Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California
Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California
The definitive resource
Ralph Warner, Attorney
July 2015, 20th Edition
Everything you need to win your small claims case in California
Smart preparation for your day in small claims court can make the difference between receiving a check for thousands of dollars and writing one.
If you’re getting ready to appear before a judge, turn to Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California. It’s packed with everything you need to know to bring your case—or defend yourself if you’re sued—and win! Find out how to:
- write a demand letter
- determine your losses (damages)
- mediate a settlement
- file and serve papers
- gather evidence
- write your demand letter
- line up convincing witnesses
- present your case in court
- collect money when you win
- understand the appeal process
The 20th edition—updated with the latest California laws and court procedures—features the insights of former judges who presided in small claims cases and advice on completing more than a dozen different court forms.
“A step-by-step guide for making the legal system work for you.”-Orange County Register
“Takes you by the hand through all the potential pitfalls of trying your own case.”-Los Angeles Times
“Step-by-step advice on how to prepare your case, how to file it, and perhaps most importantly, how to collect if you win.”-Associated Press
“Get information on how to prepare your case, win in court and collect your money from Nolo’s Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California.”-San Jose Mercury News
Official forms for California Small Claims Court are available in PDF format from the state of California at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/smallclaims/scforms.htm.
- Download and print the forms you need, then use this book and the filled-in samples (listed below) to guide you when fill them out.
Your California Small Claims Court Companion
1. Basics of Small Claims Court in California
- How Much Can You Sue For?
- Why Use Small Claims Court?
- Will Small Claims Court Work for You?
- Finding Small Claims Court Forms and Rules
- Understanding Legal Jargon
- How to Use This Book
2. Do You Have a Good Case?
- Stating Your Claim
- But Is My Case Any Good?
- Breach of Contract Cases
- Property Damage Cases
- Personal Injury (and Mental Distress) Cases
- Defective Product Cases
- Breach of Warranty Cases
- Professional Malpractice Cases
- Nuisance Cases
3. Can You Collect Your Money If You Win?
4. How Much Should You Sue For?
- Cutting Your Claim to Fit the Limit
- Splitting Your Case
- Calculating the Amount of Your Claim
- Equitable Relief (or, Money Can’t Always Solve the Problem)
5. When Should You Sue?
- Statute of Limitations
- Calculating the Statute of Limitations
- What If the Statute of Limitations Has Run?
6. Settling Your Dispute
- Formal Demand Letters
- Get Your Settlement in Writing (a Release)
- Last Minute Agreements
7. Who Can Sue?
- Married Couples
- Sole Proprietorships
- Business Partnerships
- Limited Liability Companies
- Nonprofits and Unincorporated Associations
- Motor Vehicle Claims
- Government Agencies
- Special Rules for Owners of Rental Property
- Special Rules for Homeowners’ Associations
- Suits by Prisoners
- Suits by Minors
- Special Rules for Military Personnel Transferred Out of State
- Class Actions (Group Lawsuits)
- Participation by Attorneys and Bill Collectors
8. Suing Different Kinds of Defendants
- One Person
- Two or More People
- Individually Owned Businesses
- Corporations or Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)
- Motor Vehicle Accident Cases
- Government Agencies
- Contractors and Their Bonding Companies
- A Deceased Person’s Estate
9. Where Can You Sue?
- Out-of-State Defendants
- California Defendants
- If You Are Sued in the Wrong Court
10. Filing Fees, Court Papers & Court Dates
- How Much Does It Cost?
- Filling Out Your Papers
- The Defendant’s Forms
- Changing a Court Date
11. Serving Your Papers
- Who Must Be Served
- Serving an Individual
- Serving an Out-of-State Motorist
- Serving an Out-of-State Property Owner
- Serving Papers on a Business
- Serving a Contractor or Anyone With a Surety Bond
- How to Serve a Government Agency
- Time Limits for Serving a Claim
- Notifying the Court That Service Has Been Accomplished (“Proof of Service”)
