How to Sue Your Landlord in Small Claims Court

April 6, 2021
How to Sue Your Landlord in Small Claims Court
People Clerk helps you with your small claims court lawsuit.

Are you looking to sue your landlord in a California small claims court?

In this article, learn about:

  • Common types of small claims lawsuits between landlords and tenants.
  • What to do before suing your landlord in small claims.
  • The maximum amount you can sue your landlord for in small claims court.
  • How much it costs to sue your landlord in small claims.  
  • How to file a small claims lawsuit against your landlord.
  • What to expect during a small claims hearing.
  • Mediation as an option of resolving your dispute against your landlord.
  • Fun fact, lawyers are not allowed to represent you or your landlord in small claims! This is to even the playing field so that each party has an equal chance of obtaining justice.  

Common types of small claims lawsuits against landlords

We often receive the question, can I sue my landlord in California small claims? The answer is yes as long as the dispute is for $10,000 or less (more on this below). Disputes with landlords are very common in small claims court.


Here are some examples of small claims lawsuits against landlords:

Your landlord did not return your security deposit.

  • If your landlord did not return your security deposit, you can sue your landlord in small claims court.
  • If you haven't heard from your landlord and it has been 21 days since you moved out, reach out to your landlord to see if they provide you a reason for not returning your security deposit.

Your landlord kept a portion of your security deposit.

  • You can sue your landlord in small claims if you think the amount they kept from your security deposit is incorrect or if they used your deposit to repair damage to the unit considered "normal wear and tear." Remember, your landlord cannot take money from your security deposit for damages that are considered "normal wear and tear."
  • For example, if your landlord decided to use your security deposit to remodel the house, this may not be an appropriate use of your security deposit.

Your landlord damaged your property

  • If your landlord damaged your property, you can sue in small claims court if they refuse to pay for the damages.
  • For example, if your landlord was doing remodels on the property and paint fell on your dining room table, you can sue in small claims.

Your landlord harassed you

  • If your landlord constantly harassed you, you can sue your landlord in small claims court.
  • It is worthwhile to reach out to a landlord-tenant attorney for this type of lawsuit before suing in small claims as you may have a bigger case than the $10,000 limit. Many landlord-tenant attorneys have free consultations to determine if they can take your lawsuit.  

Your landlord illegally evicted you or illegally locked you out

  • Similar to when a landlord harrases you, you can sue your landlord in small claims if your landlord illegally evicted you or illegally locked you out.
  • It is worthwhile to reach out to a landlord-tenant attorney for this type of lawsuit before suing in small claims as you may have a bigger case than the $10,000 limit. Many landlord-tenant attorneys have free consultations to determine if they can take your lawsuit.  

What to do before suing your landlord in small claims


Reach Out to Your Landlord

The first thing to do when a problem arises is to communicate with your landlord. If you are still living in the unit, you have an ongoing relationship with your landlord and maintaining that relationship is important.


If your landlord has not returned your security deposit, you will want to reach out to them and ask them why.  

  • Most of the time your landlord will agree to return your full security deposit (they may have been delayed due to work or family obligations). Note, a few days delay in returning your security deposit is usually not enough to be considered "bad faith" under California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1950.5(l).
  • If your landlord tells you they have deducted money from your security deposit, remind them that they have to provide you with an itemized statement of the deductions within 21 days (if the deductions are for more than $125 they also have to provide you with receipts) California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1950.5(g)(2(C). Review the itemized statement and if anything stands out to you, ask them about it!
  • Remember, if something is normal wear and tear, your landlord cannot deduct it from your security deposit. California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1950.5(b)(2). It can be hard to determine what is considered normal wear and tear.

If your landlord doesn't agree to return your security deposit, then it might be time to escalate the situation.

