Small claims courts are a low-cost, quick alternative to civil courts to settle civil disagreements. The rules of small claims court are simpler and the process is quicker and less expensive than regular civil court.  Examples of when you may want to sue in small claims court include: (1) Your landlord did not return your security deposit; (2) An auto repair shop did not fix your car properly; (3) You loaned money to a friend who refuses to pay you back; (4) You purchased a new HDTV that had a manufacturing defect, and the store will not return it; or someone hit you, broke your nose, and (5) You want them to pay for your medical bills.

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Get help filing a California Small Claims Lawsuit!

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When to Sue in Small Claims Court

You can file a case and sue in small claims court for most legal disputes that would be allowed in the California Superior civil court.  Common legal disputes that can be settled in small claims court include personal injury, wrongful acts against you by someone else (tort), violations of a promise by someone (breach of contract), and breach of warranty.

Small claims courts have a strict limit to the amount you can ask the court to award.  In California, the limit is $5,000 when the plaintiff is a business entity and $12,500 when the plaintiff is a person.  In California, an entity can only file two cases over $2,500 in a calendar year.  If a person files more than two claims over $2,500 in small claims courts, then any more claims in small claims court will be capped at $2,500, even if the damages exceed that amount.  Local government entities, such as school districts, are not held to this limitation. If your claim is over the amount the court allows, you may consider reducing the amount you sue for to allow the court to hear your request in the small claims court.

When You Cannot Sue in Small Claims Court

Some cases cannot be filed in small claims court. For example, small claims court will not hear family law matters, such as divorce, custody, or guardianship.  You cannot sue a federal entity in small claims court, nor can you sue someone in small claims court based on an area of law that is exclusively federal (e.g., you cannot sue someone for patent infringement in small claims court.)  California does not allow a judge to settle evictions in small claims court, although a landlord can file a claim and sue in small claims court to get a money judgment for past due rent and damages after a tenant moves.

How to Sue in Small Claims Court

Filing the Claim: To sue in small claims court and file a formal claim, you must complete a Claim of Plaintiff form. This document will name who you are suing, the basis of your claim, and how much you are asking to be awarded. Once you file your Claim with the court, the Court Clerk will set a hearing. The court usually sets these hearings within 20-70 days of filing.  The average wait is 30-40 days. Once you have a hearing date, you will then need to serve notice of your Claim on the party you are suing.

Serving the Other Party: Although the Court Clerk offers to help to serve the party by certified mail, it is not recommended to serve in this manner. Often the other party is expecting to recede a lawsuit and will not sign for the certified letter. This will result in non-service, and the court will have to continue your hearing. Personal service is the best way to serve the other party. You can arrange personal service with a registered process server.

The Hearing: It is essential to prepare for your hearing adequately. In this regard, you should have all of your facts and evidence ready to present and give the judge. You will see there will be many other people who have their hearing on the same day. With this in mind, often the judge will limit the amount of time you will have to explain why you are claiming the other person owes you money. Many judges do not have patience when a claimant is not ready to present their side of the case.

If you have evidence to present, you will want to have copies of all exhibits marked and ready to give the judge. Sometimes it is essential to write bullet-points of what you want to say to the judge so that you do not ramble and are able to cover all the critical details. People are often nervous in court, and having a list to reference during your testimony can be quite helpful.

The Decision: It is not uncommon for a judge to take the matter “under submission.” This means that the judge will not announce the decision in open court but will mail the ruling and final decision to the parties at a later time.

Appeal: When you sue in small claims court, the plaintiff is “stuck” with the judge’s decision. The only person who can appeal the judge’s decision is the defendant. When considering whether you should sue in small claims court, you may want to consider if it is important to be able to appeal the decision of the court if you do not like the judge’s order.

To Sue or Not to Sue

Before filing a claim in small claims court, you should try to work out the dispute with the other party on your own.  If a friend owes you money, ask for it back.  If he/she cannot pay it immediately, try to work out a payment plan.  Settling a dispute outside of court is always the best option.  If you cannot work out the dispute on your own, then you may want to consider a third-party mediator to resolve the conflict.  This is a good option for friends and family members who wish to keep their relationship intact.

If all else fails, then, of course, you should file a claim and sue in small claims court.   Although you can hire a lawyer to help you with things like filing the small claim, gathering evidence, and preparing for the hearing, you cannot have a lawyer represent you before the court.  However, if you need help with the paperwork and the process, a legal document assistant is an excellent low-cost option for these tasks. If you have a simple legal dispute with a small sum of money at stake, small claims court is a good option for resolving your conflict.

Contact A People’s Choice to help you file your small claims action. You can reach a staff member at 800-747-2780.

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