When Small Claims Court Is Not For You - dummies

When Small Claims Court Is Not For You

By Judge Philip Straniere

Not all cases are appropriate for small claims court. In some situations, what you hope to gain or who you’re trying to sue makes it unlikely that a judge will hear your case in small claims court.

When you want too much money for small claims

If you want more money from the defendant than your state regulations allow, you have several options open to you.

Bring your case to regular court

The first option if you’re over the money limit is to bring your case in the regular civil part of your local court.

This requires that you bring a lawsuit, which is subject to the normal civil procedure rules as well as the rules of evidence. This may seem more complicated, but it really isn’t. Most courts now have procedures that allow you to represent yourself in regular civil actions.

The difference between civil courts and small claims court is that small claims procedures are not as strict, the filing fees are generally less, and the cases tend to move faster.

Reduce your claims amount

If your case is worth more than you’re allowed to sue for, you can bring a small claims action but limit your claim to the monetary jurisdiction of the court. That is, you voluntarily reduce your claim to the dollar limit of the small claims court.

Split your claim into smaller amounts

Although it may seem like a good way to collect everything you deserve, you can’t circumvent the monetary limits of small claims court by splitting your claim into two cases.

If all of the money you’re suing for comes from the same contract or event, the claim cannot be split solely to qualify for the small claims court monetary jurisdiction.

In some cases, you can work around this rule. If the defendant owes rent of $2,000 for January, as the landlord, you can sue in February, then bring a separate suit when February’s rent isn’t paid, and a third suit when March’s rent is delinquent. So you file three separate $2,000 claims and they’re all within the court’s monetary jurisdiction.

If you realize that you have more damages than the court limit, you can always ask to have your case discontinued without prejudice to start over. In some courts, you can ask the judge to transfer the case so you won’t have to re-serve the defendant. If you do this, make sure the transfer is without prejudice or your case is over.

When you want to sue the government in small claims

As a general rule, an individual can’t sue the government. Doesn’t sound very democratic, does it? That’s because it’s not.

Sovereign immunity

English common law developed the idea of sovereign immunity, the concept that the king or queen can do no wrong. For its own benefit, every level of government in the United States has decided it has equal rights to royalty as far as being sued goes.

If you sue any level of government, in all likelihood your case would be dismissed because of the doctrine of governmental immunity.

Noting an exception

Although the government generally considers itself immune from being sued, there is an exception. The government can waive its right of sovereign immunity and permit itself to be sued. Most cities, states, and the federal government have waived this right in certain situations. In doing so, they put into place procedures that must be strictly adhered to in order to bring a lawsuit against them.

The most common restriction is to require that you give notice to the government before you use the court system to enforce your rights. Many states and cities call this a notice of claim. A notice of claim sets out the details of the events that you claim the government did or failed to do that caused you harm.

The idea is that if the government is given notice before it is sued, it has the opportunity to properly investigate the incident and resolve the dispute prior to litigation.

In all likelihood, a case against a government would not be permitted in small claims court unless a particular state statute allows it in that court.

When you want to sue a charity in small claims

Under English common law, charities were immune from lawsuits. The theory was that charities benefit the public. If they could be sued, then the money that was going to the charitable purpose would be spent defending lawsuits and paying out damage awards. Most states have abolished charitable immunity because of the advent of insurance.

However, some states still have exceptions for suits against charities such as limiting the amount of any recovery. If your state permits such suits, the amount you’re permitted to seek in small claims court would probably be less than the damage amount set by statute.

When you want to bring a suit against bankrupt defendants in small claims

The first thing filing for bankruptcy does is stops all legal proceedings against the defendant, so your case comes to a screeching halt.

The legal term for this is a stay of the litigation. If you want to pursue your claim, you probably have to go to the bankruptcy court and file a claim there, behind a long line of creditors.

When you want to sue the deceased

If the defendant owed you money prior to death, you’re still owed the money but your ability to collect it may be substantially reduced. Her spouse or family aren’t responsible for it, unless they specifically acknowledged the debt in some manner, generally in writing.

You have to sue the dead defendant’s estate to get your money. If the estate is being probated, you may be allowed to submit a claim only in probate or surrogate court. If the defendant dies, and no one else takes steps to probate the estate, you may have to do so if you want to be paid.