California Small Claims Court: An Overview

Learn about filing a small claims case in California Superior Court, Small Claims Division.

By , Attorney

What's the small claims court dollar limit in California Small Claims Court?

You can ask for up to $10,000 in a small claims action filed in the small claims division of California Superior Court—the court that handles small claims matters in California. However, you can file only two cases over $2,500 per year, and lower limits exist for cases filed against guarantors (someone who guarantees payment of a debt for another).

Can a landlord bring an eviction lawsuit in the small claims division of California Superior Court?

No. Evictions aren't heard as small claims in California Superior Court. However, the small claims division is an excellent forum for other types of cases typically brought in small claims courts, such as property damage matters and breach of contract disputes.

Where should I file my small claims case in California?

California has many courthouses. You must choose the proper court location or "venue," otherwise, the defendant—the person or company you sue—will be able to ask the court to transfer or dismiss your action. In California, you can file in the court where:

  • any defendant resides
  • the bodily injury or property damage occurred
  • a contract was signed, broken, or to be carried out, or
  • a buyer made a purchase or lived when making a purchase.

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.

What's the deadline to file a case in small claims court in California?

You don't have an unlimited amount of time to file a claim. You'll have to bring it within the statute of limitations period for your particular case. For example, the California statute of limitations is two years for oral contracts, four years for written contracts, two years for personal injury matters, and three years for personal property damage cases. If you don't file within the proper period, you lose your right to sue.

Also, the statute of limitations can stop and restart depending on various circumstances, and figuring out when it expires can be challenging. For instance, if a minor is injured, the personal injury statute won't begin running until the child reaches 18 years of age. Learn more about calculating the statute of limitations.

Can an attorney represent a small claims claimant in California Superior Court?

No. In California, attorneys cannot represent small claimants, although lawyers can file their own small claims cases.

Does the defendant have to answer the small claims complaint?

No. The defendant doesn't have to file an answer to avoid an automatic loss and default judgment. Instead, the defendant can show up for the court date and defend the action on that day. Learn what happens if you get sued in small claims court.

Will I have a judge or jury trial in small claims court in California?

A judge will hear your case. California doesn't allow jury trials in small claims cases. Find out what to expect at the small claims trial.

Can I appeal a California small claims case?

Yes, you can appeal the decision if you 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. So 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.

Will the court collect my judgment for me?

No. You'll be responsible for all collection efforts. It's a good idea to determine whether you can collect before deciding whether to sue.

Where can I learn more about small claims court in California Superior Court?

Most courts include 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).

Look out for Legal Changes. This overview doesn't provide all of the information needed to file a small claims case. Also, keep in mind that statutes can change, and checking them is always a good idea. How the courts interpret and apply the law can also change. These are just some of the reasons to consult an attorney if you have any questions about litigating your case or if you aren't comfortable independently verifying the law.
Last updated on 3/12/2020