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How to Sue Someone Someone in California

Claudia Diaz - California Small Claims - October 6, 2023

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    Do you need to sue someone in California for money owed, property damage, breach of contract, etc.? 

    In this article, we go over how to sue someone in California over different types of disputes by providing a step-by-step guide to the California small claims process. This article will also demonstrate how small claims courts can be a good option if you are considering taking legal action against someone, as these courts are more affordable, simpler, and more efficient than regular civil courts.  

    Did you know that People Clerk can help you navigate California small claims? Start Lawsuit. 

    Decide How Much You Are Suing For

    Before taking someone to California small claims court, decide how much you are suing them for. Why? All small claims courts have a limit called the “small claims limit” that lets you know the maximum amount you can sue someone for. 

    In California, the maximum amount you can sue for in small claims depends on who is doing the suing:

    • 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 for 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

    • For example, you are an individual, and you paid $11,000 for someone to repair your car. However, the person never performs the repairs. You can sue in small claims court for $10,000 and waive $1,000. 

    • Even though you would need to waive money over the small claims limit, small claims courts are user-friendly, efficient, and more affordable than other types of courts so it may be worth it waiving any amount over the small claims limit. 

    What if I don’t want to waive any additional amount I am owed? 

    • You can decide to file a California limited civil case instead; the limit for those cases is $25,000. However, limited civil cases are more expensive, and the rules of evidence and civil procedure are that of a “regular” civil case. This means you may need to hire an attorney to help you navigate the process (which will cost more). 

    • If you calculate you are owed quite a bit (more than $25,000), your best option is to file in a regular civil court. This type of court is very hard to navigate without an attorney, as you need to follow the normal rules of evidence and civil procedure. They also involve more court costs and fees.

    California Small Claims Quick Facts 

    Once you decide the suing in small claims is right for you, here is what you need to know about small claims court: 


    $10,000 if you are an individual, $5,000 if you are suing on behalf of a corporation or LLC.

    Cost to File the Lawsuit 

    $0-$75. Court filing fees are $0 if a judge approves your application for a court fee waiver.

    Cost to Serve the Lawsuit 

    $0-$125. Serving costs are $0 if a judge approves your application for a court fee waiver and you serve your lawsuit with the sheriff.

    Virtual Hearings 

    Many courts provide an option to attend the hearing virtually.  


    Free mediation is available in many courts. 

    Are lawyers allowed in small claims court? 

    Fun fact: lawyers are not allowed to represent either side. This is to even the playing field so that each party has an equal chance of obtaining justice.  

    Main Forms 

    Lawsuit, Proof of Service, Fee Waiver

    Length of Time

    Most hearings are scheduled 45-70 days after the lawsuit is filed. 

    Did you know that People Clerk can help you navigate California small claims? Start Lawsuit. 

    Common Types of Small Claims Lawsuits 

    Here are some common types of small claims lawsuits filed in California small claims courts: 

    • Personal loans. For example, you loaned your neighbor $5,000 to repair their fence, and they don’t pay you back. 

    • Security deposit. For example, you moved out of your Los Angeles apartment, and your landlord refuses to return your security deposit

    • Property damage after a car accident. For example, you were in a car accident while driving in Santa Monica, and the driver refuses to pay for the damages to your car. 

    • Outstanding invoices from clients. For example, you own a small business, and your clients refuse to pay for items you sold.  

    • Someone sold you a bad car. For example, you purchased a used SUV from a private seller, and shortly after have mechanical issues after they told you that the car was in perfect condition. 

    • Contractor disputes. For example, you paid a contractor to build an addition to your home, and they did a poor job. 

    • Mechanic disputes. For example, you take your car to a mechanic to repair your engine, but when you pick up the car from the mechanic and try to turn it on, the engine won’t start. 

    • Your neighbor damages your property. For example, your neighbor was cutting their hedges and crossed onto your property and tore down your fence. 

    • Someone took your property. For example, your ex took your dog after you guys broke up. Just know that in small claims, you can ask for money damages, but the judge cannot force someone to return your property. 

    • A dog breeder sold you a sick dog. For example, you purchased a corgi from a dog breeder, but unfortunately, you find out that the corgi is very sick and needs immediate medical attention. 

    California Small Claims Sample Cases and Outcomes

    Below, we have included some sample California small claims cases and their outcomes for you to review. 

    Case Facts 

    Case Outcomes 

    A San Diego small claims lawsuit was filed against a landlord for failing to return a security deposit or provide an itemized list of deductions and for bad faith under California Security deposit law.

    The former tenant sued for a total of $1,600. This amount includes the full security deposit, plus twice the security deposit amount for bad faith.

