Small Claims Court
Jurisdiction and Whether to File Suit
What is Small Claims Court?
Texas law provides that every county in the state have a Small Claims Court as a forum for settling legal disputes involving cases for money damages up to $10,000. It costs approximately $85 to file a case. You can represent yourself in Small Claims Court or have an attorney. The person filing the lawsuit is called the plaintiff and the person being sued is called the defendant. On January 1, 2012, the Small Claims Court will be merged into another court called the Justice Court, but this will create little change for the Small Claims Process as a whole.
When should I sue?
There are several factors to consider before taking this step. You must weigh the time and effort required to follow through on the case against the amount of money you hope to win. You must be able to locate the person you are suing because s/he must be served with notice of the lawsuit. If you lose and the other party hires an attorney, a judgment could be entered against you for her/his attorney's fees.
Also, remember that if the person you are suing files a counterclaim against you for money damages and you lose, a judgement could be entered against you for the defendant's damages and court costs. Once you win, you must take steps to collect a judgment if the defendant does not pay you. Often, the defendant has no assets which can be attached, and you may not be able to collect on the judgment even though you won your case.
What happens if I am the defendant?
- If you are sued, you are referred to as the defendant in the lawsuit.
- After the plaintiff files a lawsuit, you will be given notice of the lawsuit or "served" by a constable or some other qualified person.
- You then must respond to the court or "answer" by 10:00 a.m. of the Monday following ten (10) days after the day you are served. Once an answer is filed, a contested hearing is scheduled.
- Also if you believe that the plaintiff owes you money, you can pay a small fee and file a counterclaim against the plaintiff.
What happens if I do not answer?
If you do not enter an answer within the allotted time, the plaintiff can get a default judgment from the court. You will not receive any prior notice of the hearing nor will you have an opportunity to tell your story to the court. You can file an answer after the allotted time as long as you file it before the default judgment is signed.
Preparing Your Case
What do I need to do to prepare my case?
- Write out all the details you can recall-people, dates, places, times, then put it in outline form;
- Gather up copies of all documentation (receipts, letters, notices, and pictures) which support your position, with extra copies for court;
- Arrange for your witnesses to be present at the trial (you can subpoena them if you need to) or get written statements or affidavits from those who will not be present in court;
- Write out questions you want to ask your witnesses;
- Try to anticipate what testimony the other party will give and what you want to ask them;
- Arrive at court on time.
What are the procedures in court?
- The plaintiff presents their witnesses and evidence first. The defendant can cross examine each witness;
- Next, the defendant presents witnesses and evidence. The plaintiff can cross examine each witness; and
- The judge may ask questions at any time.
- Each party may make a closing statement.
In response to the plans to merge the Small Claims Court with the Justice Court on January 1, 2012, the Texas Supreme Court will promulgate new Justice Court rules by May 1, 2013, so some of these procedures may change in the future.
How soon will a decision be made and can I appeal it if I do not like it?
The judge usually gives a decision immediately or within a few days of the trial. If either party is dissatisfied with the judgment, they may appeal to the County Court within ten days of the trial by posting an appeal bond. This appeal bond is twice the amount of the judgment against the loser, or an estimated amount of costs set by the court if the winner appeals. Also, one must pay a filing fee that is normally about $150. The case is then retried, from the start, by another court. It may then be appealed to the Court of Appeals.