How to File a California Small Claims Court Lawsuit

October 3, 2021
How to File a California Small Claims Court Lawsuit
People Clerk helps you with your small claims court lawsuit.

Ready to sue someone in California small claims? In this guide, we break down the steps of how to file a small claims lawsuit in California.

In this article, learn about:

  • How to file a small claims lawsuit in California Small claims court.
  • Common types of small claims lawsuits
  • How much can I sue for in California small claims court?
  • How do I calculate how much to sue for?
  • How much does it cost to sue someone in California small claims.
  • The statute of limitations & small claims.
  • What to do before you file your California small claims lawsuit.
  • How to submit your small claims lawsuit to the court.
  • How to serve your small claims lawsuit.
  • How to prepare for the hearing.
  • 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.

Have you been sued in California small claims? Check out our guide for being sued in California small claims instead.

How to File a Small Claims Lawsuit in California Small Claims Court

Here are the 4 steps to taking someone to small claims court in California:

  1. Prepare the lawsuit.
  2. File the lawsuit.
  3. Serve the lawsuit.
  4. Prepare for the hearing.

We break down each one of these steps below.

Common Types of Small Claims Lawsuit

We always get the question, can I sue someone in California small claims? The answer is yes as long as there isn't a better court to handle your lawsuit (for example, there is a specific court for evictions in California so you can't sue in small claims to evict someone).

Here are common types small claims lawsuits filed in California:

How much can I sue for in California Small Claims?

This is also known as the "small claims court limits." Here is how much you can sue for in California small claims:

  • If you are an individual, you can sue for a maximum of $10,000.
  • If you are a business (corporation or LLC), you can sue fore a maximum of $5,000
  • If you are a sole proprietor meaning you have not incorporated your business as a corporation or LLC, then you can sue for a maximum of $10,000.
  • There is no minimum amount you can sue for.

What happens if I am owed more than what I can sue for?

  • You can still sue for the maximum amount allowed but you agree to waive any additional amount over the limit.
  • Here is an Example: You are an individual and you paid $11,000 for someone to paint your home. They didn't paint your home. You can sue in small claims court for $10,000 and waive  $1,000.
  • Why would I sue in small claims if I am owed more than $10,000? California small claims is faster, quicker, and more affordable than filing your lawsuit in other types of courts and you don't need a lawyer to do so!

California Small Claims Court Limits
California Small Claims Court Limits

How do I calculate how much to sue for?

Calculating how much to sue for in small claims can be difficult. In general, taking someone to small claims isn't meant for you to come out winning more than what you are owed and you need to be able to prove to the judge how you calculated how much you are owed.

Here are some tips for calculating how much to sue for:

  • Use receipts. For example, if someone hit your car and you spent $3,000 getting your car fixed, you would be able to show the judge the receipt from the mechanic.
  • Use estimates. For example, if your tenant caused damage to the floors, you may have an estimate from a contractor estimating how much it will cost to fix the floors.
  • Punitive damages. The legislature has decided that there are certain situations where you should win more than what you are owed as a punishment to the person you are suing to hopefully deter them from acting the same way in the future. This is referred to as punitive damages. For example, if a California landlord acts in "bad faith" and doesn't return your security deposit, you can sue for 2x the amount of your security deposit. You can find more of these punitive damages laws by running a google search or consulting an attorney.

We go over additional tips on how to calculate how much to sue for in this article.

How much does it cost to sue in California small claims?

On average, it costs between $70 to $150 to sue someone in California small claims. If money is tight, you may qualify for a waiver of your costs so you may pay $0 for your lawsuit.

Cost to file your lawsuit with the court:

  • If you are suing for $1,500 or less, you will pay the court $30.
  • If you are suing for $1,501 and up to $5,000, you will pay the court $50.
  • If you are suing for for $5,001 and up to $10,000, you will pay the court $75.
  • If you are low income and the court approves your request to waive your court fees, you will pay the court $0.

