This blog was originally posted on the website for Toeppen & Grevious, and can be found here. It is re-posted with permission from Toeppen & Grevious.
In the state of California, you can file a lawsuit in small claims court requesting damages of up to $10,000 (corporations are limited to a maximum of $5,000). However, many small claims cases involve much smaller sums of money, and you cannot hire a lawyer to represent you in court. Going to court without a lawyer to guide you through the process can be an extremely intimidating prospect, leading some people to give up on their case. You can hire an attorney to help with paperwork and identifying what claims you may have, but an attorney cannot help you in the courtroom on your hearing date.
Don’t let yourself get intimidated by the court system. Self-representation is required in California in small claims court, and literally millions of people have successfully won small claims cases without an attorney. Here’s what you need to know in order to start a small claims case.
If at all possible, resolve your case out of court
Filing a claim and appearing in court is a time-consuming and potentially costly process. Additionally, the courtroom is not intended to be the first option for resolving a conflict, but rather is meant to be the option of last resort.
If at all possible, resolve your conflict outside of court. In fact, some judges will refuse to hear a claim if there has not been a good faith attempt to settle the matter with the defendant beforehand (be prepared to show evidence of this if you do make an appearance in court). In some counties you will be required to meet with the other side and a mediator before the judge will even hear your case.
Before you go through the process of starting a small claims case, write a letter to the would-be defendant, describing what you believe would serve as satisfactory compensation. Such agreements can include such details as payment plans, discounts for lump sum payments, and more. But do not offer an agreement that you are not inclined to honor if the other party accepts. Not upholding an agreement that you offer may ultimately damage your case if you attempt to bring it to court. In the letter, be sure to state that you will take the matter to court if the matter cannot be resolved in a timely manner.
Send the letter with the proposed agreement via certified mail (make sure to request a return receipt, which will give you proof that the letter was received by the other party). Then give them at least 30 days to respond. If they refuse your offer or fail to respond in time, only then should you proceed with the process of starting a small claims court case.
Where to go to file a small claims case
To start off, you need to file your case with the court. But which court? Typically, you must file a case with your local county court. For instance, if you live in Sacramento, you’ll have to file with the Sacramento County Small Claims Court, which conveniently offers e-filing services for small claims cases. You can easily find the website and contact information for the relevant court in your county by googling “[YOUR COUNTY] small claims court.” There, you’ll find the necessary form, SC-100 – “Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court”. The form will have directions on where and how to file your claim, as well as what fees you’ll have to pay (these fees can be waived if you can prove an inability to pay).
There are instances in which you’ll have to file your case in a county court other than your own. For instance, if you are in a car accident while outside of your home county and you wish to sue the other party, you’ll have to file your case in the county where the accident took place, or the county where the other party resides. Other such examples include suing someone for breach of contract or failing to uphold a debt repayment agreement, which may require that the case be filed in the county where the agreement was signed, or where the defendant lives. If you’re unsure, contact your local court for more information.
When to file your claim
Different types of claims have different deadlines for filing, which are called statutes of limitations. Most cases involving personal injury—such as if you’re suing someone for injuring you in a car accident—have a two year statute of limitations in California. In personal injury cases, the clock starts from the date of the injury, or from the date on which you discovered the injury, depending on the situation. But such deadlines can be longer in other instances, such as cases involving written contracts, which have a four year statute of limitations in California.
As you can see with the example of personal injury, what seems like a hard and fast rule can actually be very flexible in some instances, so check with an attorney before you assume that you’ve run out of time to file a case. But it’s safe to say that in almost any situation, sooner is better.
Notifying the defendant
When you file a lawsuit against someone, the law requires that they be properly notified of the lawsuit against them. If you’ve ever heard of someone being “served,” this is what they’re talking about. To serve someone, they need to be provided with a copy of your claim, so that they have the opportunity to defend themselves. If you have someone physically serve them in person (“personal service”), and the defendant lives in the county where the suit was filed, you need to serve them at least 15 days before the date of the court hearing. If they don’t reside in that county, you must serve them at least 20 days beforehand (In California). You can also choose to not serve them in person (“substitute service”) by sending the claim to them by certified mail, or giving the notice to a close family member or delivering it to their work. However, this requires an additional 10 days of notice and sometimes additional paperwork.