How to Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court

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.

How to Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court

Proceeding in small claims court can be a seriously intimidating prospect, especially since California requires small claims litigants to represent themselves in court. However, it’s more than possible to be successful in small claims court, as long as you properly prepare yourself. While our previous discussion had more of a technical focus on the small claims process, this time around we will be focusing on general courtroom behavior and procedure (and thus you can use this as a guide for just about any type of case, not just small claims).

Proper behavior in the courtroom

By the time you get into the courtroom, all of the necessary paperwork should be in case. But you can still hurt your case with faux pas that cast you in a bad light. Here are a few of the most important rules to follow:

Get to court early, and definitely don’t be late. Believe it or not, a case can be dismissed simply because you fail to show up. No matter how solid your legal argument is, it doesn’t matter if you don’t actually make it to the courtroom. And chances are that your judge isn’t going to be sympathetic because you slept through your alarm or got stuck in traffic. Give yourself an extra hour to find parking, find your courtroom, and review your paperwork. (In fact, it’s a good idea to visit the courthouse ahead of time to familiarize yourself with the layout, so you don’t get lost on the day of your hearing.) This will go a long ways towards settling the butterflies in your stomach and being able to represent yourself in a calm and well-spoken manner.

Don’t forget your paperwork. Be sure to bring any necessary paperwork or documents that you wish to use as evidence. If you have any witnesses who will be testifying, then they need to accompany you to the hearing.

Dress the part. Just as it’s important to make a good impression at a job interview, you need to do the same in court as well. Frankly, that is the simplest advice to give for how to dress appropriately for court: Dress as if you are going to a really promising job interview. You should be clean, conservative, and kempt. If you don’t take the court seriously, the judge may not take your case as seriously.

Be polite to everyone. You never know who talks to whom in a courthouse. That random courthouse staff member that you were rude to may just so happen to be on a first-name basis with the judge, and bump into them just before it’s time for the court to convene. Treat everyone as if the judge was standing next to you.  This is especially true when you are in your courtroom.  It is important to treat the court staff with respect and courtesy; court clerks should be referred to as “Madam/Sir Clerk” and the bailiff or court attendant as “Ma’am/Sir.”

Turn your phone off. It’s easy to get rattled in a courtroom. And it’s safe to say that one of the most mortifying situations imaginable is to be standing in front of a judge when a friend calls and your phone starts blaring your ringtone across the courtroom. Don’t just set it on vibrate—the wood table you’ll be standing at is quite effective at magnifying the sound of a vibrating phone into a dull roar. Turn your phone off when you walk through the front doors of the courthouse, and don’t turn it back on until you leave the courtroom.  In some courtrooms, the judge will confiscate your phone until the end of the day if it goes off in court!

Don’t bring your children to the courtroom. Small children are not allowed in the courtroom, so it will be necessary to arrange appropriate care for them beforehand. The Sacramento Small Claims Court does offer a free children’s waiting room for children who are toilet-trained and at least 2 and a half years old. Smaller children can also use the room, as long as a friend or relative accompanies them.

Sit in the back and wait. Small claims courts hear many cases in a single session. When you enter the courtroom, look for available seating in the back. You will be called forward when it’s your turn. Real life isn’t like The People’s Court, where litigants walk straight up to the front.

How to act in the courtroom

Judges have a lot to get done in the course of their day, and they have little patience for anything that slows the process down. Here are a few tips on how to handle yourself once it’s your turn to present your case.

Be patient during the preparatory process. There is a lot that will happen before you are called up. A video will be shown explaining how the court works, and then a court officer will explain the mediation process. In Sacramento and many other counties, participation in mediation before you go in front of the judge is mandatory.. Roll will be taken, and you may be directed to another courtroom. If you and the defendant are both present, you will be asked to go out in the hallway and exchange copies of any documents that you’ll each present when the case is heard (it can make things easier to bring a copy just for them!). The court may have other paperwork for you to sign or review, and likely the court clerk will have everyone in the courtroom take an oath to tell the truth.

Introduce yourself. When it’s your turn, the court clerk will call your name. At this point you will be invited to walk up to the appropriate podium. It’s a good idea to introduce yourself to the judge in a succinct but polite manner. For instance: “Hello your honor. My name is Jane Smith, and I am the plaintiff in this case.” Make sure that you always speak slowly, loudly, and clearly, so that you can be easily heard.

Stating your case. At this point, the judge will ask to hear both sides of the case, usually starting with the plaintiff. The idea is to give a general summary of what happened, and the nature of your claim. The judge will ask questions later on, so don’t worry about describing everything in exhaustive detail. It shouldn’t take you longer than a minute or so to state your case.

Answering the judge’s questions. Where necessary, the judge will ask you questions about the background or details of your case. Before you begin to answer, take a moment to put together what you are going to say. You don’t want to get halfway through a response and realize that you don’t know where you’re going with it, or that you’re about to contradict yourself. If you don’t have an answer for the judge’s question, then say so. If you are confused by the judge’s question, ask them to clarify. DO NOT LIE. It’s better to state a truth that may hurt your case than to tell a lie. Nothing will sink a case faster than being caught in a lie by the judge. Lastly, never direct your answers at the other party. Speak to the judge as if you are the only two people in the courtroom, even if the other side talks to you.

Never interrupt or react to the other side. When the judge is talking to the other side, it is extremely important that you are quiet and polite. Do not interrupt your opponent, and be very careful about your body language. Judges are like your mother: they have eyes in the backs of their heads, and nothing next to lying makes them more angry than a rude litigant who sighs loudly, rolls their eyes, or interrupts the other party. If you cannot control yourself, you may be excused from the courtroom or even have your case dismissed. If the other party interrupts you when it’s your turn, simply stop speaking and let the judge handle it.