Once your lawsuit is filed, you have to notify the other party that they have been sued. This is called serving. Here is what you can expect to pay to serve your small claims lawsuit:

  • You can have a friend or family member serve your small claims lawsuit. This costs $0.
  • If you qualify for a waiver of your court fees, you can serve with the sheriff for $0.
  • The sheriff may be able to serve your lawsuit depending on the county where the other party is located, the sheriff charges $40.
  • You can hire a process server which is someone licensed to serve lawsuits and they charge between $50- $125.

Ultimately, taking someone to California small claims is a cost v. benefit analysis. Here is how some of our clients measure the cost v. benefit of going to small claims:

  • Cost. Spending between $70 to $150 to get back $1,000 is very affordable.
  • How soon you will find out whether you won? Most small claims hearings in California are scheduled between 30-70 days after the lawsuit is filed and most judges make a decision a few days after the hearing.
  • Time spent? This one can be tricky because our court system is outdated and very frustrating. You may have to go a few times to the court to file the lawsuit especially if you need more information or do it wrong. The good news is that with People Clerk, you can prepare and file your small claims lawsuit from home as we take care of the logistics. Depending on your county, you may also have the option of attending your hearing virtually.
  • Justice. For some, it isn't about the time or money. It is about making sure the other person understands that what they have done is wrong so that they don't continue to do the same to others.

The Statute of Limitations & Small Claims

But what about the statute of limitations for small claims? In general, many statute of limitations range between 2-4 years and are the same for a small claims lawsuit as for other types of lawsuits in California.

Here are some common questions about the statute of limitations:

  • What is the statute of limitations? It is a deadline set by the California legislature of how long you have to sue someone.
  • Does my hearing have to be before the statute of limitations? No, but your case has to be FILED before the statute of limitations not your hearing.
  • Can I still file my small claims lawsuit if the statute of limitations already passed? Yes. It is up to the judge to determine whether it is too late to file your lawsuit and not up to the court clerk. If the statute of limitations has passed, you will lose your small claims case.
  • How do I get more certainty about the statute of limitations? (1) consult a lawyer before suing in small claims, (2) review the California code, (3) let the judge decide at the hearing (most people likely chose this option since going to small claims in California is very affordable so you don't take a lot of risk).

Should I wait until the last minute to sue someone in small claims? Absolutely not. Here is why:

  • If you file your lawsuit incorrectly and need to be able to refile your lawsuit, your second lawsuit may miss the statute of limitations.
  • You begin to lose your evidence the more you wait. Many small claims lawsuits have text messages as evidence and if you lose your phone and a backup you won't have access to those text messages.
  • You begin to lose credibility the more you wait. The judge will be curious to know why you waited so long to file your lawsuit if what you are saying is true.

What to do before you file in California small claims?

Here are the steps to take before you file a California small claims lawsuit:

  1. Make sure you demand payment.
  2. Figure out where to file the lawsuit.
  3. Determine who needs to sue (the "plaintiffs").
  4. Determine who you need to sue (the "defendants").
  5. Make sure to have the information you will need to prepare the small claims lawsuit

Demand Payment

Before you can file a small claims court lawsuit in California, the court requires that you request your money or your property back from the person you intend to sue. You will have to confirm you have done this on the small claims lawsuit.

How do I demand payment? You can demand payment verbally or in writing but you tend to be taken more seriously when you do so in the form of a letter.

Figure out where to file the small claims lawsuit

Unfortunately, it isn't about which court is closest to you or the most convenient to you in many situations. Before going to your nearest small claims court to file your small claims lawsuit, take some time to figure out which court has "authority" over the other party. This is known as "jurisdiction."

