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If you received a document with the title "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" you have been sued by your landlord in California small claims court. Now what? In this article, we review how to prepare for your day in small claims court.
Here is an overview:
Review the small claims lawsuit you received.
You don't have to file any documents to respond to the lawsuit.
What are your defenses against your landlord?
Consider settling with your landlord.
Consider suing your landlord in small claims.
Prepare your evidence.
Prepare for the small claims hearing.
Review the Lawsuit You Received
The document "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" is the small claims lawsuit your landlord filed. At a minimum, if your landlord sued you in California small claims, you should have received 5 pages. Make you review each page you received.
Here are some important areas to note:
Page 1: you should make a note of when the hearing is and where the hearing is.
Page 2: you can review your landlord's information. Your landlord will be referred to as the "plaintiff" since your landlord is the one suing in small claims. Under #3, you can see how much you are being sued for by your landlord ("the plaintiff claims the defendant owes $____). You can also see why you are being sued in small claims and how your landlord calculated the amount you are being sued for.
Page 4: provides you general information on your options.
There may be additional pages attached so make sure you review each page.
Write down the hearing date
You don't want to miss your small claims hearing against your landlord. It is extremely important to put the date on your calendar and set multiple reminders.
Many California Small Claims courts now have virtual hearings and new requirements to submit your evidence to the court before the hearing.
Each small claims court has its own deadlines so it is important to review any documents you received with the lawsuit to make sure you don't have to submit your evidence to the court before the hearing.
Review your contact information on the lawsuit
On page 2, under #2, your information should be listed. Many times when you are sued by their landlord, the address listed on the lawsuit is incorrect if you have moved. Make sure your address is correct, otherwise, you may miss important notices from the court (you will receive small claims court notices in the mail). If your address is incorrect, you will need to update your address with the court right away. Here is how to update your address with the small claims court.
Check if your small claims court publishes court records online
If your landlord sued you in a small claims court that publishes court records online, it is very important to know how to access them. You want to make sure your review the online case access system on a weekly basis to make sure you are not missing any documents in the mail. The small claims court your landlord filed the lawsuit in is listed on the first page of your lawsuit. Here is a list of California Small Claims Courts.
You don't have to file any documents to respond to the lawsuit your landlord filed.
If your landlord sued you in California small claims, you are not required to file a response to the lawsuit before the hearing date. One exception is when you don't think your landlord sued you in the right court or if you would like to sue your landlord (more on this later).
You are expected to show up to the small claims hearing ready to present your side of the case.
Please note, if your hearing is taking place virtually, you may have to submit your evidence to the court and the other party before the hearing. Check with your specific court here.
What are your defenses?
As the person who sued you, your landlord is responsible for proving to the small claims judge that they should win. Your landlord will bring evidence to help them prove their small claims case.
In order to prepare for your small claims hearing against your landlord, it is good to begin anticipating what your landlord is going to tell the judge.
Here are some tips:
Review the small claims lawsuit your landlord filed, especially page 2, #3 where it states "why does the defendant owe the plaintiff money." Your landlord listed there why they think you owe them money, when the dispute occurred, how much they think they are owed, and how they calculated what they think you owe them.
Take this information and write a list of items you think your landlord will tell the judge. For each item, write down your response and potential evidence you can show the judge. Here are some examples:
Property damage. One of the most common small claims lawsuits landlords file are relating to property damage. Your landlord likely thinks you destroyed their property after moving out. For example, your landlord may say that you, their ex-tenant, owe them $10,000 to replace the kitchen appliances. Your response may be that the kitchen appliances where in perfect working condition when you left the property. Evidence: Pictures of the kitchen appliances on the day you moved out, videos of the kitchen, a move-out inspection checklist your landlord conducted before you moved out or even evidence that the kitchen appliances never worked in the first place!
Unpaid Rent. If your landlord thinks you owe them for unpaid rent, your response may be that you didn't pay rent because the unit was uninhabitable! Evidence: Pictures of the unit, videos, etc. emails to your landlord telling them to fix the property.
