The law below is accurate as of mid 2011 in San Francisco County but you should contact your local county and obtain any variations in the rules for the county you file in.
This is basic procedure only. For more complex matters or to apply the law to your particular matter, seek competent legal counsel before filing your claim.
What is small claims court?
Small claims court is a special court which resolves disputes regarding relatively small amounts of money. Most of the cases brought to small claims courts comprise of collecting small debts, property damage or injury from accidents, tenancy disputes, and disputes over construction repairs. Most cases are heard within 30-40 days after the plaintiff files the claim.
Who can file a claim in small claims court?
To qualify to sue another party in small claims court, you must either be at least 18 years of age or be an emancipated child, and must be deemed mentally capable of representing yourself. All minors and those individuals declared mentally incapable by a court can be represented by a judge-appointed “guardian ad litem”—an adult serving to represent you specifically in this case alone.
How much can you sue for in small claims court?
All individuals are restricted to claiming no more than $7,500. Corporations, partnerships, and government entities are limited to $5,000. There is no limit to the number of claims you file for amounts of up to $2,500 each, but you are only permitted to file two claims per year for amounts of more than $2,500 each.
What are the fees associated with filing in small claims court?
When filing in small claims court, the plaintiff or party filing the claim must pay a fee to the clerk of the court. The fees associated with small claims court vary based on the monetary amount of the claim (If the claim is $1,500 or less, the fee is $30; if the claim is more than $1,500 but no more than $5,000 the fee is $50; if the claim is for more than $5,000 the fee is $75). If, however, the plaintiff has filed more than 12 small claims within the past 12 months, the fee for each case thereafter is automatically $100.
How do you determine if small claims court is right for you?
Although filing in small claims court is an efficient and inexpensive way to resolve dispute, it is not always the best method depending on the case at hand. Mediation, or the use of a neutral third-party member to help both parties reach a resolution, is also a viable option. Some small claims courts offer mediation programs or can recommend programs in the area if mediation is what you choose to do.
In preparation for filing small claims, you should first do some research and see if you can find a law that strengthens your case and clearly holds the defendant responsible for the claim. In addition, you should prepare for the trial by collecting evidence and testimonials from witnesses so that you can prove your case in court. The party bringing the action has the burden of proof. If the judge does not know who to believe, the plaintiff must lose since the plaintiff must prove his or her case. Before filing suit, make sure you have evidence to prove your entire case including the damages you have suffered. You can be your own witness, of course, but the more witnesses you have who can testify to support your case, the stronger your case normally is.
Who can represent you in court?
Probably the most notable characteristic of small claims court cases is that the parties involved may seek the consultation of a lawyer outside of the court but must eventually represent themselves in trial. You may be represented in court by a spouse if and only if you and your spouse share interest in the claim. If you are the only owner of a business, the employee with the most knowledge of the particular account in question can represent the business in court. If the business is a corporation, it may be represented by an officer or director who is not the corporation’s lawyer hired solely to represent the corporation. If you are the owner of a rental property, you may be represented by a property agent if they were hired to manage the property and not to represent the owner in court. Any individual who represents a party in small claims court must sign an Authorization to Appear (Form SC-109).
Considerations for the Plaintiff:
- Have you made a demand on the defendant?
Before suing in court, you must first contact the defendant and make a legal demand, in which you ask for the money or property you plan to seek in court. This demand may be served verbally or in written terms.
- How much in damages do you plan to request?
No matter what the amount you request in court may be, the judge will require that you provide evidence in court that you bear a right to these damages. Small claims courts typically have the jurisdiction to award a limited amount of money, and so, plaintiffs who file suit in a small claims court essentially waive the right to claim more than falls under the court’s jurisdiction. If your claim exceeds the courts limitations, consider filing a claim in the regular superior court. Get legal advice.
- Where should you file your case?
You must file your claim in the county and area of court location, if applicable, in which the defendant lives. The exceptions to this rule exist for car accidents, contracts, and consumer purchases. When filing your claim, you must state on the form why the court in which you are filing your claim is the correct court. If the judge deems the court improper for the particular case, the judge will dismiss the case.
- What are the time limitations for filing a claim?
