Filing a claim in the California Superior Court, the court handling small claims matters in California can be a straightforward and inexpensive way to settle a dispute. But you must follow the rules to prevail.
Below are concise answers to common questions about the California Superior Court process. You'll learn about preparing and presenting your case, appealing a small claims decision, and collecting a money judgment. You'll also find links to more helpful small claims information at the end of the article.
A small claims case starts by filing a claim with the California Superior Court. You'll serve a copy of the claim and court date on the "defendant," the person or company you're suing.
At the trial, you'll present evidence supporting your case. In response, the defendant could present a defense to your action or, if the defendant filed a crossclaim, submit evidence proving you owe the defendant money.
The judge will issue a money judgment to whoever proves they're entitled to an award. The money judgment allows the creditor to collect using property liens, wage garnishments, bank account levies, and property seizures.
You can ask for up to $10,000 for most small claims actions in the California Superior Court. (A plaintiff can't file a claim over $2,500 more than twice a year. Local public entity or business filings are limited to $5,000. Certain guarantor or surety service cases are limited to $6,500.) Plaintiffs with claims exceeding the limit can use small claims court if they're willing to accept the $10,000 cap. Otherwise, they must file in a higher court.
Example. Faith, Emma, and Charlie each have personal injury cases and are considering filing in small claims court. Faith and Emma's medical bills exceed $20,000. Charlie's bills are $1,000. When researching small claims rules, they learn about the California $10,000 small claims limit. Here's what they decide to do next.
Faith, wanting $20,000 total compensation, hires a lawyer to file her case in a higher court. Although Charlie can recover his $1,000 in medical bills in small claims court, he also wants compensation for vehicle damage and extensive pain and suffering. Charlie hires a lawyer and files in a higher court. Emma is willing to forgo $10,000 to avoid lengthy litigation and files in small claims court, representing herself.
No. Evictions aren't heard as small claims in California Superior Court. However, it's an excellent forum for cases typically brought in small claims courts, such as property damage cases and breach of contract disputes.
California has many Superior Courts, but you can't always pick the most convenient location. You must choose the proper court location or venue. Otherwise, the defendant can ask the court to transfer or dismiss your action. In California, you can file in the court where:
Go to the California Secretary of State business search webpage for company information. Also, be aware that you might have other options, depending on your case. Most courts post venue rules on the court website.
Example. Bailey and her daughter traveled six hours to an amusement park for her daughter's birthday. While resting on a park bench, a toddler escaped her inattentive parent and splattered a messy ice cream cone on Bailey's designer suede bag. Although the appalled parent promised to forward the funds through CashApp or Venmo, the money never materialized. Bailey considered suing in small claims court but decided against it after learning she must file where the incident occurred or where the child's parents live, both of which were six hours away.
You don't have an unlimited amount of time to file a lawsuit. You'll have to bring it within the statute of limitations period for the case type. But pinning down how much time you have to file isn't always as simple as reading the statute of limitations.
The time can stop and restart depending on various circumstances, and figuring out when it expires can be challenging. The process is known as "tolling" the statute of limitations, and it happens when a plaintiff or defendant is unavailable for a lawsuit. For instance, the personal injury statute won't begin running on a minor's injury until the child reaches 18 years of age and can sue without the help of a guardian. Learn more about calculating the statute of limitations and whether it's too late to sue.
Example. Frank constructed a fence for his friend Myra, but after several years, Myra still hadn't paid him the agreed amount. Because they had a written contract, Frank had proof of the amount Myra owed and filed an action in small claims court. However, Myra objected to the case because the contract called for payment five years earlier, and the state's statute of limitation period for contracts was four years. Because Frank did not file the case within four years, the small claims judge dismissed the case.
Example. While Frank was building Myra's fence, Malik was repairing her plumbing (she had recently purchased a fixer-upper). Malik also had a written contract with Myra, wasn't paid, and sued her in small claims court five years later. Unlike Frank, when Myra objected to the case, Malik was prepared. He presented proof that state law tolled the statutory period while Myra served a two-year prison sentence for fraud, leaving him a year to file. The court agreed and allowed the case to proceed.
No. In California, attorneys cannot represent small claimants, although lawyers can file their own small claims cases. Small claims court is more relaxed and easier to navigate than higher courts, and most people are comfortable pursuing claims "in pro per" or without counsel.