  • Why can't all courts have authority over the other party? It isn't fair to have to fight a lawsuit in San Diego or in New York, if you only are doing business in San Francisco.
  • What happens if I file in the wrong small claims court? You will likely still be able to file your lawsuit but when you get to the hearing and the judge reviews your case, they may decide that you have filed in the wrong court. This means they may close your case and you will have to file in the right court. This is risky because if the statute of limitations has passed, then you won't be able to win even if you file in the right court the second time.
  • Once you narrow down the county you can sue in, then you need to select the correct court. For example, if you have decided that you can file the small claims lawsuit in LA County, the next step is to narrow down which court in LA County you can sue in. There are zip codes and cities associated to each LA County courthouse.
  • Can I sue a business that has a headquarter outside of California in California? Yes, if they can be served inside of California. What does this mean!? Most companies that do business in California are required to register with the California Secretary of State. Once they have registered with the California Secretary of State, they have to appoint someone (or another business) that is located in California as their agent. This agent is the person (or business) who can be served. The good news is that the majority of companies we have prepared lawsuits against, are registered with the California Secretary of State.

Here are some common rules about where you can file a small claims lawsuit:

  • If you are suing an individual, an individual can always be sued in the court nearest to where they live.
  • If you are suing a business with a physical store, they can be sued in the court nearest to where they have the store.
  • If you are suing a business, they can be sued in the court nearest to where they have their headquarters.
  • If you are suing about a car accident, you can sue where the car accident occurred or where the driver of the car lives.
  • If you are suing about your security deposit, you can sue where the unit you rented is located in or where your landlord lives.
  • If you are suing a contractor for work they did at your house, you can sue in the court nearest to where you live.
  • If you are suing a mechanic about the work they did on your car, you can sue where the mechanic did the work.
  • This list can go on and on!

Determine who needs to sue (the "plaintiffs").

The person or business doing the suing is called the plaintiff. Decided who needs to be included in a lawsuit as a plaintiff is normally an easy determination. Ask yourself, who is owed money? Anyone who is owed money should be included in the lawsuit.

When in doubt, it is better to include everyone who potentially is owed money and let the judge decide at the hearing. If a judge doesn't think someone should be included in the lawsuit, they will take that person off the lawsuit at the hearing and leave everyone else as part of the lawsuit. Otherwise, a judge may have you refile the lawsuit.

Here are some common examples:

  • You and your roommate gave your landlord a $4,000 security deposit. You both moved out and your landlord has not returned your security deposit. Both you and your roommate are owed the money so the judge will want to make sure you both are part of the lawsuit.
  • You were driving your moms car and another driver hit you while driving. It will cost $3,000 to fix the car. Your mom should be included in the lawsuit since she is the registered owner.

Determine who you need to sue (the "defendants").

The person or business being sued is called the defendant. Ask yourself, who is responsible for what happened to me?

Here are some tips for determining who you need to sue:

  • When in doubt, sue everyone you think is responsible and let the judge decide a the hearing. You don't want the judge to close your lawsuit because even though they think you are right, you didn't sue the right person or business.
  • Security deposit lawsuits. The most common mistake we see is suing a property management company and not the landlord in security deposit cases. You want to make sure you sue the person or business listed on your lease or rental agreement as they are the one holding on to your security deposit.
  • Car accident lawsuits. Don't forget to sue the driver that is responsible for hitting your car!

Make sure to have the information you will need to prepare the small claims lawsuit

As you are getting ready to take someone to small claims, you want to make sure that you have the correct information for the person or business you are suing.

Suing an individual in small claims:

  • You will need their full legal name and address where they live or work.
  • What happens if I don't have the person I am suing's name or address? You will need to find this information before suing them. Try looking on Google, Linkedin, or consider having someone run a report called a "Skip Trace" that looks for their information on different databases.