- Serving a Defendant’s Claim
- Serving Subpoenas
- Costs of Service
12. The Defendant’s Options.
- If You Are Not Properly Served
- If You Are Sued in the Wrong Court
- If the Statute of Limitations Has Expired
- Try to Compromise
- Try to Mediate
- If You Have No Defense
- Paying in Installments
- If You, Not the Plaintiff, Were Wronged—File a Defendant’s Claim
- Fight Back
13. Getting Ready for Court
- Interpreter Services
- Free Advice From Small Claims Court Advisers
- Getting Help From a Private Lawyer
- Practice, Practice, Practice
- Getting to the Courthouse
- The Courtroom
- The Judge or Commissioner
- Your Courtroom Strategy
- Organize Your Testimony and Evidence
- What Makes a Good Witness
- How to Subpoena Witnesses
- Subpoenaing Police and Other Peace Officers
- How to Subpoena Documents
- Witness Testimony by Letter
- Judges As Witnesses
- Testimony by Telephone
15. Your Day in Court
- If the Defendant Is a No-Show
- If the Plaintiff is a No-Show
- Your Day in Court
- Recovering Costs
- A Sample Contested Case
16. Motor Vehicle Repair Cases
- Do You Have a Case?
- Prepare for Court
- Appearing in Court
17. Motor Vehicle Purchase Cases
- New Vehicles
- Used Vehicles From Dealers
- Used Vehicles From Private Parties
18. Bad Debts: Initiating and Defending Cases
- From the Plaintiff’s Point of View
- From the Debtor’s Point of View
19. Vehicle Accident Cases
- Who Can Sue Whom?
- Was There a Witness?
- Police Accident Reports
- Determining Fault
- Your Demand Letter
- Appearing in Court
20. Landlord-Tenant Cases
- Security Deposit Cases
- Unpaid Rent and Former Tenants
- Former Tenants’ Defenses to Unpaid Rent
- Foreclosed-Upon Tenants
- Drug Dealing and Other Crimes
- The Obnoxious Landlord
- The Landlord’s Right of Entry and the Tenant’s Right of Privacy
21. Miscellaneous Cases
- Clothing (Alteration and Cleaning)
- Dog-Related Cases
- Damage to Real Estate
- Police Brutality
- Internet Transactions
22. Disputes Between Small Businesses
- Remember: You Didn’t Always Hate the Other Guy
- Organizing Your Case
- A Case Study—Proving a Case Exists
- A Case Study—Personal Services Contract
23. Judgment and Appeal
- The Judgment
- Paying the Judgment
- Satisfaction of Judgment
- Who Can Appeal
- Filing Your Request to Correct or Cancel Judgment
- Filing and Presenting Your Appeal
24. Collecting Your Money
- The Timing of Collecting Your Money
- How to Collect
- Installment Payments
- Judgments Against Government Agencies
- Finding the Debtor’s Assets
- Levying on Wages, Bank Accounts, and Other Property
- Judgments Stemming From Auto Accidents
- Property Liens
- Collection Costs
25. Legal Research
- Local Laws
- State Laws
- Case Law
A. Major California Consumer Laws
B. Legal Jargon for California Small Claims Court
Basics of Small Claims Court in California
How Much Can You Sue For?......................................................... 4
Why Use Small Claims Court?......................................................... 5
Will Small Claims Court Work for You?........................................... 5
Finding Small Claims Court Forms and Rules................................. 9
Understanding Legal Jargon.......................................................... 10
How to Use This Book................................................................... 11
The purpose of small claims court is to hear disputes involving modest amounts of money, without long delays and formal rules of evidence. Disputes are presented by the people involved—that would be the plaintiff (the person or party who starts the lawsuit) and the defendant (the person or party being sued). Lawyers are normally prohibited in small claims court in California (although you may seek a lawyer’s advice if your case is complicated and you want help preparing it).
How Much Can You Sue For?
The maximum amount of money that an individual can sue for in California is $10,000 (it’s $6,500 if you are suing a bonding company or other guarantor), plus court costs for filing and serving papers. The maximum that corporations and other entities (like government agencies) can ask for is $5,000. In legal jargon, this is called the jurisdictional amount. In addition, you are only allowed to bring two lawsuits for more than $2,500 within any calendar year unless you are suing on behalf of a local government body, in which case there is no limit. To establish your eligibility to sue for between $2,500 and $10,000, you will have to state on your plaintiff’s claim form that you have not already used up your yearly quota.
