Suing in California Small Claims Court: Step-by-Step

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With almost 4,000 small claims filed each day in the Los Angeles area alone, small claims court is a well-used legal tool. Specifically designed with the average citizen in mind, the court lets everyday people resolve their disputes quickly, easily and best of all, inexpensively.

What are the most common type of small claims suits? Property damage, breach of contract and business disputes, defective product or unsatisfactory service, landlord-tenant disputes, fraud, accidents and personal injury, and unpaid debts. If you have one of these problems you're having a hard time resolving, small claims court might be your perfect avenue.

Understanding Small Claims Court

Small claims court handles cases that involve disputes over money or property, usually below a set financial limit. In California, an individual can collect up to $7,500 in small claims court, while corporations and limited liability companies are still limited to $5,000. Keep in mind that the cost of hiring an attorney and spending time in civil court can quickly exceed such limits. Alternatively, filing a small claims case can offer a more accessible solution for resolving disputes at far lower cost.

The process is simple. Small claims cases are heard in a separate division of county civil courts. Both sides, the plaintiff and the defendant, present their case to a judge or court appointed official. This judge in turn weighs the evidence and makes a decision. The whole process in court can be over in a matter of minutes.

But, what about an attorney? Attorneys in many states, including California, are banned from these court proceedings.

Statutes of Limitation

In many states, the time limit on filing, otherwise known as the statute of limitations, will depend on the type of claim. In California, for example, you have 4 years to make a claim on a written contract, and 3 years to file for property damage. The statute of limitations on oral contracts and personal injury is a little shorter, if you don't sue within 2 years, you can't.

How to File a Small Claim

First of all, put everything in writing. You should include the who, the what, the where, the when and the why of your case and get ready to go to court.

Step One: Filing the Paperwork

Go to your county clerk's office and let them know you'd like to file a small claim. The clerk's office will give you paperwork to fill out with basic information for your case: your name (the plaintiff), the name of the person or business you're suing (the defendant) and the amount you're asking for. Make sure you have the correct name and address of the defendant. If any contact information is incorrect, your case may be dismissed. Be sure to keep copies of your paperwork for your records.

Next, you'll need to pay court fees. Fees for filing a small claim vary by county in California, but it is typically around $80.

Step Two: Serving the Papers

Once you have filed your claim with the court, you need to notify the defendant that they are being sued. This is called "service of process." There are rules governing who can serve the defendant, your options are certified mail, using the sheriff, or hiring a private process server. After your claim is filed and served on the defendant, the court begins processing your claim. Only after your opponent is successfully served will the court set a pre-trial hearing or trial date.

Step Three: Going to Court

Many courts require that both parties attend a pre-trial hearing. At the pre-trial hearing, you can only bring documents, not witnesses, to prove your case. At a pre-trial hearing, you and your opponent can choose to have your case heard by a mediator, instead of going to trial.

If you go to trial, both you and your opponent will have a chance to speak before the judge or court-appointed official. Only at this point can you call witnesses. However, calling witnesses requires additional service fees and serving them with a subpoena well in advance.

Step Four: The Final Judgment

The judge enters a final judgment after both sides have presented their arguments. The plaintiff typically has to prove that he or she is entitled to the amount of money or property requested.

The defendant can appeal the judgment if he or she chooses. The appeal, unlike the small claims suit, must be tried in a more formal manner that strictly follows all the rules of evidence and procedure. You usually need a lawyer to represent you in an appeal.

Step Five: Collecting Your Judgment

The court will enter a judgment stating how much the losing party has to pay. While many people don't realize it, the court simply makes the judgment; it does not collect payment for you.

Ideally, the judgment debtor (person who owes money) will pay immediately. If your opponent refuses to pay, you have additional legal tools available to you. Wage garnishment allows you to collect a portion of the debtor's paycheck, and property liens prevent debtors from selling their property without paying you.

What to do next?

While court judgments have become increasingly easy to collect in recent years, few people with legitimate grievances actually pursue remedies through the courts. In small claims court, there are no attorneys, no jury, and any mentally competent person who is 18 years or older can sue. There are very specific court document and filing requirements, however, and that's where many people hesitate to use the system to their advantage.

Landlord/tenant rent deposit disputes; property damage, car accidents and recovery of money owed are the most common reasons people file small claims suits. Apart from a few restrictions, almost any dispute can be taken to small claims court, provided the amount of money requested falls within the maximum allowed by state law.