Be prepared to evaluate a settlement offer. During small claims cases, it’s not unusual for the judge or defendant to put forth a settlement offer. If you are given such an offer, take a moment to consider it carefully. Judges generally want to treat plaintiffs fairly and give them what they deserve. Just because you aren’t being offered everything you want doesn’t mean that you’ll get a better deal later by turning down a settlement offer. If the offer is reasonable, it’s probably wise to accept it.

Once the hearing is over

Chances are, you’re going to have to find out the judge’s decision. While the details differ from court to court, judges in the Sacramento Small Claims Court do not make a decision in the courtroom (unless you accept a settlement offer). In all likelihood, after both sides have testified, the judge will state that he or she will examine the case further, and that you will receive the ruling by mail (this can take around a month or so).

If you win your case, then you have the right to collect your judgment. If you’re lucky, the defendant will do so willingly. But unfortunately, sometimes defendants will not do so, and you’ll have to take further steps to enforce the court judgment and collect on it. It may be necessary to have a lawyer assist you with this process.

If you lose your case, then the case is over. While some states allow plaintiffs to appeal small claims cases, this is not the case in California. When plaintiffs choose to have their case heard in a California small claims court, they agree to give up the right to appeal the case. However, defendants are allowed to appeal the ruling one time if they lose.  This is why it’s extremely important to carefully consider any settlement offers put forth by the other side, the mediator, or the judge.. As pointed out by the site, there are two key advantages to using the mediation process: you have an active role in deciding the outcome, instead of having a judge decide, and secondly, you can raise many issues that may not be allowed in court.

How to Represent Yourself in Small Claims Court

How to File a Lawsuit in Small Claims Court

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.

Small Claims

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.

 

How to File a Lawsuit in Small Claims Court

Family Law Free and Low Cost Resources

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.

Legal services for divorce and other common family law issues can be prohibitively expensive, especially for families who already struggle just to meet typical day to day needs. However, in recent years, many organizations have recognized these concerns and have started to make legal resources available at little or no cost to families with limited incomes. Here are just a few of the free and discounted legal resources available to low income families in the Sacramento area.

Sacramento Court Self-Help Center

The Sacramento County Court’s Self-Help Center offers a number of services, including assistance in completing legal forms and providing guidance for many areas of family law, including legal separation, child custody, child support, spousal support, visitation, domestic violence-related restraining orders, and more.

The self-help center is designed to assist persons who are not represented by an attorney. According to the self-help center’s website, they can specifically assist with the following:

  • Provide information on how to open a case;
  • Give instructions on the completion of court forms;
  • Assist with responding to court forms;
  • Performing spousal and child support calculations
  • Guidance on how to follow-up with subsequent steps of a case;
  • Preparing orders and judgments;
  • Finding additional resources.

The center offers assistance in-person and via an e-correspondence system, and also offers a variety of additional workshops on a regular basis. For more information, contact the self-help center directly via their e-correspondence site.

Sacramento Court One Day Divorce Program

For those with divorce cases currently pending before the Sacramento Superior Court, the Sacramento Court system offers a One Day Divorce Program. Attorneys and law students volunteer their time to assist eligible parties to prepare necessary documents and finalize agreements necessary to obtain a  final divorce Judgment. Those who successfully complete the process can go before a judge on the same day, and leave the court with a final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage.

The One Day Divorce Program is only parties who are representing themselves, and who have filed for dissolution of marriage in Sacramento County. In addition to being limited to litigants who are representing themselves, the program is restricted to households that make less than a certain monthly income. For more information on the program and eligibility, visit the One Day Divorce Program’s website here.

Sacramento Court Resource Referral Program

Parents who have cases heard before the Sacramento Superior Court often end up being required to comply with certain court orders. Court orders can include such requirements as:

  • Alcohol or drug testing;
  • Anger management courses;
  • Co-parenting classes;
  • Counseling or therapy;
  • Job training;
  • Parental education;
  • Supervised child visitation.

Many of these services can be expensive and/or difficult to locate. In order to help parents comply with court orders, the Sacramento Court provides lists of low-cost (and sometimes free) providers of such services. In order to find the most up-to-date lists of such providers, visit the Sacramento Court’s resource referral program page here.

Sacramento County Public Law Library’s Civil Self-Help Center

The SCPLL’s Civil Self-Help Center provides a variety of free services to residents of Sacramento, and those who have a civil case pending in the Sacramento County court system. The Civil Self-Help Center has a page that explains in detail the issues that they can assist with. In addition, the CSHC has free monthly workshops on topics such as written discovery, changing your name, and establishing guardianship. Lastly, every Monday night, the library has a Lawyers in the Library program, in which self-represented litigants can receive a free 20 minute consultation on their cases.

For more information on the services offered by the SCPLL, call them directly at 916-874-6012. They do not accept inquiries by email.

 

University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law

The first Friday of each month, excluding holidays, a clinic is held at McGeorge School of Law in Classroom C to assist parties with preparing documents to start the divorce process.  The clinic is free and law students and attorneys volunteer to assist individuals with preparing the paperwork.  There is no legal advice offered at the clinic, but people with few or no assets can get the basic help needed to begin their divorce.

Since many of the free resources available to litigants do not include any legal advice, if your case is complicated or there are pensions, retirement accounts, or real property you will likely need the assistance of an attorney.

 

Family Law Free and Low Cost Resources