Claims too large to qualify for small claims court are heard in superior court (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 86). See “Filing Your Claim in Superior Court,” in Chapter 4, for more on the subject. Superior court is also the place where a losing defendant may file an appeal (a topic covered in Chapter 23).
Chapter 4 provides detailed advice on figuring out how much to claim for various types of cases such as bad checks, property damage, or emotional distress; it also explains when it might make sense to cut your claim to fit the limit, or when you might be able to legally split an over-the-limit claim into two or more pieces that each fit into small claims court.
Why Use Small Claims Court?
There are four great advantages of small claims court:
• You get to prepare and present your own case without having to pay a lawyer more than your claim is worth.
• Filing and preparing a small claims case is relatively easy. The gobbledygook of complicated legal forms and language found in other courts is kept to a minimum. To start your case, you need only fill out a few lines on a simple form called a “plaintiff’s claim.” For example, you would state: “Defendants owe me the sum of $4,000 because the 2011 Neon they sold me on July 1, 2015, in supposedly ‘excellent condition’ died less than a mile from the car lot.”
• Presenting your case is also relatively easy. When you get to court, you can talk to the judge in plain English without any legal jargon. Even better, if you have helpful documents or witnesses, you can present them to the judge without complying with the complicated procedures, habits, and rules of evidence that must be followed in formal courts.
• Small claims court doesn’t take long. Most disputes are heard in court within a month or two from the time the complaint is filed. The hearing itself seldom takes more than 15 minutes. The judge announces a decision either right there in the courtroom or mails it within a few days or weeks. The decision given by the court is called a judgment and must be written down and signed by the judge,
Will Small Claims Court Work for You?
Before you decide that small claims court sounds like just the place to bring your case, you will want to answer a basic question: Will the results you expect to achieve balance out the effort you will have to make? Even in small claims court, a successful case will probably take ten to 20 hours to prepare and present and, depending on your personality, may actually cause a few sleepless nights.
In order to assess whether your dispute is worth the effort of bringing it to court, you will want to understand the details of how small claims court works, starting with being clear about who can sue, where, and for how much. You will also want to do the following:
• Learn a little law to answer such important questions as whether you are likely to win and, if so, how much; what types of papers you must file and when; and who can sue (and be sued). Part of this involves knowing the different legal rules for different types of cases—for example, a personal injury claim versus a security deposit dispute.
• Once you conclude you do have a winning case, understand how best to prepare and present it.
• Finally, and most importantly, determine whether you’ll be able to collect the money if you win. This is an important detail that so many people overlook, to their later dismay. Assuming that you prepare and present your case brilliantly and get a judgment for everything you request, it’s to little avail if you can’t get paid. Unfortunately, many plaintiffs who go through the entire small claims procedure and come out winners have no chance of collecting a dime because they have sued a person who has neither money nor any reasonable prospect of getting any.
This book covers of all of these questions. The first several chapters will help you decide whether or not you have a case worth pursuing; these are not the chapters where grand strategies are brilliantly unrolled to baffle and confound the opposition—that comes later. Here we are more concerned with such mundane tasks as locating the person you want to sue, suing in the right court, filling out the necessary forms, and properly delivering the forms to the person you’re suing.
Below are preliminary checklists of things (“Initial Stage Questions”) you will want to think about early on—depending on whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant. This book goes into each of these areas in more detail, as well as provides targeted advice on filing an appeal (heard in superior court) of a small claims court judgment (as explained in Chapter 23, only a defendant can appeal the plaintiff’s claim).
Finding Small Claims Court Forms and Rules
Most California small claims forms and rules are the same for the entire state, although a few forms may vary slightly from one county to the next. Blank copies of all state-issued forms are available at your local small claims court clerk’s office and from www.courts.ca.gov (click “Forms & Rules,” then select “Small Claims” from the drop-down list of categories—you can search by either the name or number of a form). We provide samples of the key forms throughout this book.
Always check the court’s website (www.courts.ca.gov/forms.htm) or your local court clerk for the latest version of a form. And do not try to copy or use any of the forms shown here; they are primarily included for illustrative purposes.
Plaintiffs will want to refer to Form SC-100-INFO, Information for the Small Claims Plaintiff. Defendants will want to study the Information for the Defendant section of Form SC-100 (Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court).
