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What Is a Small Claims Court in California?

California small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction that hear only civil cases between private litigants involving financial settlements of not more than $10,000. However, the limit of financial claims is dependent on the kind of litigants involved. According to the California Code of Civil Procedure § 116.210, Small Claims Courts do not exist as standalone courts. On the contrary, they are established as divisions of every superior court in the State of California. A Small Claims Court has jurisdiction to hear and enter judgments for the following:

  • Recovery of money in the tune of $5,000 or less
  • Enforcement of the payment of overdue personal tax, not more than $5,000
  • Issuance of writ of possession for claims or damages not more than $5,000
  • To preside over fee arbitrations between attorneys and clients not more than $5,000
  • To grant equitable relief or other injunctions when authorized by relevant statues

Although $5,000 is the common benchmark of claims within the jurisdiction of Small Claims Courts, some cases involving natural persons may exceed $5,000 in claims, but not more than $10,000. Some of the common types of cases filed in Small Claims Courts are:

  • Disputes pertaining to security deposits involving landlords and tenants
  • Property damage by neighbors
  • Personal injury or property damage through car accidents
  • Financial disputes between contractors and homeowners
  • Collection of loans and money owed

How Do California Small Claims Courts Work?

California Small Claims Courts are structured to resolve disputes inexpensively and timely. They are not as formal as other courts in California’s Court System. A small claim court is presided over by a judge. However, the litigants are not allowed to use attorneys, which means each litigant must appear pro se. The person suing is called the plaintiff, while the sued is the defendant.

Any aggrieved person may file a small claims action as long as the claim does not contravene the jurisdiction and statutes of limitation of the court. While businesses cannot demand claims of more than $5,000, a natural person may ask for up to $10,000. A natural person in this context refers to anyone appearing as a private individual and not a registered organization or business. However, a sole proprietor is also considered a natural person.

A litigant can only file two small claims action within a calendar year that exceeds $2,500. If reasons arise to file more small claims actions, the litigant must ensure that each of the subsequent claims does not exceed $2,500. The rulings of a Small Claims Court are binding to all parties concerned. Litigants have a 30-day window to appeal any judgment.

If there are no appeals within this period, the winner of the case may go-ahead to collect the court’s judgment. However, in the face of appeals, existing judgments are laid aside, and a brand new trial is constituted. This means that the parties must present their cases from scratch with their evidence and witnesses.

Only a defendant in a small claims judgment may file an appeal. Appeals are also within the jurisdiction of the small claims court; however, it involves a new judge, and the parties are allowed to use attorneys. A Small Claims Court appeal ruling is absolute and may not be appealed further to any higher court.

How to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in California

A plaintiff can take someone to a California small claims court by first filing a case with the court. This can be done by completing the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court. The plaintiff can obtain this document from the Court Clerk’s office and submit it there upon completion. In the papers, the plaintiff must write down the basic details of the case in legible sentences while answering the questions of what happened, where it happened, with whom it happened, and when it happened.

In certain litigations, there may be more than one defendant. As such, the plaintiff must take cognizance of the correct names of each of the defendants and their aliases (if any). For instance, if a plumber fails to complete a home project for which payments have been made, the homeowner should sue both the plumber and the contractor. Else, it may be difficult to collect the claim even after the case is won.

The plaintiff must also include the current address of the defendants. This is because the court cannot hold a trial until the defendants have been duly served the notice of the trial. The Court Clerk’s Office charges a filing fee ranging between $30 and $100, depending on the amount of the claims. A claim of $1,500 and less costs a filing fee of $30. If the claim is between $1,500 and $5,000, the filing fee is $50. If it ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, the filing fee is $75. However, if a person has filed 12 claims within the last 12 months, every additional claim, irrespective of the amount, attracts a filing fee of $100.

When the filing process is completed, the plaintiff must then carry out the “service of process.” This involves sending a copy of the Plaintiff’s Claim to the defendant, which notifies the defendant of the lawsuit. There are several ways to do this, including through certified mail, hiring a private process server, or through the Sheriff’s Office.

The court sets a date for pre-trial or outright trial after the defendant is successfully served. The goal of the pre-trial is for the court to acquaint itself further with the case and determine if it is trial-worthy or not. It is normal for both parties to be invited for a pre-trial. During this phase, the two parties may accept to present the case before a mediator, who acts as a neutral party that facilitates negotiations towards a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

However, none of the parties is expected to tender any form of evidence or witness during pre-trial. If the mediator fails to arrive at a consensus, the case may proceed to trial. While attorneys are not allowed in Small Claims Court trials, it is not illegal to seek legal advice from attorneys before facing trials. Both parties must make their arguments before the judge or the judge’s appointed official in the trial. These arguments can be backed up with tangible evidence or testimonies of witnesses if any.

Evidence could be documents such as contracts, bills, estimates, police reports, or photographs. Both parties are to present two or more copies of any document that supports their arguments. After due consideration of the facts, testimonies of witnesses, and pieces of evidence, the judge or anyone acting in its capacity may enter the final judgment immediately or do so on a later date. Whichever the case, the judge through the Office of the Court Clerk issues a “Notice of Entry of Judgment” to the parties, containing the judgment details.

