COMPLETE SMALL CLAIMS legal document assistance

When it comes to recovering monies owed, small claims is the most effective venue. Small claims actions can be anything from monies owed, failure to return security deposit, personal injuries, property damages, vehicle accident or simply an overdue debt. The staff at Sonoma County LDA will assist you with form assistance with small claims case. 

  • Complete Case Management(managing case filing & serving from start to finish).
  • Researching your case (court venue, corporate agents, licenses, defendant location).
  • Real Paralegals & Legal Document Assistants working on your Small Claims Case.
  • Future Motion Support (date reset, subpoena, dismissals, etc.).
  • Your case is reviewed by a paralegal for accuracy.

Checklist — If You Are Suing

  1. Talk to the person or business you are thinking about suing. Try to work things out before going to court. You can also write a “demand letter” that asks the person or business in writing what you are asking for. Get help with a demand letter.
  2. Try mediation or other alternatives to lawyers and courts. You can try mediation throughout your case, even if it does not work now.
  3. Consider if going to court can give you what you want. If you win in court, the court cannot collect the money for you. Is the person you are suing able to pay?  If you want to sue a neighbor because the neighbor behaves badly, will suing make the neighbor behave better? Courts cannot force good behavior. Will the time and money it takes to go to court be worth the likely outcome? Ask yourself these questions before filing your claim so you do not find yourself worse off after suing than if you did not sue at all.
  4. Learn about how small claims court works. Go to the courthouse and watch a small claims hearing. That way you will know what to expect. Read this website, get help from California Online Legal Services Assistance.
  5. If you decide to go to court, follow these steps:
    1. Figure Out How to Name the Defendant
    2. Ask for Payment
    3. Find the Right Court to File Your Claim
    4. Fill Out Your Court Forms
    5. File Your Claim
    6. Serve Your Claim 
    7. Go to Court
  6. After your hearing, read what to do on the Plaintiff’s Post-Hearing Checklist.

Small claims court is a special court where disputes are resolved quickly and inexpensively. The rules are simple and informal. The person who sues is called the plaintiff. The person who is sued is called the defendant. You are not allowed to have a lawyer represent you at the hearing in small claims court. But you can talk to a lawyer before or after court.

You can sue in small claims court if you are:

  • At least 18 years old, OR
  • An emancipated child.

If you are not mentally competent, or you are under 18 years old (and not emancipated), a judge must appoint a “guardian ad litem” to represent you in small claims court. A guardian ad litem is an adult appointed by the court to represent you ONLY in the case in question.

  • Please Note: New legislation allows landlords to file a small claims action for unpaid rent for amounts that exceed jurisdictional limits, beginning on August 1, 2021. For more information, see Tenant and Landlord Resources
  • Checklist – If You Are Being Sued

    1. Talk to the person or business that is suing you. Try to work things out. If you owe the other person money, pay it or try to work out a payment plan before the court date.
    2. Try mediation or other alternatives to lawyers and courts. You can try mediation throughout your case, even if it does not work now.
    3. Learn about how small claims court works. Go to the courthouse and watch a small claims hearing. That way you will know what to expect. Read this website.
    4. Figure out if you are being sued in the wrong court.
    5. Decide if you want to sue the person who is suing you. If you do, learn how to file a defendant’s claim.
    6. Get ready and go to your trial.
    7. After your hearing, read what to do on the Defendant’s Post-Trial Checklist.

In general, a natural person (an individual) cannot ask for more than $10,000 in a claim. Businesses and other entities (like government entities) cannot ask for more than $5,000. This limit on businesses does not apply to sole proprietors, who are treated as natural persons.  You can file as many claims as you want for up to $2,500 each. But you can only file 2 claims in a calendar year that ask for more than $2,500.

