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Ready to learn how to sue a contractor in a California small claims court? Learning how to sue a contractor in a California small claims court might seem like a complicated process but in this article, we break down how small claims works!
In this article learn about:
Consider filing a complaint before suing a contractor in small claims
How much you can sue a contractor for in small claims.
How much going to small claims against a contractor costs.
The steps to suing in a California small claims court.
What to expect during a small claims hearing.
What information you will need when preparing to file the small claims court lawsuit.
How to find the right legal name for a contractor you are suing.
Collecting a Small Claims Court Judgment Against a Licensed Contractor
Looking for help with filing a lawsuit against a contractor in a California Small Claims Court?
People Clerk can help you file, serve, and prepare for your small claims hearing against a contractor.
Consider filing a complaint against a contractor with the California Contractors State License Board (CSLB) before suing a mechanic in small claims
What is the California Contractors State Licensing Board?
The Contractors State Licensing Board is a California government agency that regulates contractors. As of 2020, there are around 300,000 contractors in California.
The Contractor's Licensing Board:
Investigates consumer complaints.
Enforces the rules that contractors have to follow.
What will the California Contractors State Licensing Board do?
The California Contractors State Licensing Board will conduct an investigation of your complaint against the contractor. The CSLB does not have the authority to force an unlicensed contractor to pay you back but the CSLB can fine them or refer the complaint to the district attorney's office.
Step by Step Guide on How to File a Complaint with the California Contractors State Licensing Board
How much can you sue a contractor for in small claims?
In California, you can sue a contractor for a maximum of $10,000 if you are an individual.
By suing in small claims you are agreeing to waive any amount over the maximum amount you can sue for, even if you are owed more.
For example, if a contractor owes you $15,000, and you decide to sue in small claims, you are waiving suing for an additional $5,000. Meaning that you will win a maximum of $10,000.
While you may be missing out on the full amount you are owed, there are practical benefits to suing in small claims instead of suing in "regular court."
Here are some of the benefits:
Court filing fees are cheaper in small claims than in other courts.
The process is faster in small claims than in other courts as your hearing will usually be scheduled 30-70 days after you file the lawsuit.
Lawyers are generally not allowed in small claims which helps keep the costs of suing low.
How much does suing a contractor in a California small claims court cost?
So how much are you going to spend by suing a contractor in small claims court?
Court Filing Fees
The amount you will pay to file a small claims lawsuit in California depends on how much you are suing the contractor for. You will pay between $30 to $75 to file the lawsuit.If you cannot afford to pay court fees, you can ask the court to waive the fees.
Once the lawsuit is filed, you have to notify the contractor you sued that they have been sued. This is called "serving." Serving Costs can range from $0-$75 per defendant you sue (serving is free with the sheriff if you qualify for a waiver of your court fees).
If you win, you may be able to have the contractor reimburse you for your court fees and serving costs.
Learn More: Full Guide on California Small Claims Court Filing Fees
What are the steps to suing a contractor in a California small claims court?
We have outlined each one of these steps in detail, click the links to learn more.
Consider filing a complaint against a contractor before suing in small claims. Learn more here.
Prepare and file the lawsuit. Learn more.
Notify ("serve") the contractor you have sued. Learn more.
Prepare for and attend the small claims hearing. Learn more.
Once the lawsuit is filed, the small claims hearing will be scheduled 30-70 days later.
What is a small claims court hearing like?
Small claims hearings in California small claims are informal and most hearings last around 15 minutes. While many disputes against contractors settle before the hearing, here is what to expect if your lawsuit does not settle.
Who will represent the contractor at the hearing?
The easiest way to answer this question is that a lawyer will not be representing the contractor since lawyers cannot represent parties at the initial small claims hearing.
If you and the contractor you sued, both show up:
Right before the hearing, the judge will ask you and the contractor to show each other the evidence that you will later show the judge.
The judge will ask you why you are suing.
The judge will ask the contractor to tell them their side of the story.
The hearing will last around 15 minutes.
The judge will ask you to show them the evidence you brought. Sometimes the judge will keep the evidence. Other times, you will get the evidence right back.
Very rarely a judge will tell you whether you won or lost at the hearing. Instead, the judge will tell you that their decision will be mailed to you (usually takes a few weeks to two months or so).
If you show up but the contractor you sued does not show up:
If the contractor you sued does not show up to the hearing but you properly notified ("served") them, then the hearing will still take place. You don't automatically win and you will still have to tell the judge why you should win.
Learn More: What is What is a Small Claims Court Hearing Like?
Preparing to File Your Small Claims Lawsuit Against a Contractor
In order to sue a contractor in a California small claims court, you need to know:
If the contractor is doing business as an individual or as a corporation or LLC.
If the contractor is doing business as a corporation or LLC, then it is important to find who the "registered agent for service of process" is.
When filing a lawsuit against a contractor in a California small claims court, it is very important to write down their information correctly and make sure you are suing the correct business entity.
1. What does suing the "correct business entity" mean?
An example is the best way to explain this. Let's say you took you had "ABC Contractor" do work on your house.
ABC Contractor may be a trade name for ABC Contractor, Inc or even a more remote name like The ABCDEFG Contractor Company.
