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Intro to Small Claims Court

Published April 29, 2021

Any person who feels that another party owes them money can sue in small claims court..  

Introduction to Small Claims Court

Most people turn to Small Claims Court when settling minor disputes. Small claims handle private civil cases under limited jurisdiction. Any person or entity who feels that another individual, business, or corporation owes them money can sue in small claims court. Most small claims cases involve a breach of contract, property damage, fraud, money disputes, bad checks, landlord-tenant issues, or car accidents. The maximum amount an individual or an individually owned business can sue for is $10,000 while, corporations, limited liability companies, and limited partnerships can only sue for up to $5,000. Court costs, however, are not included in the amount but can be added to the judgment. For a case to be filed in California Small Claims Court, the Defendant must be served in California except for some instances. The local and state government can also be sued once a Claim for Damages is filed. The federal government, on the other hand, cannot be sued in Small Claims court.

Before filing a case, specific terminology should be understood. The person filing the action is called the Plaintiff, and the person being sued is called the Defendant. There are specific considerations as well. The Plaintiff must pay a filing fee to file their claim with the court. The actual fee depends on the amount of the claim. If the case is asking for an amount under $1,500, the fee is $30. If it is between $1,500 and $5,000, the fee is $50, and if the claim is between $5,000 and $10,000, the fee increases to $75. It is also important to note that only two claims over $2,500 can be filed within one calendar year. There is no annual limit to the number of claims under $2,500 that can be filed. However, if twelve or more cases are filed within a year, each case will have a filing fee of $100. If a litigant cannot afford to pay for their filing fee, they can fill out FW-001 and FW-003 to see if they are eligible for a fee waiver.

A Plaintiff should also be aware of the statute of limitations, a statutorily set time when a party can bring an action against a party. These times differ based on the action type. Cases that involve personal injury or an oral contract fall under a statute of two years; cases with property damage and fraud have a statute of three years; and cases involving a written contract can be filed four years from the contract breach. The judge evaluates all statutes on the day of the hearing.

Before submitting a claim, Plaintiff should determine the correct location where the case should be filed. Claims should be filed at the courthouse closest to where the contract was signed or breached, where the accident occurred, where an injury took place, or where the Defendant lives or does business. If the Defendant disagrees with the venue chosen by the Plaintiff, they can submit a venue challenge letter to the court. If the venue is incorrect, the judge can dismiss the case or transfer it to the appropriate venue.

Once the necessary pre-filing details are established, the first step in the small claims process is to submit an SC-100. The Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court asks for the name and address of both parties, the amount being sued for, a short explanation of the event, and other relevant information. Once pages two and three are accurately filled out, the Plaintiff can either mail the form to the courthouse, drop it off at the court’s dropbox, or schedule an appointment to submit it in person.

After filing the claim, the Plaintiff will receive documentation that will include the SC-100 form with a case number and scheduled court date, along with court information on evidence submission and mediation. The Complaint must be served on the Defendant(s)  by an adult who is not involved in the case. There are two types of service: personal service and substitute service. Personal service is when the court papers are given directly to the Defendant, while substitute service is when court papers are given to someone who lives or works with the Defendant. There are different time restrictions for personal service and substitute service, so the Plaintiff is responsible for ensuring that the other party is served promptly. After serving, the server will fill out the SC-104, Proof of Service, and file it to the court.

After service is completed, Defendant has the option to countersue the Plaintiff with an SC-120 or any other proper form.  The court hearing itself only lasts between ten to twenty minutes. At the hearing, there are no attorneys permitted to represent parties and no rules of evidence. Plaintiff presents their case first, followed by Defendant. The judge may decide at the hearing, but typically the parties receive their results by mail. The Defendant has a right to appeal the judgment with an SC-140. The Plaintiff, however, has no right to appeal unless they were countersued.

After a judgment is entered, the judgment creditor or the person who is owed money must wait thirty days to begin the collection process. From there, they can choose to ask for their money or pursue a bank levy, wage garnishment, till tap. If the judgment creditor does not have any information on the debtor’s assets, they can initiate a Judgment Debtor Hearing with an SC-134. This hearing is designed for the creditor to collect information on the debtor and their assets and force them to empty their pockets. The judgment creditor has ten years to collect their money until they must renew the judgment.

The Legal Resource Center has several links to assist. The Los Angeles Department of Consumer and Business Affairs provides step-by-step videos on the small claims process, as well as sample forms and other online resources. Los Angeles Court also has a portal to access case summaries and find more information on COVID-19 court protocol. The Los Angeles Court also established a new online dispute resolution process that is open to litigants looking to settle matters outside of the court.