There are some exceptions to the $10,000 limit for individuals:  

  • As a natural person, you can only sue a guarantor for up to $6,500 ($2,500 if they do not charge for the guarantee). A “guarantor” is a person or company that promises to be responsible for what another person owes. (If you are an entity other than a natural person and the guarantor charges for its services, you may file a claim for up to $4,000.)
  • But, you can sue the Registrar of the Contractors (the executive officer of the Contractors State License Board) as a guarantor for up to $10,000. 

Collections agencies cannot sue in small claims court to collect on debts that are assigned to them

There are different kinds of cases you can file in small claims court.

Some common types of small claims cases are disputes about:

  • Property damage or personal injury from a car accident;
  • Landlord/tenant security deposits;
  • Damage to your property by a neighbor;
  • Disputes with contractors about repairs or home improvement jobs;
  • Collection of money owed;
  • Homeowner association disputes; and
  • Many other issues.

The deadline to file a lawsuit is called the statute of limitations. Most lawsuits MUST be filed within a certain amount of time. In general, once the statute of limitations on a case “runs out,” the legal claim is not valid any longer.

The period of time you have to sue someone varies depending to the type of legal claim. Here are the statutes of limitations for some common types of legal disputes:

  • If you are suing because you got hurt, you can file a claim for up to 2 years after you were hurt.
  • If you are suing because a spoken agreement was broken, you have 2 years to file after the agreement was broken.
  • If you are suing because a written agreement was broken, you have 4 years to file after the agreement was broken.
  • If you are suing because your property was damaged, you have 3 years to file after your property was damaged.
  • If you are suing because of fraud, you have 3 years to file after you find out about the fraud. Fraud is when you lose money because someone lied to you or tricked you on purpose.
  • If you are suing a government or public agency, you usually have 6 months to file a claim with that agency. They have 45 days to make a decision. If no decision is made with 45 days, then the claim is considered denied. If they reject your claim, you have 6 months to file a claim with a small claims court. If you do not receive a rejection or acceptance of your claim in those 45 days, you may have more time to file your claim but, to be safe, act within the 6 months or talk to a lawyer to find out for sure how much time you have to file your lawsuit.  Find out more about suing a government agency.

It is not easy to figure out if it is too late to file (and even knowing whether a contract is written or oral can be very difficult). If you are not sure, get assistance from 707-408-8899, and if not, file your case and let the judge decide.

The filing fee is based on the amount of your claim and the number of claims you have filed in the past 12 months:

Currently, the filing fees, if you have filed 12 or fewer claims in the past 12 months, are:

Amount of Your ClaimFiling Fee
$0 to $1,500$30
$1,500.01 to $5,000$50
$5,000.01 to $10,000$75

If you have filed more than 12 claims in the past 12 months, the filing fee is $100 (for any claim amount).  Filing fees change, so make sure you check to see what the current filing fees for small claims cases are at the time of your filing.

If you are suing someone, you must go to court. You will go to court between 20 and 70 days after you file your claim.

You cannot send anyone else (even a lawyer) to represent you in small claims court. But there are some exceptions:

  • You may not have to go to court if: (1) you are serving on active duty in the armed forces, (2) you were assigned to your duty station after your claim arose, and (3) your assignment is for more than 6 months.

For more information about exceptions, read California Code of Civil Procedure section 116.540External link icon

If you are being sued, you must go to court if you want your side of the case to be considered. If you do not go to court, a judgment may be entered against you. This would be a judgment based on the evidence that the side suing you provided, without you having a chance to provide any evidence.

Who goes to court when a business is sued?

  • If you are the only owner of a business, you must go to court unless the claim can be proven by evidence of a business account that a regular employee with knowledge of that account can explain.  The employee most knowledgeable about the account can go to court for the business.
  • If your business is a partnership, only 1 of the partners must go.
  • If the business is a corporation, an officer or director must go to court, or if the claim can be proved by evidence of business records, the employee most knowledgeable about the records can go. That person cannot be hired just to represent the corporation. And, that person cannot be the lawyer for the corporation.

