The Small Claims Court of Texas
The first small claims courts in the United States of America were established in the early 1960’s in response to the ever growing belief that justice of peace courts were becoming obsolete and that there was a need for a “People’s Court” to settle the small disputes of individuals, sole proprietorships, partnerships, associations, and corporations (State Bar of Texas). While many states replaced justice of peace courts with small claims courts, in many southern states, including Texas, the small claims court is a type of justice of peace court. In Texas the small claims court is the court of lowest jurisdiction and is often referred to as the court of “inferior jurisdiction” (Alderman).
The statue providing the rules and guidelines of the Small Claims Court of Texas is found in Texas Government Code, Title 2, Subtitle A, Ch. 28, Sections 001-055; Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, Part V, Rules of Practice for Justice Courts, Rules 523 through 591 (Consumer Affairs). The Small Claims Court of Texas can only hear civil disputes of $10,000 or less and can award only monetary settlements. Only adults, any person 18 years of age or older, can file cases in the Texas Small Claims Court. A parent, relative, or “next friend” , over the age of 18, can file a claim in small claims court for a minor, but the adult must also be present during trial. Any individual adult, association, partnership, or corporation can file a claim with the Small Claims Court of Texas; however, banks and other institutions that are in the business of lending money for interest cannot file a suit in small claims court. Small claims lawsuits are to be filed in the county where the defendant resides and for performance of contract suits the lawsuits are to be filed in the county where performance is expected (Consumer Affairs).
The primary principle behind the Small Claims Court of Texas is to be a court where common people can resolve their disputes simply and quickly; consequentially, hiring an attorney is optional and many times unnecessary. The “statute of limitations” for small claims court is two years; therefore, one has two years to file suit after a problem arises. However, it is often recommended that a suit be filed within six months of a dispute (Alderman).
A small claims court trial in Texas will involve at least three individuals or entities—the presiding justice of the peace, the plaintiff, and the defendant. A justice of the peace is a judicial officer with limited power who can hear cases involving civil controversies, preservation of the peace, and small criminal cases. Typically a justice of the peace is appointed or elected by the citizens of his or her jurisdiction and normally requires no formal education in law. The plaintiff is the party that feels they have been slighted by the defendant and brings the lawsuit to court to potentially reap compensation for their damages. Consequently, the defendant is the party accused of wrongdoing by the plaintiff and must compensate the plaintiff if found guilty (Alderman).
As previously stated, a lawyer may be appointed by one or both parties in disagreement and a jury trial may be requested by the plaintiff or defendant, a minimum one day before the trial. Six jurors comprise the jury for a small claims court case in Texas (Justice of Peace Courts).
How To File Suit:
Before you visit the courthouse:
- Have your name and address available to give to the court.
- Collect all information on parties you will file suit against. It is vital to have the correct name and contact information for each person or entity that you are filing suit against.
- Decide and declare the amount you wish to claim in damages (must be $10,000 or less).
- Prepare a concise statement detailing the dates, situation, and all relevant data over which you are filing suit.
- Call the courthouse and make sure you are filing in the right county and court. Also make sure you have all the right statements, documents, and have funds available to pay fees to start the lawsuit process. Court fees typically vary depending on county, year, and type of lawsuit (Alderman.)
Your courthouse visit:
- Go to the clerk in charge of the small claims court.
- The clerk will prepare a small claims statement for you. Written statements are not required in small claims court. You must complete the small claims statement given to you (See page 10, Brazos County Statement of Claim) and swear that all statement made are true.
- Provide a time and location the defendant may be found so that he or she may be served.
- Ask how the trial date is set in the particular court that has jurisdiction over your case. In some courts trial dates are set by court order; therefore, you are required to send a letter to the defendant. Do this by certified mail and request a return receipt (Alderman.)
After courthouse visit—Pre-Trial:
- After two weeks if you have not been contacted call the clerk and verify if the defendant has been served and if and when the trial date has been set. It is vital to write down and remember your trail date and case number.
- If the defendant is properly served and does not reply you usually win by default and will collect the compensation deemed necessary by the justice of the peace residing over your case.
- In the case where the defendant has not been served within 90 days you should call the clerk and request a new citation to be issued.
- Patience and politeness is extremely important when filing a small claims court case (Alderman.)
Preparation For Trial:
A written concise statement of the events that took place should already be prepared, but if not this must be done pre-trial. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove the defendant of wrongdoing. All relevant documents should be gathered and brought to the trial including: records, receipts, canceled checks, copies of contracts, agreements, and photographs. The plaintiff should have every part of their story tied to a piece of evidence.
The next step in the preparation process for the plaintiff is to determine if any witnesses could bolster the case of the plaintiff against the defendant. Witnesses that have first hand eye witness accounts to the story, stand to gain nothing from a plaintiff win (not friends and family), can communicate effectively, and appear competent are extremely helpful to a plaintiffs case. Obviously a good witness is often hard to find. If a witness refuses to testify at the trial the plaintiff has the right to subpoena the witness; therefore, the witness must appear and testify at the trial.