The defendant may appeal the final judgment if it is not favorable. However, a plaintiff cannot appeal a Small Claims Court final judgment except in instances where the defendant filed a counter-claim against the plaintiff during the case and won. An appeal is “trial de novo,” interpreted as a “new trial.” This implies an appeal is heard as a fresh case, but before a new judge with the options of attorneys.

How Much Can You Sue for in California Small Claims Court?

The upper financial limit of what a plaintiff can sue for in a California Small Claims Court is dependent on who the plaintiff is. If a plaintiff is a natural person, an individual, or a sole-proprietor, the maximum claim that can be asked for is $10,000. If the plaintiff is a business or a government entity, the maximum claim is $5,000.

There is a special clause for suing guarantors. A guarantor is an individual or entity that pledges to be held liable for someone else’s potential actions or inactions. Here are the variations in suing a guarantor:

  • If the guarantor charged a fee for offering the guarantee, an individual might sue the guarantor for as much as $6,500.
  • If the guarantor did not charge for offering the guarantee, an individual might sue the guarantor for up to $2,500.
  • If the guarantor charged for offering the guarantee, an entity may sue the guarantor for as much as $4,000
  • If the guarantor is the Registrar of Contractors, an entity or individual may sue for up to $10,000

How to Defend Yourself in California Small Claims Court

When a person is served a Plaintiff’s Claim for a Small Claims Court trial, it is expedient that the notice is taken seriously. The first step to defending oneself is understanding the circumstances surrounding the lawsuit. A Plaintiff’s Claim served to a defendant must contain the date for either a pre-trial, trial or both. Before the said date, the defendant must prepare for the lawsuit by taking intentional note of all the exonerating facts.

A way of proving innocence is avoiding incoherent speech. And, of course, lying in court is a serious offense. So, defendants must gather every fact, evidence, and witnesses to back up the story. Present these in court when the time comes and wait for the judge’s judgment.

How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in California?

California Small Claims Courts have statutes of limitations that determine the maximum amount of time a person may wait before filing a lawsuit before a Small Claims Court. When this period elapses, the plaintiff may no longer sue the supposed defendant for the concerned dispute. The statutes of limitation are dependent on the nature of the dispute, as highlighted below:

  • If the plaintiff got hurt, claims must be filed not more than two years after the incident.
  • If the dispute is based on a broken spoken agreement, claims must be filed not more than two years from the date the agreement was broken.
  • If the dispute is hinged on a broken written agreement, claims must be filed not more than four years from the date the agreement was broken.
  • If the dispute is on damaged properties, the claim must be filed within three years of the incident.
  • If the case is fraud-related, the plaintiff must file the claim not more than three years after the fraud was discovered.
  • If the plaintiff is suing a government agency, the claim must be filed within six months.

What Happens if You Don’t Show Up for California Small Claims Court?

Before a California Small Claims Court holds a trial, a “Service of Process” must be issued to the defendant. If the defendant fails to show up in court for the trial, the trial will proceed as normal, and the defendant will not be entitled to a new trial. A judge may enter a final judgment in the absence of the defendant. However, the defendant may file a Motion to Vacate the Judgment. This motion prays the court to set aside the judgment reached in the absence of the defendant.

It is within the discretion of the judge to honor or reject the motion, and it depends largely on the reasons the defendant presented for missing the trial. The motion must be filed within 30 days from the date the Office of the Court Clerk mailed the Notice of Entry of Judgment to the defendant. Suppose the reason for missing the trial is that the defendant was not properly served the Plaintiff’s Claim. The defendant must file the Motion to Vacate the Judgment within 180 days from the date he or she discovered the existence of the judgment.

To vacate a judgment, file the Motion to Vacate Judgment with the Small Claims Court Clerk and pay the filing fee. The clerk will return feedback on the date set for hearing the motion. At the hearing, the judge will assess the reasons for missing the trial and determine whether to set aside the judgment or not. If the judge honors the motion, a new trial on the case may hold immediately or reschedule for another day.

However, if the judge denies the request the defendant may file a Notice of Appeal with the Small Claims Court Clerk on the “denial of the motion to vacate the small claims judgment.” An appeal may also be honored or denied. If it is honored, a new trial will be held. But if it is denied, the defendant must pay the claims in the original judgment.

What are California Small Claims Court Records?

A California Small Claims Court record is a public record that reflects in the credit record of a losing party in a Small Claims Court judgment. Being a public record, it is accessible to members of the general public. It contains the details of the case, the names of the parties, and the amount of money that the losing party was made to pay.

Where Can I Find California Small Claims Court Records?

California Small Claims Court Clerks maintain records of all cases tried in their respective courts. To obtain a Small Claims Court record, find the location of the court and make an in-person or mail-in request for the record, depending on the available medium the court offers. Alternatively, interested persons may obtain California court records using a reputable third-party site. Such sites allow requesters to search for public records using the names, city, and state of any of the parties in the case.