What You Need to Know About Texas Small Claims Court
If you are looking for a way to settle a dispute without paying expensive attorney fees, you may want to consider filing a small claims court case in Texas. Small claims cases are filed in the county justice of the peace courts, (also referred to simply as “justice courts”) that handles civil disputes between individuals and businesses with damages of $20,000 or less. In this blog post, we will provide an overview of how Small Claims Court works in Texas.
What is a Small Claims Court?
A small claims case is a legal proceeding filed in a local court of law. Disputes can include unpaid debts, personal injuries, or damaged property. A small claims case differs from other types of lawsuits because it has much lower filing fees, simplified procedures, and limits on how much money the court can award at the end of the trial.
How Does the Texas Small Claims Court Work?
The small claims court handles disputes between citizens who cannot resolve their issues through other means. Lawyers are not allowed to represent parties at the hearing. There are no jury trials. Instead, it’s a simplified process where the plaintiff and defendant each offer their side of the case and then go home with a decision from the judge.
Before Small Claims Court
Did you know you have one more option before small claims court? Before filing a claim, you can send a letter demanding payment. Some states, like Texas, require that you formally demand payment before filing a case in small claims court. Demand letters often allow people to resolve disputes outside of court and avoid the time and fees associated with court.
If you have yet to try this option, read more about how to write an effective demand letter and how best to send it to the person who owes you money. Alternatively, you can use tools such as JusticeDirect to generate and send a custom demand letter for free and leave the headache out!
How Does Small Claims Court Work?
Each court has its own procedures and rules for filing a small claims court case.
When a case is filed, a hearing will be held.At the hearing, each party will be allowed to present their side of the story. The judge will listen to both sides and make a ruling based on the evidence presented. The judge may not tell you about their decision at the hearing. Rather, you may receive a formal decision in the mail.
Filing Your Case
Generally, you must complete a petition to describe the dispute and the damages sought to file a claim. Check with your court clerk to see if the court has a particular format they want the petition completed. This paperwork can be filed with the court clerk, who will review the complaint and assign it to a judge.
The value of your claim determines filing fees, and courts may charge different filing costs. Be sure to check the state website for current filing fees.
|Claim Amount||Filing Fee|
|$20,000 or less||$54.00|
To review fees associated with other parts of the small claims court process, visit the Texas Court Training Center website.
Serving the Defendant
Once you have filed your complaint, you must serve the defendant with a copy. Serving the defendant makes them aware that you have filed a case against them, so they must respond accordingly and attend the hearing.
You have different options when serving the defendant, which may differ depending on your county court’s allowable options. Some options may have a fee, but if you win the case, it will become reimbursable by the other party.
You may be able to serve through:
- A professional process service
- Certified mail
- The county’s sheriff/marshall
You may also have a friend/family member serve the complaint if it’s allowed by the court. Most importantly, you cannot do it yourself if you are a party in the case.
The defendant then has 20 days to file an answer with the court. After the defendant has filed an answer, the court will set a date for a hearing. At the hearing, both sides can present evidence and witnesses. The judge will then decide based on the evidence presented at the hearing.
The court will issue a judgment if the two parties cannot reach an agreement. The party who loses the case can then appeal the decision within 30 days.
The Court Hearing
After filing the complaint, the court will schedule a hearing for the case. It will typically be several weeks to months from the date of filing.
Both parties can present their case and any evidence they have to support their claims. The judge will listen to both sides and decide based on the law and the evidence presented.
Enforcing the Judgment
If the judge rules in your favor, they will award a judgment that the defendant will have to pay; this is a formal way for the court to indicate that the defendant now owes you money. The court will not be paying you directly. If the defendant does not pay the judgment voluntarily, you may “collect” on it, including garnishing the defendant’s wages or seizing their assets.
Frequently Asked Questions
What if the Defendant Doesn’t Answer?
If the defendant doesn’t file an answer within the 14 day period, you can ask the court for a default judgment hearing, where you can prove to the court that you are entitled to money or personal property and be awarded a judgment.
To get a default judgment, you will also need to provide the last known address of the defendant to the court in writing, as well as an affidavit (document signed in front of the clerk or a notary that you swear to be true) stating either:
- The defendant is on active duty in the U.S. military
- The defendant is not on active duty in the U.S. military
- That you do not know if the defendant is on active duty in the U.S. military.
This affidavit must also state in writing how you know whether the defendant is on active duty in the U.S. military or why you cannot determine the defendant’s military status. You can verify military service at https://scra.dmdc.osd.mil/.
How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Texas?
In Texas, cases must be filed within a certain amount of time, called a statute of limitation. In each case, you must calculate the time limit from the date the contract was broken or the damage/injury/fraud occurred. When the statute begins to run, it is determined by state law.
If you file your claim after the set period of time, your case might be dismissed or some of your requested damages denied.
What Happens if You Don’t Show Up for Small Claims Court?
If the plaintiff doesn’t appear at the hearing and doesn’t notify the court of the reason for the absence, the court has several options. The judge may often:
- Reschedule the case
- Dismiss the case with prejudice
- Dismiss the case without prejudice
- If the defendant appears, the judge may enter a judgment against you after considering the defendant’s evidence.
If the defendant doesn’t appear at the hearing but the plaintiff does, then a default judgment may be entered against the defendant after the plaintiff presents their case. A defendant with a valid reason for missing the hearing may file to vacate the default judgment and have the case heard again.
What Happens if I Lose My Small Claims Case?
If the judgment favors the defendant, you can file a motion for a new trial within 14 days of the judgment. That means you want a “do-over” in the same justice court. You must show that justice wasn’t done in the original case. If you file a motion for a new trial, you must pay a filing fee of $54 or file a Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs. You must also send a copy of the motion to the defendant within one day of filing it with the court.
How Do I Appeal a Ruling?
Another option is to file an appeal, a request for the county court to hear your case. You can file an appeal within 21 days of the judgment, or if you filed a motion for a new trial that was denied, you can appeal within 21 days of that denial. If you properly file an appeal, the county court will hear the case over from scratch (de novo), and the justice court’s judgment will go away. There will be a new judgment from the county court based on the evidence presented there.
To appeal, you will have to file either:
1) An appeal bond (promise from another person, called a surety, to pay the bond amount to the defendant if you don’t pursue the appeal) in the amount of $500
2) A cash deposit of $500, which may be awarded to the defendant if you don’t pursue the appeal; or
3) A Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs if you cannot afford an appeal bond or cash deposit.
If you appeal with an appeal bond or a cash deposit, you must pay a filing fee of $54 or file a Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs. You must also send a notice of the appeal to the defendant within seven days. Once your appeal is filed with the county court, you will be required to pay a separate filing fee for the county court or file a Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs.
What Happens if I Win My Small Claims Case?
If the judgment is in your favor, you will almost surely not walk out of court with a check in the full amount of the judgment. The defendant might file a motion for a new trial or an appeal. If they don’t, it is your responsibility, not the court’s, to pursue enforcement of the civil judgment.
- Texas Lawyer Referral Service – (800) 252-9690
- Check military status
- Texas Justice Court Training Center information for self represented litigants
- Office of Court Administration Self-Represented Litigant Site
- State Bar of Texas Information, including Legal Information and Low or No-Cost Legal Assistance (Click on “For The Public”)
- Forms and Information, including for other types of cases