There is a lot of useful small claims court information on the California Courts Online Self-Help Center, including links to county-specific court information and to local small claims advisors (who may be available to meet with you in person or talk with you by phone); these advisors can be a great resource when it comes to preparing your case, defending a case, helping with collection questions if you win (or lose), and much more. See the Small Claims section under Self-Help at www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp-small claims.htm for general and county-specific information. Be sure you check with the proper judicial district for your particular claim (Chapter 9 explains where you can sue).
Want to learn more about California’s court system? Check out the California courts website at www.courts.ca.gov to learn about other courts, such as superior court, which also handles small claims cases (but is much more complicated than small claims court) and appeals of small claims cases (discussed in Chapter 23).
Understanding Legal Jargon
Fortunately, there is not a great deal of technical language used in small claims courts. But there are a few terms that may be new to you and that you will need to become familiar with. We define them each time a new term comes up. We also provide a list of common legal jargon in Appendix B of this book. Finally, if you’re stumped by a term we don’t define in this book, check out the Self-Help Glossary on the California courts’ website www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp-glossary.htm. The Nolo website also includes a Free Dictionary of Law Terms and Legal Definitions.
You may also choose to do a little bit of legal research on your own if you want more information on a particular legal topic. The Nolo website (the Laws and Legal Research section) is also a good place to start; the topic of legal research is covered in Chapter 25.
Key State Laws Covering Small Claims Court
California Civil Code (Cal. Civ. Code) and California Code of Civil Procedure (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code) contain some of California’s most widely used substantive and procedural laws, and we cite relevant sections throughout this book. These are available online at Nolo’s website (www.nolo.com). Go to “Legal Research,” choose “State Law Resources,” then “California.” Small claims rules are covered in Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 116.110–116.950. See Chapter 25 for detailed advice on doing legal research, and Appendix A for a list of citations for major California consumer laws.
How to Use This Book
This guide covers the procedures that both plaintiffs and defendants should use to successfully bring or defend a small claims case in California. Unlike other guides, it also contains step-by-step instructions for preparing particularly common small claims cases, along with real-life examples of cases I’ve observed in small claims courts throughout California.
This book also includes samples of the key court forms you may need to prepare at some stage of your small claims court lawsuit. These forms, along with instructions, are available on the California courts website at www.courts.ca.gov/forms.htm.
Chapters 2 and 3 help you decide the basic issue of whether you should sue in the first place by asking two crucial questions: Do you have a good case? Can you collect any money from the defendant if you win? If your answer to either of these questions is “no,” then you should read Chapter 6
to see whether you might be able to settle your dispute without going to court, or if you should consider dropping the idea of a lawsuit.
Chapters 4–9 walk you through the procedural details. Small claims court is meant to be easy, but it still has rules about how much money you can sue for (maximum $10,000 in most cases); whom you can sue and what is the deadline (called the statute of limitations) for doing so; what you must do before filing a small claims court lawsuit (ask for the money owed); what court you should bring your lawsuit in (usually the court in the county where the defendant lives or its main place of business is located); and so forth.
Chapters 10 and 11 are about the actual paperwork: How do you fill out your papers and deliver them to the defendant once you’ve decided to bring a small claims lawsuit?
Chapter 12 is for the defendant. You’ve just been sued: What do you do?
Chapters 13–15 get you ready for your day in court, including organizing your testimony and evidence, bringing in a witness (by subpoena, if necessary), getting an interpreter (if needed), and making an effective presentation in front of the judge.
In Chapters 23 and 24 you’ll find out how the judge issues a ruling, how to appeal, and how to collect your money if you’re successful. By far, the largest number forms are involved when a winning plaintiff needs to collect a court judgment from a defendant who is not voluntarily paying up.
In Chapters 16–22, we look at the most common types of cases (such as disputes involving security deposits, car purchases or repairs, or an unpaid debt), and discuss strategies to handle each. Even if your fact situation doesn’t fit neatly in one of these categories, you should read this material. By picking up a few hints here and a little information there, you should be able to piece together a good plan of action. For example, many of the suggestions on how to handle motor vehicle repair disputes can also be applied to cases involving problems with fixing major appliances such as televisions, washers, and expensive stereos.