Save All Evidence

You want to make sure to save all evidence related to your relationship with your landlord. For example, you want to make sure to save:

  • Any pictures or videos of the unit before you moved in and after you moved out.
  • Any contracts such as a lease or rental agreement.
  • Any receipts or invoices from any repairs or cleaning you paid for.  
  • Written conversations you have had with your landlord (text messages, emails, etc).
  • Remember, if you are trying to convince the judge that you should get bad faith damages in the amount of 2x the amount of your security deposit, you need to have evidence to prove that your landlord acted in bad faith. California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1950.5(l). Evidence of bad faith is usually in the form of text messages or emails that show the landlord behaved terribly regarding the return of your security deposit.

Send a Demand Letter

A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, you could write to your landlord to request that they return your security deposit and that they did not follow the procedures outlined under California law. For security deposits, landlords should be well aware of their requirements outlined in California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1950.5.

If you eventually decide to sue in California small claims court, you are required to first request your money or property back before you can file the lawsuit. While you can request your money or property back orally, it is suggested you do so in writing in the form of a demand letter.


It is very common to request reimbursement via text message or by phone but you may have a higher chance of receiving payment if you do it in the form of a letter. Letters are oftentimes taken more seriously than demands for payment via text message or phone.  

What to include in the demand letter?

Unsure of what to include in your demand letter to your landlord? Here are a few suggestions:

  • How much money you are owed.
  • Why you are owed money.
  • Your contact information.
  • Where to send payment.
  • Option to pay you using a payment plan.
  • Option to mediate your dispute (there are many organizations in California that provide free or low-cost mediation and most courts also have free mediation available but many times you have to file a lawsuit in order to obtain access). More on mediation below.
  • Give them a few days to respond (usually about 7 to 14 days).
  • Let them know that if they don't respond, you intend to sue because you didn't feel like they left you with an alternative.

Contact a Lawyer

If you think your case against your landlord may be worth more than $10,000, you may want to reach out to a landlord-tenant lawyer in your area to see how much they think your lawsuit is worth. Many landlord-tenant lawyers provide free consultations to determine if they can take your lawsuit. In many types of lawsuits involving landlords and tenants, a lawyer may take your case on a "contingency" which means you only pay if you win.


Here are some common types of lawsuits landlord-tenant attorneys are interested in:

  • exposure to mold or other toxins
  • landlord harassment
  • illegal lockouts

The maximum amount you can sue your landlord for in small claims court

If your landlord owes you $10,000 or less, then you can sue in a California small claims court. If you are owed more than $10,000, you can still sue in small claims, but you agree to waive any additional amount you are owed.


Why would someone agree to waive any amount over $10,000 that they are owed:

  • Suing in regular court is more expensive, time-consuming, and complicated.
  • You cannot hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court making it cheaper.
  • Hearings in small claims court are scheduled 30-75 days after the lawsuit is filed.


How much can you sue for in small claims


How much does it costs to sue your landlord in small claims?

  • It costs between $30-$75 to file a small claims lawsuit against a landlord.
  • Once the lawsuit is filed, your landlord has to be notified that a lawsuit has been filed against them. This is called serving. You can serve for free if you have a friend or family member deliver the lawsuit to your landlord or you can pay between $40-$75 to have the small claims lawsuit professionally served.
  • If you are on California public benefits like Medi-cal, Food Stamps, SSI, you pay $0 in court fees and serving costs.

How to file a small claims lawsuit against your landlord

Step 1: Identify who your Landlord is and their address

In order to sue in California small claims, you need to be able to correctly name the person or business you are suing. You also need to list an address for them on the lawsuit and later on, you will need to be able to serve them.

  • Distinguish your landlord from the property management company. Many people confuse the property management company with their landlord as they are used to dealing with a property management company. Your landlord is usually the one holding on to your security deposit in their bank account, not the property management company. However, if you have claims against the property management company then you would also include them in the lawsuit.
  • How to find who your landlord is. Normally, on the first page of your lease, your landlord's name listed. Your landlord may be a company or they may be an individual.
  • Call the County Tax Assessor. If you cannot find your landlord's name on the lease, you can call the county tax assessor's office where the rented unit is located and ask who owns the property. In California, each county tax assessor has the information on who owns a property. They may also be able to give you a current address for them as you will need this address to find where to serve your landlord.
  • If your landlord is a Corporation or LLC, you can run a search on the California Secretary of State's website. If you live in a large apartment complex, your landlord very likely is registered as a corporation or LLC. You will need to identify the name of the corporation or LLC. In this article, we cover this process in detail. It is important to identify who the agent for service of process (someone selected by the corporation or LLC to receive legal documents on its behalf) as this is the person who will be served.