No. In California, the defendant doesn't need to file a written answer with the court and serve a copy on the plaintiff to prevent the plaintiff from winning an automatic default judgment. The defendant can show up for the court date and defend the action on that day.
Example. Vincent sued Marina for the maximum small claims limit, knowing she wouldn't appear to dispute the debt. As expected, Marina didn't respond and lost by default. However, Vincent was surprised when the judge asked him to "prove up the case" by presenting proof of Marina's debt. Unprepared, all Vincent could do was tell the judge how much Marina owed, which he admitted was far less than he had requested. Because of the inconsistencies, the judge found Vincent's testimony unreliable and awarded him nothing.
Learn what happens if you get sued in small claims court.
A judge will hear your case. California doesn't allow jury trials in small claims cases.
You'll want to explain what happened and present evidence supporting your version of the events and the amount of money lost.
It will depend on the type of case. In most instances, you'll need to prove that the person you're suing harmed you and the amount of money it will take to right the situation. Research the "elements" of your case type to determine exactly what you must prove.
Tip. One of the most important things people forget to do is prove how much they're out of pocket. For instance, you'll likely provide medical bills if you were injured and repair estimates if you suffered property damage. Make sure you can prove how much it will take to fix the problem.
If you're suing someone who didn't comply with a written contract, you'll need copies of the contract and any correspondence exchanged. You might also want to present photos of shoddy work or damaged property.
If someone witnessed an event, bring them in. You might also need expert testimony to establish the defendant caused the problem if it isn't something that can be inferred. For instance, only a medical professional can testify about the cause of illness or injury, and you'd need a mechanic to verify most automotive repairs. Check with the court to see if you can provide a statement made under oath if the person is unavailable or charges too much for in-person testimony.
After providing the judge with a short case description, you'll likely present the facts chronologically. If you're afraid you'll forget something or are worried you'll ramble on, write out your presentation and read it when it's your turn. However, you'll likely make a better impression if you speak naturally, using a bullet point list for reference when needed. Either way, practicing beforehand is the key to a polished presentation.
Also, it's best to cover each point concisely yet fully, with as little emotion as possible. You'll also want to avoid jumping in if the other side says something incorrect. Instead, make a note and address it when it is your turn to speak.
The court might announce the winner immediately after the trial, but it's more likely that you'll find out who prevailed by mail. Your next steps will depend on whether you win or lose.
Yes, you can appeal the decision if you are the defendant and lose a case filed against you. A claimant or cross-claimant doesn't have the right to appeal.
Under California law, you must file the appeal within 30 days of the date the court mails the small claims judgment. You must comply with this and other rules or you'll lose your appeal rights. If you're confused about the process or how to find the date you'll use to calculate the filing deadline, talk with the court clerk or a local attorney.
Example. Warren received the small claims judgment in the mail and filed an appeal 31 days later believing he had a month to respond. Warren missed the deadline to file the appeal by one day and lost his appeal rights.
No. You'll be responsible for all collection efforts. Before pursuing a small claims court case, you'll want to evaluate whether the defendant has assets you can seize after winning the case. A debtor with nothing you can take is called "judgment proof," and pursuing an action won't make sense unless the debtor acquires property and income in the future.
Learn more about determining whether you can collect before suing in small claims court.
Yes. Every state allows debtors to protect essential property from creditors, such as household goods, a percentage of income, and some equity in a car and home, although the specific property protected varies greatly. You'll find these protections in your state's exemption statutes. In most states, the same exemptions protect assets from creditors in and outside bankruptcy.
Learn more about why you shouldn't sue unless you can collect the judgment.
Most courts publish filing instructions on the court website or provide self-help services. For additional resources, try the California Court's small claims court webpage or the Department of Consumer Affair's small claims court guide. You can also view California statutory law online on the California State Legislature's webpage to view the statutory codes. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 116.110 to 116.950.)
For detailed help with case filing, court strategy, and collecting a money judgment, see Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court by Attorney Cara O'Neill (Nolo).
Did you know Nolo has made the law accessible for over fifty years? It's true, and we want to ensure you find what you need. Below, you'll find more articles explaining how small claim cases work. And don't forget that our small claims homepage is the best place to start if you have other questions!
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Updated November 21, 2023