California Small claims court is a special court where disputes are resolved quickly and inexpensively. In small claims court, the rules are simplified and the hearing is informal. Attorneys are generally not allowed. The person who files the claim is called the plaintiff. The person against whom the claim is filed against is called the defendant. You don’t need to be a United States citizen to file or defend a case in small claims court. If you are a non-English speaker, see information on an interpreter.
In general, claims are limited to disputes up to $5,000. However, individuals (not companies) can claim up to $10,000. Corporations, partnerships, unincorporated associations, governmental bodies, and other legal entities cannot claim more than $5,000. Also, no claimant (natural person or legal entity) may file more than two small claims court actions for more than $2,500 anywhere in the state during any calendar year. For example, if you file an action for $4,000 in February 2015, and another action for $4,000 in March 2015, you may not file any more actions for more than $2,500 until January 1, 2016. You may file as many claims as you wish for $2,500 or less. However, this limitation does not apply to a city, county, city and county, school district, county office of education, community college district, local district, or any other local public entity. They can bring more than two lawsuits over $2,500 in a calendar year.
The fee for filing in small claims court depends on the amount of the claim: $30 if the claim is for $1,500 or less, $50 if the claim is for more than $1,500 but less than or equal to $5,000, or $75 if the claim is for more than $5,000. However, if a plaintiff has filed more than 12 small claims actions in California within the previous 12 months, the filing fee for each subsequent case is $100. Multiple filers who prevail in court and are granted court costs may only recover the same amount of court costs that non-multiple filers would receive and not the $100 that was paid. For example, if a multiple filer sued for $1,400 and won a judgment for $1,400, the court will grant that filer court costs (filing fee) of $30 and not the $100 that was paid to the clerks. The filing fee is paid by the plaintiff to the clerk of the small claims court.
Small claims courts may be able to order a defendant to do something, as long as a claim for money is also part of the lawsuit. If you are suing to get back the lawn mower you loaned to a neighbor, for instance, the court can order the return of the mower, or payment for the mower if it is not returned. Otherwise, small claims courts may order a defendant to do or not to do something only when expressly authorized by statute (i.e, an order preventing an unlawful phone solicitation). The sheriff ’s department usually is the one who enforces those orders. It may or may not need further court orders to enforce a certain order. (For example, the court may order the defendant to return a vehicle to the plaintiff. If the defendant does not comply and parks the vehicle in his or her home garage, the sheriff may require an additional order from the court that would allow them to enter the premises to seize the vehicle). Verify with your local sheriff ’s department or small claims advisors as to the requirements for your particular situation.
Examples of other disputes that might be resolved in small claims court are:
- Your former landlord refuses to return the security deposit you paid.
- Someone dents your car’s fender and refuses to pay for its repair.
- Your new TV will not work, and the store refuses to fix it or replace it.
- Your tenant caused damage to the apartment in an amount that exceeded the security deposit. (Note: You can’t file an eviction action in small claims court.)
- You were defrauded in the purchase of a car, and desire to cancel the purchase and get back the amount of your down payment from the seller.
- You lent money to a friend, and he or she refuses to re-pay it.
In most small claims courts, cases are heard within 30–40 days after filing the plaintiff ’s claim, but they are never set for earlier than 20 days or more than 70 days after the claim is filed. Most cases are heard on weekdays, but some courts also schedule evening and Saturday sessions.
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Is Small Claims Court Your Best Option?
Before filing a case in small claims court, it’s important to decide whether going to small claims court is the best way to resolve your dispute. Many disputes can be resolved by using other dispute resolution methods, such as mediation. Many counties help resolve disputes informally through their local consumer affairs offices, or through local public or private dispute resolution or mediation programs.
You need to consider whether the defendant is legally responsible for the claim. Is the law on your side? If there is a law that applies to your case, the small claims judge must follow that law, interpreting it in a spirit of reasonableness and fairness to both parties. If the law isn’t on your side, but you feel that justice is, you may get a more favorable result through voluntary mediation.
If you decide to file a small claims court case, be prepared to devote some time and effort to it. This includes preparing for the hearing, gathering evidence, meeting with witnesses, and attending the hearing in person.
You also may need to take action and spend money to enforce any judgment. While a small claims court judgment carries legal weight, it may be difficult or even impossible to enforce the judgment. Collecting a court judgment is one of the most challenging and frustrating aspects of any lawsuit. The person who is obligated to pay the judgment may not have the money to pay it, or may simply refuse to pay it. Enforcement procedures are available, but these require extra effort and also money on your part. It’s possible that you will never collect anything.
In deciding whether to file a small claims case, remember that you may not appeal. By choosing small claims court to resolve your dispute, you give up the right to have a different judge re-hear the case. So if you should lose, that’s the end of the case for you. If you win, the person or entity against whom you filed your claim (the defendant) may appeal the judge’s ruling. In that situation, the entire dispute will be heard again, before a different judge.
Start your Small Claims case today.