Suing a business in small claims:

  • After reviewing thousands of small claims lawsuits, we know that suing a business in small claims is tricky. Why? Because most people don't spend the time figuring out the correct information to list on the small claims lawsuit. This leads to many problems when serving the lawsuit like knowing who to actually serve on behalf of the business.
  • You need to narrow down a businesses official legal entity name before suing them in small claims. What is an official legal entity name? The name the business has used to incorporate their business. The reality is that many businesses are not incorporated (they don't need to be) which means that you are suing an individual and not a business. For example, you paid ABC Painting to paint your house. ABC Painting never came to paint your house so you decide to sue them in small claims. You first need to determine whether ABC Painting is a corporation, LLC, or an individual using the name ABC Painting.
  • Many businesses also do business using a name other than their official legal entity name. This is called a "dba" or a "fictitious business name."
  • Once you have determine the official legal entity name, you will be able to sue the correct business and serve the correct person on behalf of a business.
  • We dive deeper into figuring out how to sue a company in California small claims in this article.

How to submit your small claims lawsuit to the court

After you have prepared all the required forms, you are ready to submit the small claims lawsuit to the court. The unfortunate reality is that in most California courts, you cannot file your lawsuit online easily because the court either doesn't have the technology to do so or the online system they use is not user friendly.

If you would like to file your small claims lawsuit without leaving your home, People Clerk can help.

In-Person at the Small Claims Court

You can file your case in person at the small claims court. Once you get to the courthouse, locate the room number for the "Clerk of the Court." Once in the room, locate if they have a special line for small claims cases. Make sure to bring at least 2 copies of the small claims lawsuit with you and any other required forms.

Via Mail

Make sure you submit at least 2 copies of the small claims lawsuit to the court, all other required forms, and an envelope so that the court can return a copy of the filed lawsuit to you. This envelope needs to be labeled with your address and have enough stamps for the documents to come back to you. If you don't do this, the court may not file your lawsuit or will file your lawsuit but not mail it back to you.

Online

Most California small claims courts don't accept lawsuits filed online. This is called electronic filing or e-filing. If the small claims court you are filing accepts your lawsuit electronically, be prepared to use a complicated system designed for law firms. Go to your local small claims court website to find out if they have adopted e-filing and which system they use. Be prepared to pay additional transactions fees as well.

How to serve your small claims lawsuit

Once you file your case, the next step is to notify the person you are suing that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" or "serving."

Who can serve a small claims lawsuit?

  • NOT YOU! You cannot serve your own small claims lawsuit.
  • Process Server. The most straightforward person who can serve your lawsuit is a "process server." A process server is someone licensed to serve lawsuits. This is what they do for a living so they are pretty good at it. In California, process servers charge around $50- $125 to serve small claims lawsuits.
  • Sheriff. Depending on the county where the other party needs to be served you may be able to use the sheriff. Not all California sheriff's serve small claims lawsuits. If the court approved your request to waive your court fees, the sheriff will serve your lawsuit for free. Otherwise, they charge around $40.
  • Friend or Family member. You can have an adult friend or family member serve your small claims lawsuit. Make sure they are not part of the lawsuit or aren't involved with what happened with the lawsuit because if there are problems with serving the judge will question whether they have a motivation to lie about actually serving the lawsuit correctly.

If you are suing an individual:

  • The server can serve them by physically giving the lawsuit directly to them. Said a bit differently, this is the physical act of handing the papers directly to the person being sued. This is called "personal service."
  • The server can also serve someone who lives with the person being sued or someone who is in charge where the person being sued works. This is called "substituted service."

If you are suing a business:

  • Remember, if the business you are suing is not incorporated, then you are likely suing an individual.
  • If the business is incorporated and registered with the California Secretary of State then you will be able to find the information for the "agent for service of process" on the California Secretary of State website. This is the person that will be served on behalf of the business.

How to prepare for small claims hearing

To prepare for your California small claims court hearing:

  • Research the law. If you are unsure about your case, conduct research about the law. You can also consult an attorney.
  • 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 are correct.
  • Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask the person suing why they are suing.  The judge will then turn to the person that is being sued, why they should win the case.
  • Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, any filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for costs.  Generally, whoever wins the case can be reimbursed for "reasonable 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).

Make sure to check out our article on 5 Mistakes to Avoid During a Small Claims Hearing.

People Clerk helps you with your small claims court lawsuit.

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