Small claims courts are ideal for resolving many legal issues between individuals or between individuals and companies. It’s a cheaper and faster path to justice after another party wronged someone but the damages don’t exceed a certain amount.
That amount can vary greatly depending on the state in which you will be filing your lawsuit. But even within states, it can still be challenging to determine which small claims court has jurisdiction over your case.
Choosing the Right Venue
In most small claims court litigation instances, the proper place to file your claim for damages is the small claims court where the defendant lives. If you are suing a company and not a single person, you will likely need to file in the small claims court having jurisdiction over the business. However, there can be other, rarer cases where you (the plaintiff) can file in the jurisdiction where you live instead.
If the small claims case revolves around the disputed property, the correct small claims court will likely be the one with jurisdiction over the property in that city or county.
Defendants Have the Right to Object to the Venue
After you file your claim for damages (the petition) and the defendant is properly served with it, the defendant can object to the venue. The venue's fate rests with the small claims court judge, magistrate, or justice of the peace. They must rule whether it is the correct jurisdiction over the matter between you and the defendant.
Why It Is So Important to Get the Venue Right
One of your reasons for filing your petition in small claims court instead of circuit or district court is to save money. After all, in small claims court, you are free to represent yourself and your interests without retaining an attorney to plead your claim for you.
But each time you file your claim, you must pay filing fees. Then, you must pay to have the defendant served either by a professional process server or a civil sheriff’s deputy.
So, while you may not have any control over the defendant's objections regarding the chosen venue that hears your small claims court case, you don’t want to spend more on filing and service than you must. Exercise due diligence and conduct the necessary research to ensure that the venue you select to hear your case is the correct one.
Can a Small Claims Court Case Get Bumped Up to a Higher Court?
This can and does happen in some cases. That might occur in a hypothetical case that originates in small claims but winds up in a higher court.
Suppose you paid a roofer or roofing company to complete repairs on your storm-damaged roof. But then a hurricane hit a few hundred miles along the coast. Your roofer leaves town without finishing your job because of the visions of FEMA dollars dancing in his head.
The remedy you seek is a refund of the money that you paid for the roof repairs that didn't get finished. But should your remedy include that the roofer now finishes the job he left undone, that would be cause to bump the case up to a circuit or district court.
The reason is that small claims courts don’t have authority to order “equitable remedies,” i.e., small claims courts lack authority to mandate that companies or individuals take or don’t take action.
Cases Meant to Be Filed in Small Claims Court
The common thread of all small claims cases involves monetary disputes. From bad debts between former friends when small loans go unpaid to problems with landlords who keep security deposits even when there is no damage to the rental property, the focus is on money unpaid.
Confused? There May Be Help Available to You
Many small claims courts have pre-printed forms for plaintiffs to simply plug in their information. Because the courts issue them, you know what to include. Some companies file for you to ensure everything is done according to the state, county, and city laws wherein you file your claim for damages. Others have court personnel designated to help citizens file their claims.
But if this system feels too complicated to navigate, you can always file with an online service. They are typically more affordable than lawyers, and some offer human assistance to help you navigate the process.