We have created a list of 8 tips that will help you win your California small claims lawsuit. To many, it may come as a surprise that many of the tips listed below involve the procedure you have to follow even before you get to tell a judge about your lawsuit.
Here is a summary:
- Do you have a good case?
- Have you filed your lawsuit in time?
- Are you suing the right person?
- Does anyone else need to be suing with you?
- Are you suing in the right court?
- Have you notified the person you sued about the lawsuit?
- Have you prepared your evidence?
- Have you practiced?
1. Do you have a good case?
In other words, are you right? While in some disputes it may be obvious whether you should win, in other disputes, it is not very clear. Remember, the only person who can be the ultimate decider of who is right or wrong in a lawsuit is a judge.
Read your contract.
Was there a contract involved? Go through your contract and highlight what you had to do and what the other person had to do.
Research the law.
If you are unsure whether you can win the small claims lawsuit, conduct research about the relevant laws that apply to your case. For example:
- How many days did your landlord have to return your security deposit?
- Whether your landlord was able to deduct from your security deposit
- Did you have a right to move out early from the rented unit?
A quick google search will likely provide you answers to the most common questions. Remember, the law isn't always very clear on who should win the small claims lawsuit but rather lists a series of factors that will help the judge decide who should win.
Consult a lawyer.
Lawyers are trained to analyze your dispute. Consulting an attorney will come in handy when:
- you are not sure whether your case is "worth a lot more,"
- you want more certainty on whether you can win your small claims lawsuit,
- you don't know whether you are right on the law.
Remember, in California, generally, lawyers are cannot represent you at the small claims hearing. They can, however, provide you legal advice regarding your specific situation.
When consulting a lawyer, it is very important you find a lawyer that specializes in the type of law your dispute involves.
If your dispute is about:
- A security deposit or unpaid rent → consult a Landlord/Tenant lawyer
- A defective car → consult a Lemon Law attorney
- You were hurt after a car accident → consult a Personal Injury attorney
Here are some other tips when consulting an attorney:
- You may want to find an attorney that is local to your area as the law may vary by county depending on the type of dispute.
- Make sure to ask the attorney how much the consultation costs before scheduling it! Some attorneys do provide free consultations.
- Write down all your questions before the consultation so you can maximize the lawyer's time.
2. Have you filed your lawsuit in time?
While you may have a winning lawsuit based on what happened, you can't officially win in small claims if you didn't file your lawsuit in time. This deadline is called the statute of limitations. The California legislature sets the deadlines and a lawsuit cannot be filed after the statute of limitations has been reached. The deadlines normally range from 1 to 4 years so don't delay in filing your lawsuit. Learn about common statutes of limitations.
3. Are you suing the right person?
How can you win your small claims lawsuit if you don't sue the right person or business?
Here are some examples:
- Your security deposit has not been returned. You have been dealing with John Smith the entire time you rented your unit. You decide to sue John Smith. Turns out John Smith is the property manager and not the landlord! To find who your landlord is, you should look through your lease or run a search on who owns the property you rented.
- You went to ABC Auto to fix your car but they never fixed it. ABC Auto may be an individual (sole proprietor) doing business as ABC Auto or ABC Auto may be an LLC or Corporation. Companies sometimes use a name other than their real legal entity name when doing business. This is called a fictitious business name.
4. Does anyone else need to be suing with you?
What if on the date of your small claims hearing, the judge determines that you are not the right person to be suing? Or maybe you can sue but you also need to include another person?
Here are some examples:
- In many small claims lawsuits over security deposits, your roommate should probably join you in the lawsuit if they also paid the security deposit.
- In small claims lawsuits over contracts, you need to make sure you were the person on the contract (many times it is your spouse).
- In small claims lawsuits over property damage such as a car accident, you need to prove you owned the property (like a car) you are suing over. Otherwise, the owner of the car likely needs to be included in the lawsuit.
5. Are you suing in the right court?
You can always sue an individual in small claims in the California county where they live. You can always sue a company in small claims in the California county where their business is located in.
You may be able to sue in a particular California county in other situations. For example:
- If you are suing about a car accident, you can sue in the county where the car accident occurred.
- If you are suing about a security deposit, you can sue in the county where the rented unit is located in.
- If you are suing about property damage to your house, you can sue in the county where your house is located in.
6. Have you notified the person you sued about the lawsuit?
You have filed your lawsuit and have all your evidence ready for the hearing date. How is the person you sued supposed to learn about the small claims lawsuit? If you show up to the hearing date without notifying (serving) the person you sued about the lawsuit you filed against them, you will not be able to win your small claims lawsuit.
Serving (the process of notifying the person you sued of the lawsuit) is one of the most important steps to winning your small claims lawsuit. Here are some tips:
- You should serve your small claims lawsuit as soon as it is filed. There are specific serving deadlines you have to meet and many times the lawsuit needs to be served at least 30 days before the hearing date.
- You cannot serve your own lawsuit. You must have a neutral party over the age of 18 serve the lawsuit.
- You can serve the person you sued at home or at work.
7. Have you prepared your evidence?
One of the most important steps to winning a small claims case is to prepare your evidence. If there is evidence like pictures, videos, and text messages in your case, you should bring it to the hearing (you should make a copy for yourself, the judge, and the defendant).
Here are some examples of evidence that may be important depending on the dispute:
- Lawsuits involving a contract. A copy of your contract and any communications you have had with the person you are suing (text messages, emails, letters).
- Security deposit lawsuits. Before and after pictures of the place you rented, your lease, and any communications you have had with your landlord.
- Disputes with contractors. Before and after pictures of the work they were going to do at your home, invoices, and text messages with the contractor.
Remember it isn't just about bringing your evidence to the hearing. It is about making sure your evidence is organized prior to the hearing. We have seen many small claims hearings where the person suing is scrambling in front of the judge looking for their evidence with a frustrated judge. You don't want this to be you!
8. Have you practiced?
Even the most skilled lawyers practice what they are going to say to the judge over and over again. This helps to not go off on a tangent due to nerves.
Many judges prefer you start off with the main point, for example, "your honor, I am suing because my landlord did not return my security deposit" and then go into the details. When going through the details one of the best methods is to go in chronological order.
For example, "I rented the apartment in January 2020, I moved out in December 2020, in January 2021 I requested that the landlord return my security deposit."