The period of time during which you must act to sue someone, known as the statute of limitations, depends on the specific type of legal claim. Below are some examples of types of claims and the corresponding deadlines:
- Two years if you are suing for personal injury
- Four years if you are suing for a broken written agreement
- Two years if you are suing for a broken oral agreement
- Three years if you are suing for property damage
- Three years if you are suing for fraud
- What are the necessary forms?
If you visit the Judicial Council’s website, you can find all the forms and any additional information you may seek (http://www.courts.ca.gov/1017.htm). Important forms include:
- Information for the Small Claims Plaintiff (Form SC-100-INFO)
- Plaintiff's Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100)—a person other than claimant must serve a copy of this to the defendant
- Proof of Service (Form SC-104)—at least five days before hearing; signed by person who delivered SC-100 to defendant
- Fictitious Business Name Declaration (Form SC-103)—a business that is suing must state under oath that it is in compliance with California's business name registration laws.
- What are the necessary forms?
Form SC-100 informs the defendant of the amount being claimed, the reason for the claim, and the specifics of the court hearing. Once the court clerk informs you of a hearing date, someone other than the plaintiff must serve the defendant with a copy of this form at least 15 days prior to the hearing date or 20 days if the defendant lives outside the county. The person who serves the defendant must then sign the Proof of Service (Form SC-104) at least five days before the hearing.
How to prepare for court and what to expect:
In preparation for court, gather as much evidence as possible. Evidence may include contracts, letters, receipts, repair orders, account records, warranties, etc.
Witnesses are allowed and encouraged in court. If a witness cannot attend a scheduled hearing, some judges allow the witness to write and sign a declaration providing their full testimonial. Some judges also allow a witness to testify by telephone.
It is also important to remember that, as a plaintiff, you may not appeal a judgment if the court rules against you. If you are the defendant and you lose, you may in fact appeal the judge’s ruling and the case will then start afresh and will be heard by a different judge. Attorneys may represent a party at hearings on appeal. In order to start the appeals process, the losing defendant must file a Notice to Appeal (Form SC-140) within 30 days of the judgment and must pay a $75 fee.
While only the defendant may file a formal appeal, either party can file a Request to Correct or Cancel Judgment and Answer (Form SC-108) within 30 days of receiving the judgment. This asks the dispute to be reconsidered on the basis of a technical error. This is not a renewed hearing, but simply a second look at the facts at hand.
- Small claims is an excellent way to seek relief for smaller claims in which the cost of an attorney cannot be justified. See our article on Cost Benefit of Litigation.
- Since the defendant can always appeal the matter to Superior Court, Small Claims does not necessarily resolve the matter simply because the plaintiff wishes it tried in Small Claims. However, most cases are not appealed simply because the amount in controversy does not justify the defendant spending the extra money.
- The Small Claims judge may hear fifty cases on the same day as yours. He or she hears hundreds of cases a month. Keep your presentation short and to the point. Try to avoid emotional outbursts…though it is certainly valid to show your emotion.
- Prepare your exhibits so they are well organized and labeled and bring a copy for the judge and the opposing party. Refer to them by number during your presentation.
- Listen to the judge and answer his or her questions. Do not simply plod forward with your case and put on what you prepared if the judge clearly indicates an interest in some aspect of the case you previously considered unimportant. The only person in the room that matters in terms of a decision is the judge. Listen to him or her…they will tell you what they need to hear. Watch his or her face. See if they are taking notes. See how they react to the evidence or if they appear confused. Adjust your case to make sure they fully understand your position.
- Do not interrupt the judge and do not interrupt your opposing party, If the opposing party interrupts you, look to the judge and ask him or her to order the other party to let you speak. If the other side states something you feel you need to respond to, wait until they finish then ask the court if you can reply to it. And, as always, keep it short and to the point. A good rule: if you have to take more than two breaths in answering a question for the court, you are probably saying too much.
- Stay flexible. No case ever goes precisely as planned, just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Nevertheless, have a card with an outline of the points you need to make which you keep on the podium in front of you so that before you close your case you make sure you have addressed each issue.
- This is your day in court. It can be fun and will be interesting. Don’t worry about stage fright. Everyone gets it, and it will go away the moment you begin your presentation.
- And since you will probably be waiting some hours before you put on your case do two things: first, listen closely to what is happening-it will give you a good idea of what the judge is like and how to present the case. But just in case you have to wait many hours…bring a good book.