Filing a Small Claim When the Subject Matter Is in a Different State

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Small claims courts provide an abbreviated version of litigating a case when parties are involved in a dispute. However, there are limitations of when these courts can be accessed. Each jurisdiction has its own unique rules regarding small claims cases.

In some instances, a party to a legal dispute may be able to file a case in more than one court. The one he or she chooses to file in may offer some advantage over others, whether for convenience, for a favorable opinion about a legal issue or for some other reason.


A court must have jurisdiction in order to hear and decide the case. A court must have both personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction in order to hear the case. State courts generally have jurisdiction over a person who lives in the same state and businesses that do business in the state. However, a court may also have jurisdiction of an out-of-state person or business if the person or business can be found there.

Personal Jurisdiction

Personal jurisdiction is jurisdiction over the individual, business or organization. Personal jurisdiction is usually acquired because of a person or business’ residence. Personal jurisdiction is the location where a person lives or works. For business, it is where the business conducts transactions.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction is jurisdiction over the legal issue or dispute. General jurisdiction refers to the ability of a court to hear and decide many different types of cases. Unless there is an amendment or specific law that limits the application of a court with general jurisdiction, the court can hear the case.

Exclusive jurisdiction refers to limiting the type of court that can decide certain types of cases. For example, bankruptcy courts have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction.

Limited jurisdiction means that the court has restrictions regarding the cases it can decide. Generally, small claims courts are considered courts of limited jurisdiction. Most small claims courts limit claims to those that involve damages of a smaller amount, such as $5,000 or $10,000. Therefore, if the claim had a higher value, small claims court would not be the appropriate court to file the action.


The venue is the county where the case is filed. The venue is typically where the person who is suing lives or does business. Alternatively, it may be where the dispute arose, such as the scene of an accident or where a contract was entered into. In some situations, the person suing may be able to file the case in more than one county. However, he or she must decide which county to file the case in and cannot have multiple cases going on at the same time that deal with the same set of events.

The three options that the party usually has on filing a case are the residence of the plaintiff, the residence of the defendant and the location where the cause of action occurred.

Out-of-State Defendants

In small claims cases, the plaintiff may or not may be able to sue a defendant who lives out of state in small claims court. These courts are in place because they offer a more convenient way of resolving disputes that involve a lower value amount. If defendants have to travel far distances to represent or defend themselves, the rationale behind these courts may begin to erode. Small claims courts may prohibit suing out-of-state defendants. However, some do not have this prohibition.

Jurisdictional Issues

Even if the plaintiff can technically sue the defendant, state procedural rules may require that the defendant is only validly served if he or she is in the state where the case will be heard. This means that personal service may be necessary in order to establish jurisdiction. If the person does not travel to that state, he or she may not be served and may not be subject to the court.

Limitations on Out-of-State Plaintiffs

There may also be limitations on allowing an out-of-state plaintiff to file a small claims case. Some states do not permit an out-of-state plaintiff to avail himself or herself of the court and reserve these courts only for citizens of the state.

Legal Assistance

Most small claims courts do not permit either party to be represented by legal counsel. However, a person who is considering small claims

Legal Counsel
Most small claims courts do not allow either side to be represented by an attorney. The rules and procedures are more relaxed, so you'll have to do much of your own investigation when it comes to figuring out what is permissible in your jurisdiction.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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