Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California

Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California

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Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California

The definitive resource for California small claims

, 21st Edition

Represent yourself with confidence using the definitive guide to filing (or defending yourself in) a California small claims court case. Whether you're a plaintiff or a defendant, Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California can help you:

  • write your demand letter
  • file and serve papers
  • prepare evidence and witnesses for court, and
  • collect your judgment.

See below for a full product description.

Product Details

Winning a lawsuit doesn't happen by accident. You must prove your case. That's where Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California can help. If you're suing someone -- or being sued -- you'll learn how to explain the facts, present credible evidence, and convince the judge to rule for you, not your opponent.

But you get more than tips on preparing a powerful case. You'll also learn how to:

  • determine the value of your case
  • learn California small claims court limits
  • write a demand letter
  • negotiate a settlement
  • file and serve court papers
  • gather evidence
  • subpoena witnesses
  • present your case in court
  • collect money when you win, and
  • file an appeal.

And you won’t need to worry about being buried in forms. The 21st edition includes instructions for completing the paperwork, as well as the latest California laws, court procedures, and sample court forms.

Check out Nolo's list of California products. Not a California resident? Check out Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court


“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

Number of Pages
Included Forms


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.

About the Author

  • Cara O'Neill, Attorney

    Cara O'Neill is the bankruptcy and small claims legal editor at Nolo. She edits, authors, and coauthors several Nolo books, including How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, The New Bankruptcy, Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court, Solve Your Money Troubles, Credit Repair, and The Foreclosure Survival Guide. She also writes for Nolo.com, Lawyers.com, AllLaw.com, and TheBankruptcySite.org.

    Before joining Nolo, Cara practiced for over 20 years as a civil and criminal trial lawyer, adding bankruptcy after the 2008 economic downturn. She also served as an administrative law judge mediating disputes between automotive manufacturers and dealers and taught undergraduate and graduate law courses as an adjunct professor. She earned her law degree in 1994 from the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, where she served as a law review editor and graduated a member of the Order of the Barristers—an honor society recognizing excellence in courtroom advocacy. Cara maintains a bankruptcy practice in Roseville, California at the Law Office of Cara O’Neill.

    You can also find Cara at

Table of Contents

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
  • 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

  • Negotiation
  • Mediation
  • Formal Demand Letters
  • Get Your Settlement in Writing (a Release)
  • Last Minute Agreements

7. Who Can Sue?

  • Married Couples
  • Sole Proprietorships
  • Business Partnerships
  • Corporations
  • 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
  • Partnerships
  • Corporations or Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)
  • Motor Vehicle Accident Cases
  • Minors
  • 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 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 Settle
  • 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
  • Mediation
  • Practice, Practice, Practice
  • Getting to the Courthouse
  • The Courtroom
  • The Judge or Commissioner
  • Your Courtroom Strategy
  • Organize Your Testimony and Evidence

14. Witnesses

  • 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
  • Diagrams
  • Photos
  • Estimates
  • 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
  • Discrimination
  • Evictions

21. Miscellaneous Cases

  • Clothing (Alteration and Cleaning)
  • Dog-Related Cases
  • Damage to Real Estate
  • Police Brutality
  • Defamation
  • Online 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


Sample Chapter

Chapter 1:
Basics of Small Claims Court in California

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 might want to 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 small claims court in California is $10,000, or $6,500 if you are suing a guarantor (someone who is responsible for the obligation of another), plus court costs for filing and serving papers. In legal jargon, this is called the jurisdictional amount. You can file as many cases as you’d like each year as long as the amount you ask for doesn’t exceed $2,500 per case. However, you’re only allowed to bring two lawsuits for more than $2,500 within any calendar year. The forms you fill out will require you to state whether you’ve used up your yearly quota.

By contrast, the maximum that corporations and other entities (like government agencies) can sue for is $5,000.

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).

Why Use Small Claims Court?

There are four great advantages of small claims court:

  • You get to prepare and present your case without having to pay a lawyer (whose fee would likely be more than your claim is worth).
  • Filing and preparing a small claims case is relatively easy. To start your case, you need only fill out a simple form called Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100) and each section you’re required to complete includes easy-to-understand instructions.
  • 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.

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 will likely cause a few sleepless nights.

To determine whether your dispute is worth bringing to court, you will want to understand how small claims court works, starting with who can sue, where, and for how much. You will also want to do the following:

  • Learn enough law to answer such important questions as whether you are likely to win and, if so, how much.
  • If you think you have a winning case, learn how best to prepare and present it.
  • Finally, and most importantly—as discussed in the introduction—determine whether you’ll be able to collect the money if you win.

