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Guide to Suing for Your Security Deposit in California Small Claims

Camila Lopez - California Security Deposit - March 1, 2024

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    Disputes over security deposit lawsuits are among the most common types of lawsuits filed in small claims court. In this article, we provide step-by-step instructions on how to sue a landlord over a security deposit, provide a quick overview of the California security deposit law, and go over what to do before suing for a security deposit.  

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

    California Small Claims Quick Facts 



    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. 

    Example of Security Deposit Small Claims Lawsuits 

    We often receive the question, can I sue my landlord for the return of my security deposit in California small claims? The answer is yes, as long as you would like to sue for $12,500 or less.

    Below, we have included some sample California small claims security deposit cases and their outcomes for your review. 

    Case Facts 

    Case Outcomes 

    An Orange County small claims lawsuit was filed against a landlord for failing to return a security deposit, and bad faith penalties under California Civil Code sec. 1950.5

    The former tenants sued for a total of $10,000. This amount included the security deposit, as well as bad faith damages for failing to return the deposit within the required 21-day period, and for failing to make necessary repairs to the rental property.

    The court awarded the former tenants the full $10,000 amount they were seeking, plus an additional $115 in court costs. 

    In this case, the proper defendant (the landlord being sued) didn’t show up, so the court relied on the former tenants' evidence and testimony to decide the case. As long as the landlord is properly served, the hearing goes on with or without them.

    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 Los Angeles small claims lawsuit was filed against a landlord for failing to return a security deposit and for bad faith under California Security deposit law

    The previous tenant filed a lawsuit for a total of $2,800. This amount includes the full security deposit amount, twice the security deposit amount for bad faith, and damages for lost time.

    The court awarded the former tenant a total of $300 plus an additional $104.25 in court costs. This amount includes a portion of the initial security deposit only. 

    According to the court’s decision, the landlord failed to provide documentation of deductions made to the security deposit to the former tenant in a timely manner

    However, during the trial, the landlord showed evidence that there were deductions made because the rental unit required significant cleaning. Thus, even though the landlord did not obey Civil Code Section 1950.5 by not providing a list of the deductions to the former tenant within the 21-day period, the court found that the landlord did’t act in “bad faith.” 


    Quick Overview of California Security Deposit Laws

    As an initial step, you will want to determine that you have a good case under California law. 

    California security deposit law can be found under California Civil Code Section 1950.5. Below, we discuss the key sections of the code that you should refer to if your landlord refuses to refund your security deposit. 

    1. How long does my landlord have to return my security deposit in California? Your landlord has 21 days from when you move out to return your security deposit. If your landlord makes deductions to your security deposit, they have 21 days from when you move out to return the remainder of your security deposit with an itemized list of the deductions they made.

    2. Can a California landlord require a non-refundable security deposit? No, the security deposit has to be refundable.

    3. What can my landlord legally deduct from my security deposit? (1) Unpaid rent, (2) damages to the unit you rented (if more than “normal wear and tear”), and (3) fees for cleaning the unit after you move out. Learn more about what “normal wear and tear” means with our comprehensive guide on California Security Deposit law

    4. Is a walkthrough of the unit required before moving out? Your landlord is required to notify you in writing of your option to request an initial inspection before you move out. 

    5. What if my landlord is withholding my deposit in “bad faith”? You can request up to twice the amount of your security deposit (plus your actual security deposit). Learn more about “bad faith” damages in our comprehensive guide on California Security Deposit law

    6. How much can a California landlord charge for a security deposit in California? If the apartment is unfurnished, a landlord cannot charge more than 2 months’ rent. If the apartment is furnished, a landlord cannot charge more than 3 months' rent. However, starting on July 1, 2024, these limits will change. Learn more here about the new law

    What To Do Before Filing a Security Deposit Small Claims Case

    Demand Payment 

    Before you can file a small claims court lawsuit in California, the court requires that you request your security deposit back first. You will have to confirm you have done this on the small claims lawsuit.

    • 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. 

    • By demanding payment in writing, you also have a record of your security deposit request that you can later show the court. 

    • 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.

    Did you know we have a free tool powered by AI that helps you create a demand letter? Check out our demand letter tool.