Step 2: Complete "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" (Form SC-100)

  • This form starts the California Small Claims Court lawsuit process. Download here.
  • It is also known as the "complaint" or "claim."

We can help you prepare and file your small claims lawsuit against your landlord!

Step 3: File "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court"

Each California Small Claims Court has a different procedure for filing. You have to check with your local small claims court whether they allow filing in-person, by mail, online, or by fax. Or we can file your case for you!

Step 4: Serve your landlord

If your landlord is an individual

Once you file your California small claims court lawsuit, the next step is to notify your landlord that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" (also known as "service"). You must serve your landlord at least 15-20 days before the small claims court hearing (sometimes you are required to serve at least 30 days before the hearing).  There are several ways you can serve your landlord including by having a friend serve, hiring a process server, or hiring the sheriff. You cannot serve your own lawsuit.


If your landlord is a corporation or LLC

Remember, you will be serving their "agent for service of process" as listed on the California Secretary of State's website. Learn more here.

We can help you with serving the small claims lawsuit.

The Small Claims Court Hearing

Once you file your small claims lawsuit, you will get a hearing date scheduled anywhere between 30-70 days later. During this time, your landlord may call you to try and settle the case. If you come to an agreement, you can close your small claims lawsuit.

To prepare for your small claims court hearing:  

  • Research the law. If you are unsure about what laws relate to your lawsuit, consult an attorney or conduct your own research about the law (a quick Google search goes a long way). Remember, you don't need to necessarily cite a specific law (unless you are basing your legal theories on a very unknown subject area), you just need to be able to prove that you are "right" and your landlord is "wrong." Sometimes this can be as simple as proving that your landlord caused damage to property that belongs to you.  
  • If your lawsuit is about your security deposit, there is tons of information online to help you prepare. Many attorneys and government entities write free blog posts covering security deposits. The main source of law for security deposits is the California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1950.5. Most small claims judges have seen hundreds if not thousands of security deposit lawsuits. As an aside, we have definitely seen landlords in small claims tell the judge they didn't know that 1950.5 existed and judges are quick to remind landlords that it is their responsibility when they rent a property to be well informed of the law.
  • Prepare your evidence. Pictures, 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. Remember, it is not good to show up to court without any documents or receipts. The judge wants to be able to base their decision on the evidence you bring to court showing exactly how much you are owed and why you are owed money.

Keep in mind that People Clerk will help you organize your evidence in a judge friendly evidence packet!

  • Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask you why you are suing your landlord and how you calculated the amount you are owed. You want to make sure you start with a broad statement like this: "Your honor, I am suing my landlord in small claims court today because they failed to return by $3,000 security deposit. Then go into the details.
  • 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 of your evidence (one for you, one for the judge, one for your landlord).

Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?

  • Attorneys are not allowed to represent you or your landlord at the initial hearing. If your landlord loses the small claims lawsuit and appeals (meaning they lost and want the judge to decide again) then attorneys are allowed to represent the parties at the appeal hearing.

Mediation as an option of resolving your dispute

What is mediation?

Mediation is a meeting between you, your landlord, and a neutral 3rd party called the mediator. A mediator is not going to decide who should win but rather help you and your landlord come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. Mediation tends to be very successful between landlords and tenants as you have a longstanding relationship. If you reach an agreement during mediation, you will be able to close your lawsuit.


How can I try to mediate the dispute with my landlord?

In California, there are many organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation. Run a google search for "mediation near me" and you will find one of the many organizations providing mediation. Many times they are run by volunteer mediators.


Many California small claims courts also have free mediation available. Each county runs their small claims mediation a bit differently so reach out to us for more information on your court. You can either obtain free mediation on your hearing date or you may be able to request mediation before your hearing date.

People Clerk helps you with your small claims court lawsuit.

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