Below are preliminary checklists of you will want to think about early on—we call them “Initial Stage Questions”—depending on whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant.

Finding Small Claims Court Forms and Rules

The procedures and forms used in small claims court are the same for the entire state, although some courts might have their own local forms. 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 “Browse All Forms”—you can search by either the name or number of a form or choose “Small Claims” from the “Select a Category” drop-down list). We provide samples of key forms throughout this book.

Always check the court’s website
(www.courts.ca.gov ) or your local court clerk for the latest version of a form. 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 Information for the Small Claims Plaintiff (Form SC-100-INFO) but defendants will gain from reading it, too. Defendants will also want to study the Information for the Defendant section of Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100).

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. Each county has an obligation to provide free small claims legal assistance, and 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). If you can’t find your court’s assistance program information on the California Courts site, check your local small court website or call the court clerk directly.


Initial Stage Questions for a Plaintiff
  1.  Do you have a good case? That is, can you establish or prove all the key pieces (or “elements”) of your claim? (See Chapter 2 for a discussion of what is needed to win contract, debt, property damage, and other common cases; Chapters 13 through 22, include general advice, as well as specific details for more cases, such as landlord-tenant disputes.)
  2. How many dollars is your claim for? If it is for more than the $10,000 small claims maximum, are you willing to waive the excess so that you can use small claims court? (See Chapter 4.)
  3. Have you made a reasonable effort to try to settle the case with the other party (See Chapter 6.)
  4. Are you within the deadline (called the statute of limitations) by which you must file your suit? (See Chapter 5.)
  5. Do you know how to identify the person or business you intend to sue on your court papers? In some types of cases, especially those involving businesses and automobiles, this can be a little trickier than you might realize. (See Chapters 7 and 8.)
  6. Do you have all the paperwork the small claims court responsible for hearing your case requires? (See Chapters 9 through 11.)
  7. If mediation is offered, do you understand how it works and how best to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
  8. Can you present a convincing argument to the judge? (See Chapter 15.)
  9. If you win, is there a reasonable chance you can collect? (See Chapters 3 and 24.)


Initial Stage Questions for a Defendant
  1. Do you have a defense to the plaintiff’s claim? (See Chapters 2 and 12.) Or, in the alternative, can you sue the plaintiff for money owed to you instead of the other way around? (See Chapters 10 and 12.)
  2. Is the amount of money demanded by the plaintiff reasonable or excessive? (See Chapter 4.)
  3. Has the plaintiff brought the suit within the proper time limit (the statute of limitations)? (See Chapter 5.)
  4. Has the plaintiff followed the proper procedures in bringing suit and delivering the court papers to you? (See Chapters 11 and 12.)
  5. If mediation is offered by your small claims court, do you understand how it works and how to use it? (See Chapter 6.)
  6. Have you made a reasonable effort to contact the plaintiff and settle the case? (See Chapters 6 and 12.)
  7. Do you have evidence that will prove your side of the story? (See Chapters 13 through 15.)
  8. Are you prepared to argue your case before the judge? (See Chapter 15.)


Defendants may want to file their own lawsuit against plaintiffs. If you are sued, you’ll want to do this if you believe that you lost money due to the same events and the plaintiff is legally responsible for your loss (see Chapters 10 and 12). Defendants’ claims commonly develop out of a situation in which both parties are negligent (say in a car accident) and the question is who was more at fault. If your claim is for less than the small claims court maximum, you can file your defendant’s claim in small claims court. But if it is for more, you will want to file your case in superior court and have the small claims court case transferred there. (See Chapter 10.)

Want to learn more about California’s court system? Check the California Courts website at www.courts.ca.gov to learn about the three court levels—Superior Courts (or trial courts), Courts of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. Small claims court is a branch of the superior court. Small claims appeals do not go to the appellate courts, but rather are handled by a higher division of the superior court (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).

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 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 the California Legislative Information website (http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov). Go to “Quick Code Search,” select the name of the code from the drop-down menu, and enter the code number in the box below. 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.

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 (which you should do even if you plan to try the case), 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 you must follow—many of which we’ve already mentioned. We address these issues in further detail.

Chapters 10 and 11 cover 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 presenting your case to the judge.

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 upaid debt), and discuss strategies to handle each. Even if your fact situation doesn’t fit neatly in one of these categories, consider reading 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. If you’re not sure, however, you can try running your strategy by a small claims advisor at your local court.

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, most of the forms used in a small claims matter aren’t needed until it’s time for a winning plaintiff to collect a court judgment from a defendant who is not voluntarily paying up.

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