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Statute of Limitations in Small Claims Court

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In a Nutshell

The statute of limitations is the law that regulates how long a party has to assert a claim through the legal system and small claims courts provide simplified proceedings for people who have claims that aren’t worth a substantial amount. Generally, the statute of limitations remains unchanged if you bring a claim in small claims court. This article will explain a bit about defending yourself in your state’s small claims court and how the statute of limitations could affect your defense.

Written by the Upsolve Team.  Reviewed by Attorney Andrea Wimmer
Updated July 30, 2021


This article will explain how the statute of limitations works in your state’s small claims courts. The statute of limitations is the law that regulates how long a party has to assert a claim through the legal system. For example, under California’s statute of limitations, you have two years to file a lawsuit if you have a claim for personal injuries. 

We will also discuss small claims courts, which are local courts with simplified procedures for litigating claims below a certain dollar value. Procedures in these courts are designed so people may represent themselves in court without a lawyer. In small claims cases, there are typically no attorneys or juries, and appeals aren’t allowed. 

What is a small claims court?

Small claims courts allow plaintiffs to file and resolve simple cases that don’t require complicated legal assistance. They also allow plaintiffs to file and resolve cases that are not worth a lot of money. This way, plaintiffs don’t need to pay for a lawyer to resolve a situation that’s only worth a few hundred dollars. Court fees, including filing fees, are lower in small claims courts than they are in higher district courts. Small claims courts are only used for litigating civil cases. Generally, both individuals and business entities are permitted to bring lawsuits in these courts.

Small claims courts hear and decide certain types of claims in specific areas of law. They are specially designed for the litigation of uncomplicated personal injury, contract, and landlord-tenant matters. A judge in a small claims court might hear cases about minor personal injuries, small personal debts, simple landlord-tenant disputes, and damage to real property and personal property. 

Here are a few examples of other cases that could be easily resolved in small claims court:

  • Car accidents or dog bites that result in one or two medical bills 

  • Minor property damage

  • Landlord-tenant matters, such as the return of a disputed security deposit

  • A contract matter involving a small unpaid personal loan 

Some cases cannot be heard in small claims courts. For example, family law matters like divorce, alimony, and child support are outside the jurisdiction of small claims court. These matters are filed in courts that have jurisdiction over cases that have claims involving higher dollar amounts. These are usually county-based courts and, depending on your state, have names such as superior court, district court, and court of common pleas. 

Bankruptcy is also outside the jurisdiction of small claims courts. Bankruptcy is solely filed in a federal bankruptcy court and is solely governed by federal law. 

Check your state’s local rules to see what types of cases are allowed in small claims court. For example, Arizona allows claims up to $3,500 in small claims court. These claims are heard before a small claims hearing officer or before a justice of the peace. In Arizona, parties in a small claims action may be represented by an attorney if both parties agree to this. This is rare, though. Parties involved in Arizona small claims cases do not have the right to appeal or the right to a jury trial.

In California small claims courts individuals are allowed to file cases worth up to $10,000 in small claims court. Businesses may only file cases for claims up to $5,000. California also limits the number of small claims cases that a person may file in a year.

How do statutes of limitations work in small claims court?

Statutes of limitations create a time limit for filing a lawsuit and suing someone. As a result, plaintiffs are encouraged to bring cases in a timely manner. Statutes of limitations differ based on the area of law and the type of case. For example, the statute of limitations in Arizona is two years for all personal injury claims. It is one year for libel or slander claims, which are a subset of personal injury law. In California, plaintiffs have four years to bring a case after the breach of a written contract. But they only have two years to bring a case after the breach of an oral contract.

If a plaintiff files a claim after the statute of limitations has expired, the claim is subject to dismissal. Dismissal might occur early in the case when the statute of limitations is raised as a defense. If a defendant fails to answer a complaint in small claims court, even if he or she has a defense, the plaintiff may still receive a judgment. In this case, the plaintiff will receive a default judgment

You are permitted to call witnesses in small claims cases. In a small claims case, you can subpoena a witness to appear in court on your trial date and testify, or you can subpoena a witness to testify and bring documents with them. An order requiring a person to produce documents or other things is called a subpoena duces tecum.

The judge may decide your case on your court date or wait until later, which is known as "taking the case under submission." If the judge takes the case under submission, you'll typically receive a copy of the judgment in the mail, after the case is decided. 

If you fail to hear about the resolution of your case, call the small claims court and ask the small claims clerk to check the docket for the case’s current status. You may also be able to check the status of your case on a court website. Be ready to give your case number when you call. If you change your address, be sure to give the clerk your new address. 

If you win your case, the small claims court will award you a judgment. A small claims judgment is like any other judgment. You can use collection tools like garnishment to collect the judgment. If you lose, you likely cannot appeal. Some states like California only allow the person against whom a claim is made to appeal a small claims court judgment.

Getting Help for Your Court Case

There are many resources you can use if you have a claim to litigate in small claims court. Most state, county, and municipal courts have websites that contain self-help procedures for filing cases in small claims courts. Your secretary of state’s website may also provide helpful information.

The clerk’s office in your main local courthouse should have resources available to help you learn more about small claims cases. The court clerk should be available to provide the necessary small claims forms that you need to file your case. Keep in mind that courthouse employees can’t provide legal advice. But they can tell you what court forms to file and inform you about the procedure and court rules for moving your case forward.

Depending on the type of case and your income level, you could qualify for help from local legal aid. You can search online for legal aid in your area or contact your local bar association and ask if you qualify for any legal help. 

You may decide that it’s worth contacting an attorney in your area for help, especially if you have excessive debts. Bankruptcy is one alternative that may help you find relief and a fresh start. Most bankruptcy attorneys offer free consultations. Upsolve offers a free app to help you decide if bankruptcy provides the most effective debt relief for your situation.

Let’s Summarize...

Small claims courts provide simplified proceedings for people who have claims that aren’t worth a substantial amount. Generally, the statute of limitations remains unchanged if you bring a claim in small claims court. But it’s important to check the rules in your city, state, and district. 

If you need help, contact the local courthouse self-help desk, a legal aid society, or a private attorney. If you’re sued in small claims court for a debt and the statute of limitations doesn’t apply to the claim, you still have many options. Debt settlement, debt consolidation, and bankruptcy can help you find debt relief. Upsolve provides a free filing tool that can help you if you are considering bankruptcy.



Written By:

The Upsolve Team

Upsolve is fortunate to have a remarkable team of bankruptcy attorneys, as well as finance and consumer rights professionals, as contributing writers to help us keep our content up to date, informative, and helpful to everyone.

Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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Andrea practiced exclusively as a bankruptcy attorney in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases for more than 10 years before joining Upsolve, first as a contributing writer and editor and ultimately joining the team as Managing Editor. While in private practice, Andrea handled... read more about Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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