Late Fees. If your landlord thinks you owe them late fees, your response may be that late fees are not allowed because they were too high and were not mentioned in the lease or rental agreement! Evidence: A copy of the lease or rental agreement, evidence of paying on time, an invoice you received from your landlord for the late fee.
Research defenses based on the law. Did you as a tenant do what was required of you under the law? Here are some examples:
Normal wear and tear. Is the property damage your landlord is suing you for considered normal wear and tear? A landlord cannot charge you for damage to the unit that is considered normal wear and tear (see California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1950.5(b)(2)).
Did your landlord follow California law? In many instances, California law sets requirements on what a landlord is required to do. Did your landlord follow California law? For example, California law requires landlords to provide you the option of an inspection before you move out (see California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1950.5(f)(1)). The point of this inspection before you move out is so that you can be notified of any potential deductions to your security deposit so that you can fix them before moving out (make sure you review your lease or rental contract to see what repairs you can make).
A quick google search should pull up what you are looking for. There is a lot of information online regarding California law relating to landlord-tenant issues. When in doubt, consult a landlord-tenant lawyer (send us a chat and we will help you find one)!
Talk to a lawyer. Don't know how to defend your lawsuit or there is too much money at stake?
If your landlord sued you for $10,000, you stand to lose $10,000. It may be a good time to invest in talking to a lawyer. While lawyers are not allowed to represent you or your landlord at the initial small claims hearing, you can consult a lawyer before the hearing.
How much does a lawyer cost? It varies but you can begin to reduce your cost by preparing all your evidence beforehand so that a lawyer can quickly review your case. You may also qualify for free attorney assistance via legal aid if you meet their income requirements.
Keep in mind that if you are the person being sued, you do have the right to appeal the small claims lawsuit (have a judge decide the lawsuit again) but it is better to defend yourself the first time around to save you time and money.
Contact us via our chat if you need help finding a lawyer!
Consider a settlement.
Settling a small claims lawsuit doesn't always mean you are settling because you think you will lose. Here are some factors when thinking of offering to settle if your landlord sued you in small claims:
How much time and money will you spend attending the hearing?
How much do you stand to lose if the judge doesn't think you are correct?
Do you think your landlord is right and will likely win?
Do you want the public record to reflect you lost in small claims?
Many, many, many small claims lawsuits settle before the hearing date or even at the courthouse on the hearing date. Before considering a settlement, make sure you don't have any defenses to your lawsuit and that your landlord is actually right.
Consider suing your landlord in small claims
Do you think your landlord is actually the one who owes you money? Consider suing your landlord in small claims. Both lawsuits will be handled at the same small claims hearing.
Here are the steps:
File Defendant's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court (SC-120).
Serve Defendant's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court (SC-120).
Prepare your evidence.
Preparing your evidence is one of the most important steps to defending yourself in small claims against your landlord. You don't want to risk losing in small claims because you showed up to court unprepared.
Some examples of what counts as evidence: pictures, text messages, emails, invoices, contracts, receipts, videos, etc.
Ask yourself, what is my landlord suing me for and how will I prove to the judge that I am right?
While you may not have everything in writing, make sure you do bring what you have! If you don't have something in writing, a judge may base their decision on your credibility.
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!
What not to include? Evidence that is not relevant to why you are being sued. Keep the judge focused on your arguments and why you should win!
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).
Remember, People Clerk can help you with preparing your evidence!
Prepare for your hearing.
You do not want to miss your small claims hearing. Make sure you know when and where the small claims hearing will be.
Don't be late. The court clerk will conduct a roll call at the beginning of the hearing to check-in who is in attendance. Make sure you have mapped out where you are going to park before the hearing date.
Virtual hearings. With COVID-19 many small claims courts are now conducting small claims hearings virtually. Make sure to call the court and confirm whether your hearing will be in person or virtual. You can find the contact information for your court here.
People Clerk can help you create a judge-friendly evidence packet for your small claims hearing against your landlord.
Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ 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.