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Law Versus Equity Compensation in Small Claims Court

When you sue someone in small claims court, you’re looking for one of two things: monetary compensation or some other result. If you’re suing a mechanic who took your money and didn’t fix your car, you may want your car fixed, or you may want the money returned so you can go to someone else. You need to determine what it is you want the court to do for you.

The two classes of cases are both based on English common law:

  • Law or legal cases are generally settled for money.

  • Equity cases involve some other type of relief — a repair made or damaged property replaced, for example.

Generally speaking, small claims cases are about money and not other types of relief.

Small claims law cases

In most situations, small claims court cases are brought for money, not other relief. If you want justice in the form of cash, and you’re willing to stick to the limits the courts allow, small claims court is probably a good place to be: If you’re injured in an accident, the court gives you money; if you’re damaged because of a breach of contract, the court gives you money.

Because there’s a limit on the amount of money you can sue for in small claims court, one of the things you have to consider is how much money you plan to seek from the defendant.

The amount you can sue for is called the monetary jurisdiction of the court. The monetary jurisdiction is the maximum amount that can be sued for in small claims court. As this is set by the legislature of each state, check with the clerk of the court to determine the maximum amount you can seek. Suing for less is rarely a problem, but suing for more can cause you grief.

States have been raising the monetary limit of small claims in recent years, so checking with your local clerk of the court is important. A case you couldn’t bring in small claims court a few years ago because you were suing for too much money may now be allowed.

Currently, most states set $5,000 as the maximum amount you can sue for. The state with the highest monetary jurisdiction is Tennessee where, in some counties, you can sue for as much as $25,000. In other Tennessee counties, the maximum suit amount is $15,000.

Ironically, the state with the lowest monetary jurisdiction is Tennessee’s neighbor, Kentucky. Kentucky has a $1,500 limit. Other states also have a limit, which varies by county or by the nature of the claim.

Small claims equity cases

Believe it or not, sometimes you don’t want money as a remedy. Shocking, I know. But hard as it is to believe, money doesn’t solve every problem. Equity courts developed in England to enforce claims in which money isn’t an adequate remedy.

Types of equity claims and examples of each are explained in the following list:

  • Specific performance: Specific performance is used in cases where the subject matter of the lawsuit is something unique such as real estate, antiques, art work, heirlooms, collectibles, and the like where you want the item and not the dollar value. If you want to compel someone to abide by a contract to transfer ownership of land or personal property to you, you would sue for specific performance.

  • Injunction: You use an injunction to make someone stop doing something. Injunctions often involve neighbors: If your neighbor is using her land in a manner that causes flooding or damage to your land, you would seek an injunction to make her stop. Likewise, you may seek an injunction to stop your neighbor from trimming your tree or prevent her son’s band from practicing at 3 a.m.

  • Replevin: If you want personal property returned to you by the defendant, you use replevin as a basis for your lawsuit. Replevin claims are one of the few types of equity cases heard in small claims court. Some states allow a direct replevin action permitting the plaintiff to sue just to get the property returned and not ask for money damages.

    Most states don’t permit direct replevin actions. But they will let you sue the defendant for the cost of the personal property being held and not for the return of the item.

Replevin cases often result in countersuits, with the defendant alleging that she hasn’t returned the property because you owe her money. A small claims court in this situation may rule that after you pay all or part of the bill the defendant must return the property. The replevin would be granted only as a part of or as a condition of the money damage claim.

Say you loan your neighbor your lawn mower and, in spite of numerous requests, she never returns it. All you want is your lawn mower back. If your state permits direct replevin actions, you can sue to get it back. If your state doesn’t allow direct replevin actions, you would have to sue in small claims court for the value of the lawn mower on the date of loss.

Or say you sue your wedding photographer because she never delivered your wedding album as agreed. You want your pictures. You can either sue for the album — a replevin action — or sue to get your money back — a money damage claim. The photographer can file a counterclaim saying she didn’t deliver the album because you didn’t make the final payment.

If that is correct, the court would order you to make the final payment and order the photographer to deliver the album after receiving the payment.

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