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  • Writer's pictureBret "Recovering Lawyer" Thurman

How Do I File a Case in Small Claims Court?

Justice of the Peace courts, or small claims courts, usually consider civil cases if the amount in controversy is under $5,000. This jurisdictional limit is higher in some states. Additionally, most states have streamlined procedural rules for small claims courts, in order to make them more accessible. Nevertheless, small claims courts are still courts, so many of the formal and informal judicial rules still apply.

Most home warranty claims are under the jurisdictional limit. For some other claims, such as foundation repair issues, you might need to go to a higher court. In that event, you almost certainly need a lawyer. But in small claims court, lawyers often do more harm than good. Since you will probably be acting as your own lawyer in small claims court, consider this post a do-it-yourself guide for initiating a lawsuit.

Initiating the Claim

Small claims court judges are often rather informal. Many of them are not even lawyers. Judge John Payton, who is a Justice of the Peace in Collin County, Texas, was a high school student when he ascended to the bench in 1990.

However, small claims court clerks are a different breed altogether. Many clerks are very particular. If you do not have your stuff together, your foray into the world of small claims courts will be extremely frustrating.

So, have your petition entirely completed before you file it. The clerks might help you, but do not expect any assistance. These petitions usually contain technical information and a factual narrative. Let’s look at these things one at a time.

As for the technical information, the defendant’s legal name and address are the most important items. Many businesses change their names constantly to avoid small claims suits. That’s usually not a problem with home warranty companies, but it could be. Additionally, many home warranty companies have registered service of process agents. More on that below.

As for the narrative information, briefly state the nature of your case and the relief requested. State your claim in three or four simple sentences. Typically, the judge reviews the petition for the first time when s/he calls the case. I purchased this policy on X date, I made a claim on Y date, the company denied the claim on Z date. Make sure you have evidence to back up each statement.

The requested relief is usually an order compelling the company to honor the claim. Alternatively, you could ask the company to reimburse you for repairs you made, or pay you for repairs you have scheduled.

You must pay the filing fee and either the service fee or the service of process issuance fee at the time of filing. If you file online, have a credit card ready. If you file in person, have a money order ready. Most courts do not take cash, credit cards, or personal checks.

Additionally, the jurisdictional limit is not an artificial limit. In other words, if the amount of your claim is for $15,000, you cannot unilaterally reduce it to $10k or whatever figure is within the small claims court’s jurisdiction.

Serving the Petition

You must serve the petition on the defendant. Either the sheriff or constable or a licensed private process server can deliver paperwork to defendants.

Most small claims court plaintiffs use the sheriff or constable. This method is not particularly fast, but it’s seamless. Pay the clerk and the clerk usually takes care of everything. Alternatively, the clerk could issue the citation, and you could have a private process server deliver the paperwork. That’s a faster method. And, that’s probably the only way to go if the defendant has an out-of-county address.

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