The final decision before trial is whether to request a trial by jury or judge. The decision is purely up to the plaintiff and should be based on who the plaintiff feels will sympathize more with their case. Choosing a jury will require a small court fee. The key for the plaintiff is to be extremely prepared and to have every part of his or her story backed with solid evidence or testimony. Also the plaintiff should play the trial out in his or her head repeatedly and plan when to ask what questions and have responses ready for the possible questioning by the defense (Alderman.)
The first step of being a defendant is being served. Once served the defendant must take the necessary steps to defend his or herself against the accusations of the plaintiff. Like the plaintiff the defendant must gather all relevant documents such as: records, receipts, canceled checks, copies of contracts, agreements, and photographs. The defendant also may call witnesses and, like the plaintiff, should chose witnesses very carefully. The defendant has the right to a trial by jury and will be charged a small jury fee if a jury is deemed to be necessary.
The defendant has two types of informational proof. First and most importantly, the defendant must prove that he or she is not guilty of any wrong doing in the current small claims case. Secondly, the defendant if possible can prove that in fact that the plaintiff has damaged the defendant and grounds for counter-suit can be established. In this case, the defendant would become the plaintiff and would have to follow the steps discussed above to file suit in small claims court against the previous plaintiff.
Relentless preparation is the key to victory for both the plaintiff and the defendant. However, if the defendant fails to show up on the trial date the best preparation will go to waste and the plaintiff will win the case automatically (Alderman.)
In Trial Procedures:
On trial day the court will go through a docket call and the defendant and plaintiff will answer when their case is called. The judge will briefly describe the procedures and the trial will begin. Next, the plaintiff, defendant, and all witnesses will be sworn in and the plaintiff will have a chance to tell his or her story. All evidence and witnesses of the plaintiff will be revealed and the plaintiff will be able to ask questions of the witnesses. After the plaintiff has exhausted their case the defendant will get the chance to question the plaintiff’s witnesses.
Once the defendant has completed questioning of the plaintiff’s witnesses the defendant is given the chance to tell his or her side of the story. Next, the defendant reveals his or her evidence and witnesses. The defendant questions his or her own witnesses and then the plaintiff questions the witnesses. After both sides have completed these procedures the judge or jury will make a decision either granting the plaintiff some amount of monetary compensation or ruling in favor of the defendant, leaving the plaintiff empty handed.
The defendant and plaintiff must have the ability to convey his or her message to the judge or jury effectively and convincingly. The plaintiff must establish the fact that the defendant has harmed the plaintiff and that a certain monetary amount will compensate for those damages. The defendant must prove that the plaintiff suffered no damages worthy of monetary compensation (Alderman.)
The defendant and plaintiff both have the right to appeal if they were ruled against in the Texas Small Claims Court. Only cases in which greater than $20 is disputed may be appealed and the Notice of Appeal must be filed ten days from the end of the original trial date. The appeal is held in the appropriate county court and is a much more formal procedure usually requiring an attorney (Alderman.)
Relevance To Small Business Owners:
There are countless scenarios when small business owners could use the small claims court or be sued in the small claims court. Here are a few examples where a small business owner could sue or be sued in small claims court.
- A customer owes your business a significant sum of money ($10,000 or less) and after weeks or months of no collection you decide to take them to small claims court.
- A supplier owes you a significant amount of supplies you ordered. A small claims court cannot force the supplier to give you the supplies, but you could potentially be compensated for lost profits.
- A supplier sues you in small claims court for supplies you were given, but that you did not pay for.
- An employee sues you for a paycheck bouncing.
The internet is full of helpful sources when preparing to file a suit in a small claims court. Each county should have a website where there are guides of how to file small claims in that particular county and the majority of the paperwork the plaintiff will need to file a case. The wealth of information and advice available on the internet makes an attorney unnecessary in the majority of circumstances and can make the small claims process a relatively inexpensive undertaking.
Alderman, Richard M. “How to Sue in Small Claims Court.” The People’s Lawyer. University of Houston Law Center. 20 June 2009 <http://www.peopleslawyer.net/smallclaims/>.
“Consumer affairs.” Texas Small Claims Courts. 20 June 2009
“Filing a Small Claims Suit.” Justice of the Peace Courts. Brazos County. 3 Nov. 2008 <http://www.co.brazos.tx.us/courts/jp/docs/filling-small-claims-suit.pdf>.
“How to Sue in Small Claims Court.” State Bar of Texas. 3 Nov. 2008 <http://www.texasbar.com/template.cfm?section=legal_and_judicial_system&contentid=3869&template=/contentmanagement/contentdisplay.cfm>.
“Justice of Peace Courts.” Texas Courts Online. 20 June 2009