's official legal entity name before suing them in small claims. What is an official legal entity name? The name the business has used to incorporate their business. The reality is that many businesses are not incorporated (they don't need to be) which means that you are suing an individual and not a business. For example, you paid ABC Painting to paint your house. ABC Painting never came to paint your house so you decide to sue them in small claims. You first need to determine whether ABC Painting is a corporation, LLC, or an individual using the name ABC Painting.

  • Many businesses also do business using a name other than their official legal entity name. This is called a "dba" or a "fictitious business name."‍

  • Once you have determined the official legal entity name, you will be able to sue the correct business and serve the correct person on behalf of a business.

How to Sue Someone in Small Claims Court

There are generally 3 steps in the small claims process:

  1. File the lawsuit.

  2. Serve the lawsuit.

  3. Prepare for the hearing.

We break down each one of these steps below.

How to file in small claims court 

After you have prepared all the required forms, you are ready to submit the small claims lawsuit to the court. Unfortunately, not all courts allow you to file your lawsuit online because the court either doesn't have the technology to do so or the online system they use is not user-friendly. The following small claims how to file section should help clear some of the questions.

If you would like to file your small claims lawsuit without leaving your home, People Clerk can help.

In-Person at the Small Claims Court

You can file your case in person at a small claims court. Once you get to the courthouse, locate the room number for the "Clerk of the Court." Once in the room, locate if they have a special line for small claims cases. Make sure to bring at least 2 copies of the small claims lawsuit with you and any other required forms.

Via Mail

Make sure you submit at least 2 copies of the small claims lawsuit to the court, all other required forms, and an envelope so that the court can return a copy of the filed lawsuit to you. This envelope needs to be labeled with your address and have enough stamps for the documents to come back to you. If you don't do this, the court may not file your lawsuit or will file your lawsuit but not mail it back to you.

Online

Most small claims courts don't accept lawsuits filed online. This is called electronic filing or e-filing. If the small claims court you are filing accepts your lawsuit electronically, be prepared to use a complicated system designed for law firms. Go to your local small claims court website to find out if they have adopted e-filing and which system they use. Be prepared to pay an additional transaction fee as well.

The information above is generalized but it is important to confirm with the court before you attempt to do any of these filling procedures. This is because courts often have slightly different rules that if violated could result in a filing being rejected. An example of this is that some courts require 2 copies of all documents, while some require 3 copies. To confirm this information you can check the court's website or call the clerk.

How to serve your small claims lawsuit

Once you file your case, the next step is to notify the person you are suing that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" or "serving."

Who can serve a small claims lawsuit?

  • NOT YOU! You cannot serve your own small claims lawsuit.

  • Court Clerk. The court clerk may be able to serve the lawsuit by mail. 

  • Process Server. The most straightforward person who can serve your lawsuit is a "process server." A process server is someone licensed to serve lawsuits. This is what they do for a living so they are pretty good at it. Process servers charge around $50- $125 to serve small claims lawsuits.

  • Sheriff. Depending on the county where the other party needs to be served you may be able to use the sheriff. Not all sheriffs serve small claims lawsuits. If the court approved your request to waive your court fees, the sheriff will serve your lawsuit for free. Otherwise, they charge around $40.

  • Friend or Family member. You can have an adult friend or family member serve your small claims lawsuit. Make sure they are not part of the lawsuit or aren't involved with what happened with the lawsuit. 

This information is generalized and can change from court to court therefore it is important to confirm with the court you will be filing in about what options are available and how much they will cost you.

How to prepare for the small claims hearing

Consider these points when preparing for your small clams hearing:

  • Timeline. The court process will vary from court to court, but generally from the time the judge has selected to review your case to when they move on to the next case will be ~ 15 minutes.

  • Research the law. If you are unsure about your case, conduct research about the law. You can also consult an attorney to prepare you or give you advice.

  • Prepare your evidence. Invoices, contracts, receipts, etc. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why you are correct. For example, if you are a contractor suing for services rendered show the judge pictures of the work you did and a contract or agreement you had with the other party. 

  • Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask the person suing why they are suing. The judge will then turn to the person that is being sued, and why they should win the case.

  • Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, any filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for costs. Generally, whoever wins the case can be reimbursed for "reasonable costs."

  • Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies (one for you, one for the judge, and one for the other side).

Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Claudia is a lawyer and certified mediator in New York and Florida. She has participated in dozens of small claims mediations in New York City courts

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