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What Is a Small Claims Court in Texas?
The Justice of Peace Court is the Small Claims Court in the State of Texas as defined by the Texas State Code. Small Claims Courts are for adjudicating minor civil cases brought before the legal system. Some of the cases heard under the small claims category are:
- Breach of contracts, whether oral or written
- Unpaid debts
- Personal or property injury
- Unlawful possession of the plaintiff's property
What distinguishes a small claims case from a regular civil lawsuit is the money involved in the former. In small claims cases, the money limit is $20,000. There are restrictions as per what constitutes a small claims case. The following do not fall into the category:
- Recovery of property worth more than the $20,000
- Getting or recovery of a property title
- Defamation of character, libel, or slander
Each county in the state has a minimum of one Justice of Peace Court. Larger counties have more than one court location.
How Do Texas Small Claims Courts Work?
In Texas, Justice Courts adjudicate small claims cases for the state. The scope of activities in the Justice Court is in line with statutes and rules of practice provided by Chapter 15, subchapter E, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code; Article 5, Section 18-19, and Part V of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
The plaintiff is the party suing, while the defendant is the party being sued. A resident may file a small claim action without citizenship status, provided there are no extensions of limits past what the court is empowered to handle by law. The monetary limit of cases is $20,000. Parties must pursue cases with higher values at a regular civil court of jurisdiction. The court requires proof that resolution attempts were made but failed. If there was no prior mediation process, the court would refer the parties to a session before going to trial.
Per representation, the informal nature of Small Claims Court proceedings makes getting an attorney to represent a party in court unnecessary. To put it differently, an attorney representation is an option, not a necessity. A non-legal entity can easily navigate the court process. Although the rules of the court also permit family and friends to assist the litigant, they can not represent them in court. Most cases get concluded more quickly because of the minimal litigation structure to the legal process.
All litigants get a free hard copy of the Rules of Civil Procedure before filing claims. Rules 500 to 507 are applicable to Small Claims Courts. The court does not advise parties to or not to file. However, the court staff, precisely the Court Clerk, can explain the court process to litigants and advise on how to fill forms. Another feature is lower filing fees relative to other court case categories. As opposed to most court systems, the judge, and not a jury, presides over small claims cases in Texas. Appeals are acceptable from either party to the case. It could be in the form of a review or a fresh proceeding.
How to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Texas
Before taking someone to court in Texas, the aggrieved party must have exhausted all reasonable options of out-of-court settlements. Then decide if there is a reason to file a complaint. A lawyer can assist in deciding if there is a good cause for litigation. Having decided to sue, ensure to gather all necessary documents that support the case. They could be contracts, agreements, receipts, photographs, etc. Make copies of them, as they are instrumental in determining the chances of success at trial.
The defendant may be an individual or a corporate entity but not a government agency. Endeavor to get the correct names and addresses of the defendant. If the defendant is a partnership, list the names of the partners and the official business name. If it is a corporate entity, identify the correct reference/business name and address. In essence, all details must be in the legal name of the involved parties. Get information about this from the Secretary of State's Office.
If the business is unlisted, go to the Assumed Names Department of the County Clerk’s office to get more information. Otherwise, contact the Office of the State Comptroller at (800) 252-1386. The plaintiff must also determine how much money to claim. In the case of property recovery, get expert help in valuing the property. It minimizes the risk of under-estimation or overestimation.
Once the details are right, complete the E-file Interview, or download the forms at the local courthouse website. The Judicial Directory provides links to these websites. Otherwise, go in person to the local courthouse to request the forms or have an attorney customize one. Prepare a clear but brief statement of the claim, stating in simple terms why the complaint is being filed. Be sure to include the date of the claim as well.
The right court address is critical to sustaining a viable case. For confirmation, call the Justice of the Peace Court to ensure that it is the right court location for the case before submitting the forms. Use the Texas Trial Court Database to retrieve the relevant address. Usually, it is the same location as the event or the defendant's residence. If the address is wrong, the defendant may petition to have the case moved to the correct address. Although the consequence may not be an outright dismissal of the case, it may require the plaintiff to pay for the transfer process.
The fee structure filing cases vary by county. The county ordinances and state rules set forth the fees. The amount to be recovered also plays a role in assessing court payments. Petitioners must complete the fee payments before the court can serve the papers to the defendant. If the plaintiff cannot pay, he or she must fill out and submit the Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs Form. The court must provide this form to requesting parties. It requires applicants to sign an oath under perjury for facts stated in it.
Having paid the filing fees, the court serves the papers on the defendant. The papers, called citations, are served along with copies of the petition. Self-service of processes is not allowed in Texas. Rather, the petitioner pays a service fee to get a constable to do the job; otherwise, a private process server will do. The latter is usually more expensive. The condition for private process servers is that they must be at least 18 years old and are not in any way involved in the case.