Your small claims hearing

Many cases are usually scheduled for the same time and the calendar can be very crowded. This makes it impossible for any one case to take a lot of time because the court has to get through all the cases on the calendar. This is why it is so important to be well prepared so you can present your case quickly and efficiently. The judge will listen to both sides of the story. To help tell your side, take evidence to support your claims, like:

  • Witness testimony (in most cases this requires the witness to be present in court, but in limited circumstances, the testimony may be admissible through declaration);
  • Photos;
  • Bills;
  • Receipts;
  • Contracts; and
  • Other relevant documents that support your side.

The judge may make a decision at your hearing or mail it to you later. The judge may need to make additional inquiries into the facts before deciding the case, or research a legal point, so if the judge says that he or she is “taking the matter under submission,” you will get the decision in the mail.

Instead of a judge, you may have a commissioner or temporary judge at your hearing. They both serve in the same role as judges. A commissioner is hired by the court to sit as a judge and hear certain types of cases that the law allows commissioners to hear, such as traffic infractions and small claims cases. A temporary judge (called a “judge pro tem” or “judge pro tempore”) is someone who has been a lawyer for at least 10 years and is specially trained to hear and decide small claims cases. If you do not want a temporary judge, you can ask the court to have a judge hear your case. You may have to come back another day. 

If the person being sued does not show up for the hearing, the plaintiff still needs to prove his or her case. If the defendant can show a good reason for missing the court date, such as a medical emergency, the defendant may be able to get the judgment canceled and a new trial date set. Read about vacating a judgment to learn how.

You cannot appeal if you were the person who filed the claim. If someone else files a claim against you and you lose, you can appeal. This means that if you are the plaintiff suing a defendant and you lose, you cannot appeal the court’s decision. But if the defendant filed a defendant’s claim against you (sued you back) and wins against you on the defendant’s claim, then you CAN appeal. When you appeal the part of the lawsuit against you, the entire court’s decision (not just the part against you) is reviewed all over again. The superior court does not consider the decision of the small claims court in deciding the appeal. The trial is called a “trial de novo” or trial from the start. This means that you have to prove your side all over again, including bringing all the evidence you want the court to consider. You CAN, but do not have to, have a lawyer represent you on an appeal.

Be Prepared for Your Trial

 

  1. Plan what you are going to say
    You will have to explain to the judge why you are filing a claim and what you want him or her to order.  Decide what your main points are and take proof. Try to think of what the other person might say and how you will answer. 

     

  2. Prepare the proof to take to court
    Take any papers that support your story and take 2 more copies of everything. This is called “evidence.” Evidence can be:
    • Contracts
    • Estimates (take at least 2)
    • Bills
    • Photographs
    • Diagrams that show how an accident happened 
    • Police reports
    If you need papers that someone else has, fill out a Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents at Trial or Hearing and Declaration ) and request these documents. .

     

  3. Take copies of all your court papers and your Proof of Service

     

  4. Take people to support your story (witnesses)
    Take witnesses who saw what happened or who are experts on that subject. For example, a neighbor who saw the accident or a mechanic who looked at your car.
    • Do not bring people unless you know they will support you. Witnesses who are not friends or relatives may be more effective in proving your case. But sometimes the only witnesses are your friends and relatives. They should testify and present themselves in a professional manner and be objective and not emotional.
    • If you need a witness to go to your hearing that cannot or will not go voluntarily, fill out a Small Claims Subpoena  to order them to go. Learn more about subpoenas.

     

  5. If you do not speak English well, take an interpreter to help you
    Ask your court clerk at least 1 week before your hearing to see if the court can provide an interpreter for you. In some courts, they can provide interpreters for free if you qualify for a fee waiver. If not, you have to take your own interpreter. Do not ask a child or a witness to interpret for you.  Get tips to help you work with a court interpreterPDF file type icon.
    • You have the right to get your hearing delayed so you can get an interpreter.