Contractors sometimes use a name other than their real legal entity name when doing business. This is called a fictitious business name. In general, contractors use fictitious business names or trade names for marketing purposes if their name or legal entity name is too long.
What happens if I don't sue the correct business entity for the contractor?
For one, you may be suing the wrong contractor as many have similar names. If you win the lawsuit you will get a "judgment" against the incorrect contractor and this will bring problems down the road. =
The goal here is finding the correct person or business to sue.
2. Who is the "registered agent for service of process"?
Any corporation or LLC that does business in California, has to select a person (or another business) to receive legal documents (like a lawsuit) on their behalf in California.
This person (or business) responsible for receiving legal documents on behalf of the contractor is called the "registered agent for service of process" or just the "registered agent."
After the lawsuit is filed, this is the person (or business) who will be notified ("served") of the lawsuit on behalf of the contractor you are suing.
If the contractor is doing business as an individual (or sole proprietor) there is no agent for service of process (the contractor is the person that has to be served with the lawsuit).
Read more below on how to find the registered agent.
Read More: Complete Guide on how to file a Small Claims Court Lawsuit in California
How to find the correct legal entity name for a contractor you are suing
Step 1: Make a list of any names the contractor has used in your interactions with them.
Review any estimates, contracts, or invoices you received from the contractor. Usually, you can find the contractor's name on the top part of the estimate.
Check any communications the contractor has sent you.
Step 2: Search for the Contractor's License
You can run a search on the California Department of Consumer Affairs Contractors State License Board Search.
Keep in mind that not all contractors need to be licensed so the contractor may not show up on the database.
If the search is successful, make sure to take screenshots of any information you find (especially if they are licensed as a business and if you see their address).
Step 3: Run a search for their business license.
Each city in California has a database of business licenses registered in that city.
If you know the contractor's address or the city they are based in, run a google search "business licenses [name of city]" and call the city department.
The city department should be able to search by name, address, and sometimes a phone number.
The city department will be able to tell you whether the business license is registered to an individual or whether it is registered to an LLC or Corporation.
Make sure to ask what the business address is for the contractor as you will need this address to be able to serve the contractor. If the business license is registered to an LLC or Corporation, make sure to ask for the exact spelling then read the section below on running a search on the California Secretary of State's website.
Step 4: Check the California Secretary of State's website
Using the list of names you have created for the contractor, run a search on the California Secretary of State's website. Keep in mind that most contractors are not doing business as a corporation or LLC but rather as sole proprietorships, but you want to run a search just in case.
Here are some tips:
If you don't know whether the contractor is a corporation or LLC, search by both categories.
If too many similar names come up, you may want to click on the word "status" so the results are organized by businesses with "active" status.
There are many businesses that have similar names so make sure the name you find is as close to one of the names listed on their website.
Make sure to also click on the name of the business under "entity name" and review the addresses. If the addresses are similar to the ones on the website or where you dropped off your car, then you have likely found the correct business name for the contractor.
Make sure you write down:
The complete legal entity name for the contractor.
Who the "registered agent for service of process" is. This is the person (or business) who will be served on behalf of the business you are suing. It will very likely be a business that is listed as the registered agent.
If no names come up, then run a fictitious business name search in the county where the contractor is located.
Need help with your California small claims lawsuit?
Step 5: Determine whether the contractor is using a Fictitious Business Name
Many times, contractors use fictitious business names also known as dba or trade names.
What is a Fictitious Business Name?
Sometimes a contractor will operate using a name other than their legal name. This is known as a:
"fictitious business name"
"doing business as"
California law requires contractors that want to do business using a name other than their legal name to register the name in the county where their principal place of business is located.
The purpose of this is to ensure that when someone wants to sue a contractor, they are able to find the right person to sue.
How to search for registered fictitious business names?
Each county has a database with the registered fictitious business names. If you determine that a corporation or LLC is using a fictitious business name, then go to Step 2 to search the California Secretary of State's database using the official legal entity name.
If you determine that an individual is using a fictitious business name, then you would list the individual as the defendant (person being sued) on the lawsuit.
Searching using the BBB (Better Business Bureau)
Still can't find the correct legal entity name? Another option is to search on the BBB. If the contractor has had complaints in the past, then the Better Business Bureau might have looked up the legal entity name.
How to find the right business name on the BBB
Type the contractor's name. If you know the city and state where the contractor is located, then enter the city and state in the address box. Otherwise, leave it blank and press search.
A list of business names will come up. You may see a different business name than the one you typed. Try clicking on "view BBB review."
Go to the section labeled "Business Details." Determine whether it seems like that is the correct contractor you worked with by verifying the address. The business may list who the owner is or their correct legal entity name.
Collecting a Small Claims Court Judgment Against a Licensed Contractor
If you win your small claims lawsuit, the California State Contractors License Board may be able to help you enforce the small claims judgment by suspending the contractor's license until they pay you.
If you submit a copy of the judge's decision within 90 days from when the court decided your lawsuit, the CSLB will notify the contractor that they have 90 days from when CSLB notifies the contractor to pay the judgment. If the contractor does not pay the judgment, CSLB will suspend their license until they pay you.
If the judgment is 91 days or older, CSLB will suspend the contractor's license until the judgment is paid.
Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila holds a juris doctor degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.