The defendant has 14 days to file an answer or get a default judgment. However, a default judgment is not automatic. The plaintiff must formally request one from the court. At the hearing, the plaintiff must prove that they are entitled to the monetary recovery. Also, the plaintiff must provide the last known address of the defendant to the court and an affidavit that shows whether the defendant is on active duty with the US Military or not. Parties can confirm this at the Military Service Verification Website.
On the contrary, if the court receives a response from the defendant, it schedules a pretrial or trial. At a pretrial hearing, parties can discuss issues about the need for an interpreter or subpoenas for witnesses. Parties can discuss the possibility of an out-of-court court settlement. Occasionally, a defendant may request a jury trial if there are reasons to think that the judgment may not be fair. To do this, defendants must submit a written request for one at least 14 days before the set trial date, along with a fee of $22.
If the plaintiff wins the case, they get awarded the money judgment and other incurred court costs. The court does not collect the money judgment for parties. It is the responsibility of the winning party to decide how to go about enforcing a money judgment. However, the court can issue a writ of garnishment, execution, or an abstract of the judgment in support of the collection.
How Much Can You Sue for in Texas Small Claims Court?
The maximum money value for small claims cases in Texas is $20,000. It does not cover all other attendant expenses associated with pushing the case through the legal system, but the plaintiff gets paid back all the fees paid for the case. The refund does not include attorney fees because the court proceeding of a small claims case is primarily pro se.
Occasionally, there may be an existing counterclaim with a money involvement that exceeds the maximum limit for a small claims case. When this happens, the Justice Court refers it to the appropriate civil court of jurisdiction.
How to Defend Yourself in Texas Small Claims Court
When an entity receives a citation from a Small Claims Court, the receiver becomes the defendant in that case. Receiving citations is serious business and must not be taken with levity. Confirm that the names and addresses on the citation are correct. Wrong names or addresses are a good basis for defending oneself. Notify the court of the situation, and the court may dismiss the case.
Suppose the identifying details are correct. Check that the petition spells out the complaint clearly and accurately. If not, file a motion with the court asking the plaintiff to clarify. To do this, put it into writing and send a copy to the Court Clerk and the plaintiff using the addresses on the served papers.
A defendant must return a written response within 14 days of filing. Non-compliance with this directive means the defendant agrees with the plaintiff on the claim, leading to a default judgment. Keep the response plain and easy to understand. Phrases as simple as ‘I do not owe the plaintiff anything’ or ‘I deny the claim and wish to see proof at trial’ are acceptable. Defendants must send all paperwork to the plaintiff, as well as identical copies to the court. Send the papers by in-person delivery, certified/registered mail, fax, or email. Be sure to communicate to the court how the papers were sent to the plaintiff.
Prior to the trial, a defendant can serve discovery requests to the plaintiff under the judge’s approval. Lawyers are unnecessary in a small claims case, but a defendant can opt to use one. The court is not responsible for refunding the attorney fees. The advantage of getting a lawyer is that it increases the chances of winning the case.
If the date of trial is too close, the defendant can request a postponement, otherwise called a “continuance.” The advantage here is that it gives more time to prepare a good defense at the trial. Requests must be made in writing and must come in well before the date of trial. It is important to include a good reason for requesting a continuance in the request.
Another area of advantage for the defendant in a case is the expiration of the statute of limitations on the case. It is a good place to file for dismissal unless there is evidence of the defendant evading service of papers or the injured plaintiff being a minor at the time of the incident. If the defendant loses the case, they may file a motion for an appeal not later than 14 days after the judgment.
How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Texas?
According to the Texas State Statute of Limitations, most cases must get into the legal system before the expiration of two years. Exceptions to the rule are “breach of contract” cases, where it is four years, or according to the stipulations written in the contract. Any filings after the expiration of the time limits can lead to a plaintiff losing the case in court.
What Happens if You Don’t Show Up for Texas Small Claims Court?
Different scenarios play out for situations where a party fails to appear in court:
- If the plaintiff is absent without approval from the court or a representing lawyer, the court moves to dismiss the case.
- If the defendant or representing party does not appear at the trial, the court enters a default judgment against the party. It means the case will end in favor of the plaintiff.
What are Texas Small Claims Court Records?
Small Claims Court records are formal logs of information that reflect the journey of small claims cases through the legal system. Each case filed generates a unique set of records peculiar to the case. A standard summary record will show the names of the involved parties, the type of claim, the amount of claim, and the court judgment. Additional documents come from the legal proceedings and court administrative activities pertaining to the case. Examples of such documents are papers for service, writs, court receipts, court schedule, transcripts, etc.
Where Can I Find Texas Small Claims Court Records?
The Court Clerks of Texas courts generates all Texas court records and maintains all relevant documents pertaining to the case. As such, the Clerical Office of the Justice of Peace Courts maintains Texas small claim court records. Interested parties can request copies of small claims records by mail or in person from the appropriate courthouse. Each request needs the relevant case file number, the date of the filing/hearing, and the respective court address. Note that accessing records may attract a small fee.