Small Claims Court: Definition, Filing a Suit & Parameters

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  • 0:04 Is Small Claims Court…
  • 0:37 Parameters
  • 2:06 Filing a Suit
  • 3:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ian Lord

Ian is a real estate investor, MBA, former health professions educator, and Air Force veteran.

Small claims court offers a legal avenue to quickly and easily resolve cases involving small amounts of money. Let's review the qualifications and process for filing a case in small claims court.

Is Small Claims Court the Right Choice?

Consider this scenario: Jon borrowed his friend Steve's car and caused some body damage in an accident. Steve and Jon had an agreement beforehand that if Jon broke anything while using the car, Jon would be responsible for paying the repairs. It's been over a month and, despite Steve's requests, Jon has made it clear he's not going to pay Steve back the $800 it cost to repair the car. Steve is now looking into filing a suit in small claims court in order to recoup his money. Let's make sure small claims court is the right venue for this problem.


Small claims court typically hears cases involving relatively small disputes over money. Small claims court cases are conducted without lawyer representation. The exact scope of the court varies from state to state. A number of situations might lead to filing a suit in small claims court. For example, a contractor failing to complete a home renovation, an individual not repaying a loan, or a landlord not returning a security deposit. Some states also handle eviction or restitution cases in small claims court in order to compel the return of physical property.

One of the defining factors of what cases are heard in small claims courts is the dollar amount of the damages sought. This can vary dramatically by state. For example, it's as low as $2,500 in Kentucky and Rhode Island, and as high as $25,000 in Tennessee. Typically, the amount is between $5,000 and $10,000. If the amount sought is in excess of these amounts, the case will have to be heard in general district court, where it's often worth seeking help from an attorney.

So what type of cases aren't heard in small claims court? Let's consider the example of Steve and Jon. Steve couldn't sue the federal government or an employee acting on behalf of the federal government in his local small claims court. In no state is it possible to file for divorce, a name change, or bankruptcy at this level. A small claims court can't appoint or change a child's legal guardian or issue an injunction, like a restraining order.

Filing a Suit

When can a small claims suit be filed? Here's an example involving Steve's case. Steve and Jon live in the same city; the suit will be filed in the local small claims court at the city or county level. Whether it will be city or county is determined by the state. If Steve and Jon don't live in the same city, Steve would need to file in the city where Jon lives.

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