    The court awarded the former tenant the total $1,600 amount they sued for, plus $125 in court costs

    A San Bernandino small claims lawsuit was filed against a mechanic for improper repairs to a car

    The customer who filed the lawsuit was seeking a total of $3,784.08. They wanted a refund for the improper work performed and reimbursement for the rental car fees they incurred while their car was with the mechanic.

    The court awarded the person suing the total $3,784.08 they were suing for, plus an additional $90 in court costs

    In Fresno, someone filed a small claims lawsuit against their ex-partner for not returning their dog.

    The person who filed the lawsuit had reported their missing dog to the police. Later, they discovered that someone had found the dog and had returned it to their ex-partner. The ex-partner had kept the dog without telling the true owner (the person who filed the lawsuit).

    The judge in the case ruled that the ex-partner had to return the dog to the person who filed the lawsuit, which was the other ex-partner. If the dog was not returned by the time of the next hearing, the ex-partner would have to pay the value of the dog, which was set by the judge at $5,000

    It's important to note that in small claims courts, including those in California, you can typically only sue for the value of your property. However, in some cases, a judge may order someone to return the property instead via a “conditional judgment.

    A Monterey small claims lawsuit was filed against a mechanic for a bad paint job, misuse of the car, and damage to the car

    The customer who filed the lawsuit was seeking a total of $6,750. This amount included what they paid for the paint job, as well as compensation for damages and misuse of the car. 

    The court awarded the person suing a total of $5,600 plus an additional $150 in court costs. It is unclear from the court’s decision why they awarded that amount. 

    Did you know we can help you navigate California small claims? Start Lawsuit. 

    What are the Deadlines for California Small Claims Court? 

    When suing someone, don’t delay in filing your lawsuit. Statute of limitations, are deadlines, that let you know when you need to file a small claims lawsuit. In California, the many statutes of limitations can range anywhere from 2-4 years (but some are less). The statute of limitations is the same for a small claims lawsuit as for other types of lawsuits in California. 

    However, depending on the type of claim you bring, the statute of limitations will be different. For example, there will be a different statute of limitations that addresses property damage and breach of contract cases.

    Here are some common questions our clients ask us about the statute of limitations:

    • Does my hearing have to be before the statute of limitations? No, but your case has to be FILED before the statute of limitations.

    • Can I still file my small claims lawsuit if the statute of limitations already passed? You will still be able to file your lawsuit because it is not the clerk who decides whether the statute of limitations has passed. The judge is the only person who can decide whether the statute of limitations has passed. If the statute of limitations has passed, the judge will let you know at the hearing and will close your 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, or (3) let the judge decide at the hearing. 

    • Why should I file my small claims lawsuit right away? There are several reasons you should file your lawsuit as quickly as possible: (1) You may need more time in case you file your lawsuit incorrectly the first time around, (2) You may lose evidence the longer you wait, (3) You begin to lose credibility the more you wait, and the judge will want to know why you waited so long to file.

    What To Do Before Filing a California Small Claims Case

    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. If you haven't demanded payment, you can use our free tool to create a demand letter, or you can learn how to write a demand letter using our demand letter guide.

    Decide Which Court to File In

    When deciding where to file your lawsuit, it is not about what is most convenient to you in many cases. 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? Because this is what your elected officials decided was fair. 

    • What happens if I file in the wrong small claims court? You may still be able to file your lawsuit, this will be up to the judge to decide. You may not find out until the hearing that you filed your lawsuit in the wrong court. This means the court may close your case, and you will have to refile in the right court. This is risky because if the court decides 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. The best way to avoid this is by filing in a court that corresponds to where the person you are suing lives. 

    • Note that once you narrow down the county, you can sue in, you will then need to select the correct court in that county. For example, if you have decided that you can file a small claims lawsuit in LA County, the next step is to narrow down which court in LA County small claims court you can sue in. There are zip codes and cities associated with each LA County courthouse. 

    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 about your security deposit, you can sue where the unit you rented is located 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 their work on your car, you can sue where the mechanic did the work, normally, where their shop is located. 

    Determine Who Needs to Sue 

    The person or business doing the suing is called the plaintiff. Deciding 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.

    Below are common examples to help you answer this question:

    • You and your roommate are both renters who live together in San Diego. You both gave your landlord a $2,000 security deposit. After moving out, your landlord refuses to return the 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 friend’s car, and another driver hit you while driving. It will cost $1,000 to fix the car. Your friend should be included in the lawsuit since they are the registered owner.

    Determine Who You Need to Sue 

    The person being sued is called the defendant

    Ask yourself, who is responsible for what happened to me or who owes me money?

