California Small Claims Court

Guide to California Small Claims Court

What is small claims court?

Small claims court is a way to sue (or be sued) for disputes involving relatively smaller amounts of money, through an easier, more informal process than a standard lawsuit.

In California small claims court, individuals can sue for up to $10,000. Definitely not a small amount for many people, but at these dollar amounts, it is often not worth it to hire a lawyer to take the case. Small claims court is designed for non-lawyers to be able to handle themselves. However, it still can be somewhat complicated and involves a significant amount of time and effort. And of course, you need to know the law. It is usually a good idea to at least consult with a lawyer for a couple hours or more.

What cases I can bring in small claims court?

You can bring almost any type of case to small claims court, as long as the total amount of money you are claiming (called damages) is $10,000 or less. This can include:

How much money can I sue for in small claims court in California?

For most individuals and most cases, you can sue for up to $10,000 in small claims court.

The amount a business can sue for in small claims court depends on how the business is structured. If your business is a sole proprietorship or general partnership, you can sue for up to $10,000. If your business anything else, including an LLC or corporation, you can sue for up to $5,000.1California Code of Civil Procedure Sections 116.220 & 116.221

Can I get a lawyer for my small claims case?

In small claims court, you can consult with a lawyer to help you prepare the filing and prepare for the hearing. However, lawyers are not allowed to represent a party in small claims; essentially this just means they cannot speak at the hearing on your behalf. A lawyer can do almost everything else.

If the claim goes to appeals, then a lawyer is allowed to represent a party at the appeals hearing.

How much does it cost to file in California small claims court?

  • The filing fee is $30-75, depending on how much you are suing for.
  • The cost to serve the defendant can range from $0 to about $80, depending on how you do it.

Keep in mind, if you win your case, you are generally entitled to have the defendant reimburse your for these costs.

How does small claims court work in California?

As of 2022, these are the basic steps to the small claims process in California:

  1. Demand for payment
  2. File & serve
  3. Online dispute resolution
  4. Hearing
  5. Appeal
  6. Enforcement

1. Demand for Payment

The first step is to make a formal demand for payment from the person you have a dispute with. This is also known as a demand letter, and can be either an actual letter you send in the mail, or it can even be an email or text message. Just be sure to keep a record of it.

The demand should describe the amount of money you are seeking, and why they should pay you.

There’s 3 types of responses you can expect from the other party:

  1. They agree to all your demands and pay you the full amount.
  2. They try to negotiate with you to pay less than what you are asking.
  3. They reject your demands entirely, or fail to respond at all.

If you get the first response, congratulations, you’re done! If it’s the second, you may consider agreeing to an amount less than what you feel you are entitled, in order to avoid going to court. Or you may want to proceed with filing the lawsuit. If you get the third response, you will almost certainly want to go straight to the courthouse for Step 2, filing and serving. 

2. File & Serve

To get the lawsuit started, you will need to file a form with one of the small claims court locations. The form is the Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100). The specific location where you will need to file is based on the issues in the case. For example, it is based on where the incident occurred, or where a contract was signed.

Once the form is filed with the court, you will need to properly give the other party (now called the defendant) notice of the lawsuit. This is called serving or service of process on the other party. You can’t just call them up or email or text them about it. And you as the plaintiff can’t even do it yourself. It must be done by someone else, and using a specific form. The court can help you with the service of process.

3. Online Dispute Resolution

A new, potentially required, step in the small claims process is Online Dispute Resolution. Some counties, like Los Angeles County, are now requiring litigants (the parties in a lawsuit) to utilize an online dispute resolution process provided by the county. This is a form of mediation, which is an informal process in which a mediator, a neutral third party, attempts to help the parties settle their dispute by coming to an agreement.

If the parties are able to settle and carry out their agreement (for example, where one party pays the other an agreed upon amount), then they will not need to go to court for the hearing. However, if an agreement is not reached, the case must be resolved by a judge after a hearing in court.

4. Hearing

A hearing in small claims court is generally a much quicker and more informal process than a regular court hearing. A small claims court hearing often lasts for less than 10 minutes, and there are not too many strict rules. That said, the small claims court judge must still decide the case based on the law and the facts, just like a standard court process.

So, you should have at least a basic understand of the laws relevant to your case. You should present proof, evidence and other information relevant to the applicable law. Do not include irrelevant information, which may confuse the judge. Remember, judges are human too, so make their job as easy as possible.

After the hearing, the judge will generally mail you a decision (judgment) within a few weeks.

5. Appeal

If you are the plaintiff and you lose a small claims case, you cannot appeal it. However, if you win, the defendant can appeal the case to a higher court to review and decide the case again.

6. Enforcement

If you win in small claims court, congratulations! But unfortunately your job may not quite be over yet. If the judge says the defendant owes you money, the money does not automatically get transferred from the defendant’s bank account to yours. The defendant must actually take the steps to pay you, such as writing a check. If they don’t do this, you will need to take further actions to enforce the judgment.

There are various ways to do this, including taking the judgment to the defendant’s bank and asking the bank to transfer the money. At this point, it may be best to consult with a lawyer about enforcing the judgment.

Further Resources

Guide to Exercising Your Rights

Here are some further resources to get legal help in California.

You can also learn more about California small claims court at the California Courts website.

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