Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California
The definitive resource
Ralph Warner, Attorney
July 2015, 20th Edition
Represent yourself in small claims court and win using the definitive guide to filing (or defending yourself in) a small claims court case in the Golden State! Whether you're a plaintiff or a defendant, Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California shows you how to:
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
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.
Ralph "Jake" Warner, a pioneer of the do-it-yourself law movement, founded Nolo with Ed Sherman in 1971. Nolo began publishing do-it-yourself law books written by Jake and his colleagues after numerous publishers rejected them. When personal computers came along, he added software to many Nolo books. When the Internet arrived, he championed the move online, where Nolo published huge amounts of free legal information.
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.