Small Claims Court
Quite often at our office we get inquiries from people who feel that they have been wronged by someone else, but the amount of damages might be so low that it isn’t worth hiring an attorney and paying litigation expenses. We usually refer these people to small claims courts.
The purpose of small claims courts is to provide an informal, uncomplicated proceeding to resolve small disputes. At least one small claims court is located in every county in Texas. Larger counties have multiple small claims courts. For example, Harris County has 16 small claims courts and Fort Bend County has 5.
Small claims courts can only accept cases when the case is worth less than $10,000 including any interest. If your case is worth more than $10,000, you cannot reduce the amount simply to go to small claims court. For example, if you loaned someone $12,000 and they did not pay you back, you cannot sue them for only $10,000 in small claims court. Small claims courts can only award money. They cannot force someone to do something or stop doing something. For example, if you paid someone to paint your house and they refused to do so, the court can award you monetary damages, but they cannot force the other party to paint your house.
Any person who is over the age of 18 can file a suit in small claims court. Before you sue, it is very important that you make sure you are suing the correct party. Your complaint might be against an individual, a business, a partnership or a corporation. Filing suit against the wrong party may cause you months of delay. Generally, the suit needs to be filed in the county where the other party resides or where the services that are the subject of the suit were supposed to be rendered. If there are multiple small claims courts in the county, you need to check with the county to determine which small claims court would have jurisdiction over that particular area.
You need to make sure too much time has not passed since your dispute began. There are certain legal limits, called statutes of limitations, on the amount of time you can wait before filing suit. As a general rule, if you file suit within a year of when the dispute occurred, you should be safe. If it has been longer, you might want to consult an attorney to discuss your options.
You can file suit by going to the correct small claims court, filing a petition and paying the filing fee. Most courts have petition forms that can be filled out. You will need to include your name and address, the other party’s correct name and address, the amount you intend to claim as damages, and a brief statement of the reasons for your claim. When you submit your petition, you will have to swear an oath in front of the clerk stating that your claim is true. Filing fees vary, depending on the county. Currently, they are $34 in Harris County and $36 in Fort Bend County. If you want a trial by jury, you will have to pay an additional jury fee.
Once your suit is filed, the Constable’s office will serve the Defendant with notice of the suit. You should call the clerk’s office 2 weeks after you filed your petition to see if the Defendant has been served. It is important to know the date on which the Defendant was served because that is used to calculate the trial date. If the Defendant has been served, you can ask the clerk for a trial date. Ask the clerk if you need to give the Defendant notice of the trial. If so, you need to send the Defendant a letter notifying him/her of the trial date and time. Make sure this letter is sent by certified mail, return receipt requested. Make sure you keep proof that the letter was sent to the Defendant at his/her correct address.
Make sure you are prepared and ready for trial. Make sure you write down accurate, concise facts about your case. Make sure you have any documentation that can be useful in proving your case, such as cancelled checks, contracts, receipts, records, or photographs. If you have any witnesses that can help your case, make sure they come with you to trial. If a witness refuses and he/she is important to your case, you can go back to the clerk and have them issue a subpoena for the witness. You will need the correct name and address of the witness so he/she can be served with the subpoena.
Make sure you are at the courthouse on time for your trial. If the other party does not show up, you can get a default judgment against them without having to present your case. If the other party does attend, the judge may order you to attend mediation before he/she hears your case. During mediation, a neutral party appointed by the court discusses each party’s case privately and encourages both parties to come to an agreement without trial. There are no additional fees for mediation. If your dispute is not resolved through mediation, you will go to trial. Usually the judge will explain the trial procedures before the trial begin. You, the other party and any of your witnesses will be asked to take an oath to swear to tell the truth. You will get the chance to present your case. Remember that the burden of proof is on the party who filed the suit. After you present your case, the other party will have a chance to defend themselves. They might dispute the fact that they owe you any money at all, or they might dispute the amount that they owe you. Once the judge has heard both parties’ cases, he/she will render a decision as to who won the case and how much the damages should be. If you asked for a trial by jury, the jury will render the decision. Sometimes, the judge will not announce his/her decision right away. If that is the case, you can call the clerk later on to check the status of the decision. Usually the jury renders its decision on the same day.
Be aware that judgments rendered in small claims courts can be appealed to the county court by either party. The only requirement is that the amount of the dispute exceeds $250. Proceedings in county court are much more formal. In most cases, you will need an attorney to assist you with a case in county court.
While small claims courts are a useful venue to resolve disputes without costly litigation fees, a lawsuit suit in a small claims court can still require quite a bit of time and be an emotional experience for most people. It is always a better idea to try to resolve your dispute amicably, without the involvement of the court system.