Thinking of filing a small claims lawsuit in California small claims court?
In this article, learn about:
How to file a small claims lawsuit in California Small claims court.
Common types of small claims lawsuits
What to expect during a small claims hearing.
How much going to small claims costs.
Fun fact, lawyers are not allowed at the initial small claims hearing! This is to even the playing field so that each party has an equal chance of obtaining justice.
Small Claims Court California
There are many courthouses in California State that conduct small claims court hearings. You can find at least one in each county of California.
Can I file my Small Claims Lawsuit in California Small Claims Court?
You can always sue an individual in a California Small Claims Court if they live in California. You can always sue a business in California small claims court if the business is located in California
You may be able to sue in California small claims in other situations. For example:
If you are suing about a car accident that occurred in California.
If you are suing about property damage to your house that occurred in California.
If you have an issue with your Landlord returning the security deposit and the rented unit was in California then you would be able to sue your landlord in California Small Claims Court, (you would also be able to sue your landlord in the small claims court in the county where they live).
What types of small claims cases can be filed?
As long as there isn't another court better suited to file the lawsuit, then the lawsuit can be filed in small claims. The most common types of small claims lawsuits in California Small Claims Court are:
Landlord/Tenant disputes over the security deposit.
Landlord/Tenant disputes over unpaid rent.
Disputes over loans.
Contracts (written and verbal).
Disputes over auto repairs.
Disputes over remodeling or home repairs (disputes with contractors).
Damage caused to property.
How long do I have to File a Small Claims case in California?
Do not wait to file your small claims court lawsuit!
After an incident occurs, you only have a set period of time to file your lawsuit. Think of this as a deadline (called the statute of limitations). Once the deadline is reached, you cannot file your California Small Claims Court lawsuit.
California Small Claims Court Limits
This is also known as the "small claims court limits." In California Small Claims you can sue for the following maximum amounts:
What are the California Small Claims Court Filing Fees?
The amount you will pay to file a small claims lawsuit in California depends on how much you are suing for. You will pay between $30 to $75 to file the lawsuit. If cannot afford to pay court fees, you can ask the court to waive the fees.
What are other costs for Small Claims Court?
In most small claims cases, you can expect to pay:
If you win, you can request that the losing party pay for your court fees and serving costs.
Small Claims Court Hearings in California
When will the Small Claims Hearing be?
Once a case is filed in California Small Claims Court, the hearing will be scheduled within 30- 70 days.
You must notify the person you sued at least 15 days before the hearing if they live in California If they live outside California you must notify them at least 20 days before the hearing.
Note: If you use "substituted service" these deadlines differ (25 days before the hearing if they live in California and 30 days before the hearing if they live outside the county).
Make sure to file "Proof of Service" at least 5 days before the hearing.
How to prepare for a Small Claims Court Hearing?
You have filed your case and notified the person you sued. The next step is to start preparing for your Small Claims Court hearing.
Research the law. If you are unsure about you the laws involving your lawsuit (aka why you should win your lawsuit), consult an attorney, or conduct your own research about the law (a quick Google search goes a long way).
Prepare your evidence. Invoices, contracts, receipts, etc. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why you should win.
Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask you why you are suing. If you are being sued, you will be asked why you don't owe the other party money.
Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, your filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for these costs.
Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies (one for you, one for the judge, one for the other side).
What happens on the hearing date?
Give yourself plenty of time.
You do not want to be late for your hearing. Give yourself plenty of time for parking and navigating the courthouse.
Once You Walk into the Courthouse...
Once you walk in, the first thing you will see is airport-like security. You will need to put your belongings through the metal detector. You can bring in laptops and cellphones, unlike some courthouses.
Once you arrive at the courtroom, locate your case on the paper schedule outside the courtroom door.
Outside of each courtroom, there will be a printed list of the lawsuits that have hearings on that day.
You want to locate your lawsuit on the schedule. If you don't see your lawsuit listed, but you have received notice that your lawsuit will have a hearing that day, you may want to try and speak to the sheriff or clerk in the courtroom.
Make sure to use that waiting time to organize your evidence or go to the restroom.
Once the courtroom is opened, the court clerk, sheriff, and judge will go through what to expect. You will be sitting in a room with other people who have filed small claims lawsuits. You will get to watch the hearings before yours. Make sure you are in the courtroom when your case is called!
If both parties show up:
Right before the hearing, the judge will ask you and the person you sued to show each other the evidence that they have brought with them.
The Judge will ask you why you are suing.
Then the person who is being sued will get to present their side of the story.
The hearing will last around 15 minutes.
The judge will ask you to show the judge the evidence you brought with you. Sometimes the judge will keep the evidence. Otherwise, you will get the evidence right back.
Very rarely a judge will tell you who won or lost immediately after the hearing. Instead, the judge will tell you that their decision will be mailed to them (usually takes a few weeks to two months or so).
If only you show up but the person you sued does not show up:
You still have to prove to the judge why you should win.
If only the defendant shows up:
The judge will close the lawsuit
Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?
Attorneys are not allowed to represent you or the person you sued at the initial hearing.
If the person you sued appeals (meaning they lost and want the judge to decide again) then attorneys are allowed to represent the parties at the appeal hearing.
Small Claims Mediation
Some small claims courts offer free mediation on the date of your hearing.
What is mediation? Mediation is a meeting between both you and the person you sued conducted by a neutral third-party (a mediator). The parties will meet with a mediator, discuss their case, and try to reach a mutually beneficial solution. Both parties must agree to mediation and it cannot be forced on them.
When will mediation occur? The court clerk, judge, or sheriff will announce if there are mediators available that day. Usually, the judge will tell the audience that if you opt for mediation, you can try to mediate the case while other hearings are being conducted. If you finish the mediation early, then you get to "skip the line" and your case is processed faster.
Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila is an attorney, consumer advocate, and certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.