     

  6. If you are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or have another disability request an accommodation
    Ask your court’s ADA coordinator or court clerk at least 1 week before your hearing. Get more information about the rights of persons with disabilities and a form to request an accommodation.
  7. If you win the case and the judge issues a judgment in your favor, you can collect your judgment. You cannot start collecting until:

     

    1. The time to appeal runs out (30 days after entry of the judgment); or
    2. If there was an appeal and you won, after the appeal decision (judgment) is sent back to the small claims court, usually about 10 days after the appeal decision.

     

    The court will not collect the money for you. But the court will issue the orders and other documents you may need to collect your judgment from the debtor (the party that owes you money). Keep in mind that not all judgments are collectable because the debtor may not have any income or property of value.

    For more information, read:

     

    • What to Do After the Court Decides Your Small Claims Case; and
    • Payments in Small Claims Cases (Form SC-220-INFOPDF file type icon).

     

    There are some initial steps you can take:

    1. Give the debtor an address where he or she can mail the money you are owed. You can offer to accept less than the whole judgment if the debtor pays right away. But if you agree to accept less than the whole judgment, you will give up your right to the rest of the money.
    2. If the debtor does not pay you by the date the court ordered, write him or her a letter and include a copy of the court order. Remind the debtor that he or she owes you money and that you may have to follow more serious steps if he or she does not pay you voluntarily.
    3. Talk to a lawyer. If the debtor will not pay, it can be complicated, expensive, and take a lot of time to collect your money.

       

Small claims court is often a great resource.  But a dispute in small claims court is still a court case, in a courthouse, before a judge, and the court process can be long, time consuming, and frustrating.  Because of this, it is a good idea for you to think about other ways to resolve your dispute.

There are a lot of reasons why it is a good idea to mediate your small claims dispute, whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant.

You should consider mediating your case because:

  1. During your court hearing, you only have about 5 or 10 minutes to present your case. In mediation, you have as long as you and the other side need to talk about your situation, even as long as 2 hours.
  2. Court hearings are open to the public and everything you say to the judge will be heard by everyone who is sitting in the courtroom. Mediation is confidential and private, so what you say in mediation cannot be used against you in court later.
  3. If you go in front of a judge, the judge has to apply the law to the facts of the case and take into account only those facts that the law considers relevant. In mediation, you can talk about other issues that may not be directly related to the law but are very important to you and how you feel about the dispute.
  4. A judge usually has to make a decision about money, and whether 1 side owes the other money. In mediation, the parties can reach an agreement that goes beyond the money issues and can include, for example, giving 1 side a chance to fix a problem, return property, or apologize. In mediation, you have more room to create an agreement that suits the 2 of you and your particular situation.
  5. Different types of cases have different deadlines for filing. If you file a claim in court after the deadline for your type of case has passed, the judge will have to apply the law and you will lose your case. But, you can still resolve your case in mediation, since you, the other side, and the mediator have more flexibility than the judge and can make an agreement beyond what the law requires.
  6. Mediation can be very helpful in disputes between neighbors and family members because of the importance of the relationships between the parties.
  7. When the judge makes a decision, at least 1 side usually does not like the judge’s order, and often neither side is happy. In mediation, both sides usually agree on the outcome so they all accept it. Mediated agreements are often more likely to be followed than a court order that is imposed by the judge.
  8. If you are the plaintiff and win in court, getting paid can be very difficult and you may have to spend more money and time. If you reach an agreement through mediation, you will not need more court hearings, and the other side is more likely to pay you because they were part of reaching that agreement and had a chance to really be involved in the resolution of the dispute.
  9. If you are the defendant and you lose in court, the court will enter a judgment against you, which will show on your credit report and could hurt your credit. In mediation, you can reach an agreement with the plaintiff and there will not be a court judgment entered against you, so your credit will not be affected.