    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 at the hearing. You don't want the judge to close your lawsuit because even though they think you are right, but you didn't sue the right person.

    • Security deposit lawsuits. The most common mistake we see is people suing their property manager and not their landlord in security deposit cases. You want to make sure you sue the person 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 get ready to sue someone, make sure you have the correct information for the person you are suing.

    • You will need the person’s full legal name and an address where they can be notified (“served”) of the lawsuit once it has been filed. For example, this can be the address where the person lives or works.  

    • What happens if I don't have an address associated with the person I am suing? You will need to find this information before suing them. Try looking on Google, or Linkedin, or try a googling their phone number as there is a lot of information publicly available. 

    Did you know that People Clerk can help you navigate California small claims? Start Lawsuit. 

    Steps to Suing Someone in California Small Claims 

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

    1. Prepare the lawsuit.

    2. File the lawsuit.

    3. Serve the lawsuit.

    4. Prepare for the hearing. 

    Step 1. Prepare the Lawsuit 

    To prepare your California small claims lawsuit, you will need to fill out the correct forms provided by the court. Usually, this means filing out a “Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court” (SC-100) but may also include other forms like a fee waiver form if you need to apply for a waiver of your court costs. 

    Step 2. File the Lawsuit 

    After preparing your lawsuit, you will need to file it with the court. Here are the methods for filing: 

    • In-person. Make sure to bring at least 2 copies of the small claims lawsuit with you and any other required forms.

    • By 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. 

    • Online. Many California small claims courts don't accept lawsuits filed online. This is called electronic filing or e-filing

    Step 3. Serve the Lawsuit 

    Once you have filed your small claims lawsuit, the next step is to notify the individual you are suing that you filed a small claims lawsuit against them. This is called "service of process" or "serving."

    Who can serve the lawsuit? 

    • NOT YOU! You cannot serve your own small claims lawsuit.

    • Process Server. A process server is someone licensed to serve lawsuits. 

    • Sheriff. Depending on the county where person you are suing needs to be served, you may be able to use the sheriff. Not all California sheriffs serve small claims lawsuits. 

    • Friend or Family member. You can have an adult friend or family member serve your small claims lawsuit as long as they are not related to the lawsuit.  

    Step 4. Prepare for a Small Claims Hearing 

    To prepare for your California small claims court hearing:

    • Research the law. As a general practice, it is always good to read up on any laws that can support your claim. At this stage, you can choose to consult an attorney if you would like. For example, if you are suing your landlord for the return of your security deposit, you should research California security deposit laws.  

    • Prepare your evidence. Make sure to collect and organize all potential evidence that can be used to support your claim; it is your responsibility to prove to the judge why and how much the other party owes you. This can include invoices, contracts, receipts, etc. For example, you are a graphic designer and provided services to a client who doesn’t want to pay. Consider including invoices you mailed to the client, correspondence between you and the client about the work performed, etc., in your evidence. People Clerk can help you organize your evidence for your California small claims hearing.

    • Prepare what you will say. At the hearing, the judge will ask both you and the other party to testify about the facts of your case. This means you need to say your side of the story to the judge. Be prepared to answer questions like (1) why you are suing the other party, (2) how much you are suing them for, and (3) how you calculated that amount. 

    • Bring multiple copies of your evidence. You should bring at least three copies of your evidence. One copy for you, one copy for the judge, and one copy for the other party. In some courts, you will need to submit your evidence before the hearing to the court and the other party. 

    The Small Claims Hearing

    Here is some general information about how California small claims hearings work: 

    • Small claims court is more informal in terms of the rules of evidence and procedure. This means that most hearings last around 15 minutes or so. Of course, every case is different, and how long your hearing will last will depend on factors such as how much evidence both sides need to present. 

    • California small claims courts offer free mediation if they are available on the day of your hearing. Mediation is a meeting between both you and the person you sued. The meeting is overseen by a neutral third party (called a mediator). The parties will meet with a mediator, discuss their case, and try to reach a mutually beneficial solution. Mediation is a completely voluntary process, this means you can attend your small claims hearing and choose not to participate in a mediation beforehand. 

    • Wait for the court’s decision in the mail. Normally, you will get the court’s decision within 2 weeks after your hearing. 

    • Learn about 5 common mistakes to avoid during your small claims hearing. 

    Did you know that People Clerk can help you navigate California small claims? Start Lawsuit. 


    Claudia Diaz

    Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Claudia holds a J.D. degree and is a certified mediator in New York and Florida. She has participated in dozens of small claims mediations in New York City courts.

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