    Decide Which Court to File In

    When deciding where to file your lawsuit, it is not about which court is the 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 your landlord. This is known as "jurisdiction." 

    • Where can I sue? In general, you can always sue over a security deposit in the small claims court court that is nearest to where the rented unit is located or where you your landlord lives. 

    • Why can't all courts have authority over your landlord? 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, but the judge will decide at the hearing if you sued in the wrong court. If the judge decides that you sued in the wrong court, you will have to file a new lawsuit 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 your landlord lives or where the rental property is located. 

    • 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. 

    Determine Who Needs to Sue 

    The person doing the suing is called the plaintiff. Deciding who needs to be included in a lawsuit as a plaintiff is normally an easy determination when suing over your security deposit. Anyone on the lease agreement that paid the security deposit should be included. 

    Here is an example: You and your roommate are both renters who live together in San Francisco. 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.

    When in doubt, it is better to include anyone you think is owed the security deposit and the judge will decide at the hearing. 

    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?

    • The most common mistake we see is people suing their property manager and not their landlord in security deposit cases. Make sure you sue the person or company listed as the landlord on your lease or rental agreement, as they are the one holding on to your security deposit. 

    Make Sure to Have the Information You Will Need to Prepare the Small Claims Lawsuit

    As you get ready to sue your landlord, make sure you have the correct information for them.  

    • If your landlord is an individual, you will need your landlords 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.  

    • If your landlord is a business, you will need to search for their complete legal name on the California Secretary of State website. Once you locate their legal name, you will also be able to locate their agent (this is the person who you will serve on behalf of your landlord) and their address. 

    • What happens if I don’t have my landlord’s address? Call the County Tax Assessor in the county where the rental unit is and ask them for the owner name and mailing address. If the mailing address is the same as the rental unit address, you will need to search a different way. Try looking on Google, or Linkedin, or try googling their phone number as there is a lot of information publicly available. As a last resort, you can hire a private investigator to run a skip trace. 

    Steps to Suing for a Security Deposit in California Small Claims 

    Here are the steps to suing a landlord for your security deposit 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.  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 the 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 to win at your small claims court hearing:  

    • Research the law. Best practice is to review California Security Deposit law

    • Prepare your evidence. Your evidence should show the judge didn’t follow the law and should have returned your security deposit. Unfortunately, we have observed small claims hearings where the tenant has a good case but has disorganized evidence and does a poor job at presenting their case. It is important to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and a short description on why that piece of evidence is important

    • 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 my $2,000 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 you would like to be reimbursed for these costs. It will ultimately be up to the judge to decide what they would like to reimburse you for. 

    • Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies of your evidence (one for you, one for the judge, and one for your landlord).

    Learn more in our 8 tips on how to win in California small claims. 

    Is Suing for My Security Deposit in Small Claims Court My Only Option? 

    Participate in Mediation

    Besides suing your landlord for your security deposit in small claims court, consider mediating your dispute with your landlord. Mediation tends to be very successful when both parties have a prior relationship. For landlords and tenants, this tends to be the case.

    • California small claims courts offer free mediation if they are available on the day of your hearing.

    • Mediation is a meeting between you, the other party, and a neutral third person called a mediator

    • Mediation is an effort to see if the parties can come to a mutually agreeable solution or settlement.

    • If you reach an agreement during mediation, you will be able to close your lawsuit. If you don’t reach an agreement, you can simply go ahead and present your case in front of a judge so they can make a decision. 

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

    • In California, many organizations 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 its small claims mediation a bit differently. You can either obtain free mediation on your hearing date, or you may be able to request mediation before your hearing date.

    File a Complaint Against Your Landlord 

    You may also be able to file a complaint against your landlord with a government or nongovernment agency. 

    • Note that most government agencies will only handle certain types of complaints against a landlord (these complaints usually involve discrimination or harassment). It is rare for a government agency to handle a complaint over a security deposit. 

    • For example, the California Civil Rights Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is responsible for enforcing California’s fair housing laws, which apply to landlords, property management companies, real estate agents, builders, mortgage lenders, etc. The DFEH also allows tenants to file a complaint against a landlord for harassment, housing discrimination, and retaliation

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


    Camila Lopez

    Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Camila holds a law degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.

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