  • Any time you are having difficulty resolving a dispute with a person or business, you can suggest mediation to the other party:
    • It may help to give the other party information about mediation. Consider giving him or her a link to this information or a printout of this page.
    • Consider asking the other person to suggest a mediator to help resolve the dispute.
  • If you are sending or responding to a demand for payment or for a problem to be fixed before filing a lawsuit, consider asking the other side to mediate the dispute.
  • Some mediators will call the other side for you, explain mediation to them, and encourage them to mediate your dispute.
  • You can ask the other side to mediate your dispute before or after a small claims case is filed.

You can go to mediation before or after you start your small claims case.

You and the other person meet with a mediator. The mediator will facilitate a discussion between you and the other person in an attempt to resolve your dispute.

Usually, mediation of a small claims dispute lasts anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours.

Mediation may be free, or you may have to pay a small fee.

Preparing for mediation

Preparing for mediation is a lot like preparing to go to a court hearing. It is important to identify and organize the facts that are relevant to your dispute. And you should make sure you know about the facts that support the other side, not just those that support you.

It is also important to understand the law that applies to your dispute.

If you are going to mediation before or instead of a hearing, there are some other things you should do to prepare:

  • Think realistically about how the judge will decide the case if you do not settle in mediation.
  • Think about whether you or the other side has angry or hurt feelings, and why.
  • Think about what you and the other side would really like to accomplish through the lawsuit.
  • Think about whether something besides, or in addition to, money might help to satisfy you or the other side.
  • Think about what you would be willing to settle for to avoid going to a hearing, to avoid the possibility of losing, or to avoid the possibility of not collecting if you win.
  • Keep in mind that the court cannot provide you with an interpreter so, if you do not speak and understand English well, you should bring your own interpreter to your mediation.  Do not bring a child to interpret for you.

How you should behave at the mediation

  • Present your side of the dispute clearly, but listen carefully to the other side’s point of view.
  • Present your suggestion for settlement, but also listen to the other side’s proposal and be open to other ideas.
  • Remember that mediation is about a give and take. There are two sides to every story, and although you may feel like you are 100 percent right, you may learn things from the other side during the mediation that make you realize that the blame is not entirely theirs.

If your mediation is successful and you are able to reach an agreement, you will be much more satisfied with the process. You will find that you are less frustrated about what happened, and more empowered, because you were able to resolve your dispute to your satisfaction without needing to have a judge decide what is best for you.

If you settle your dispute (reach an agreement), write down exactly what you agreed to. Include:

  • The names and addresses of the two (or more) people involved.
  • A brief description of the agreement that includes what the agreement is, how it will be carried out, and the date by which it will be carried out.
    • For example: If the defendant agrees to pay you what he owes you in installments, the agreement should say how much he will pay total, how much each installment will be, how he should pay each installment, and by what date he should pay each installment.
  • A statement of what will happen if the agreement is carried out (like, that the case will be dismissed, or that a satisfaction of judgment will be filed right away).
  • A statement of what will happen if the agreement is NOT carried out (like, that the case will be re-filed if dismissed, or that if an installment is missed, the entire amount will be due right away, etc.)
  • The date the agreement is being signed.
  • The signatures of everyone involved.

Make sure everyone has a copy of the agreement, and keep your copy of the agreement in a safe place.

A great option is mediation, where you and the other side meet with a neutral person – called a mediator – who is specially trained to help people resolve their disputes without having to go in front of a judge. In mediation, everyone works together to find a solution, instead of having the judge make a decision.

The mediator will not force you to reach an agreement.  Whether you decide to resolve your dispute, and how you resolve it, is up to the 2 of you.  And if you cannot settle, you can still go in front of a judge to decide. There is nothing to lose by trying mediation, and there is a lot to gain.

 Resolving Your Small Claims Case in the California Courts (also available in Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese), to get more information about why mediation makes sense in small claims cases.

If you reach an agreement in mediation and want to dismiss your case, click to find out how to dismiss a small claims case.