Small Claims

Before the Case

Small claims court is set-up to resolve disputes quickly with little costs. Cases are always for less than $10,000. The rules are more simple and the hearings are less formal than in other courts. You can talk to a lawyer about your small claims case, but your lawyer cannot represent you in court.

Generally, any adult, business, or government agency (except the federal government) can sue or be sued in small claims court.

To file or defend a case by themselves in small claims court, the person must be:

  • (a) at least 18 years old or legally emancipated, and
  • (b) mentally competent.

If a person is under 18 years old, or has been declared mentally incompetent by a court, he or she must be represented by a guardian ad litem. For someone not yet 18, this is usually a parent. Contact the small claims adviser for your court to find out how to have a guardian ad litem appointed.

Note: You do not have to be a US Citizen to file a claim.

Small claims courts handle cases about many different topics.

Examples of problems handled by small claims courts

  • You lent money to a friend, and he or she refuses to re-pay it.
  • You were in a car accident.
  • Your former landlord refuses to return the security deposit you paid.
  • You bought something that is broken and want your money back.

Can you only ask for money?

Generally, small claims courts just decide if someone is owed money. Sometimes, the person filing the claim may also want the other person to do or stop doing something. You can ask the judge to order one side to do or stop doing something if you also ask for money. For example, if you lent a watch to a friend and he or she refuses to return it, the judge can order the person to return the watch right away or pay you for the watch. Keep in mind, the person may decide to pay you and not return the watch.

There are set time limits to file most cases. The time limits are called “statutes of limitations.” How long you have to file depends on the type of case and when something happened or when you knew about what went wrong. In general, if the case is filed past the time limit, the judge will dismiss the case.

A list of some common time limits is below. Keep in mind that these are general rules and there may be exceptions that apply to your case. This is a complicated area of law. If you have questions – for example, if you think it is too late for a case to be filed -- contact the Small Claims Advisor or consult a lawyer.

Common time limits:

1 year:

  • Professional negligence of a health care provider (from the date you knew or should have known about the injury, but not longer than three years).

NOTE: Negligence by a health care provider requires that you give the provider a special notice in writing that you intend to sue him or her at least 90 days before you file your case. This is called a “Notice of Intent to Sue.”

2 years:

  • Personal physical/emotional injury, from the date of the incident,
  • Oral contracts, from the date the contract was broken.

3 years – from the date of the incident:

  • Property damage,
  • Fraud,
  • Trespass,
  • Nuisance,
  • Domestic Violence.

4 years:

  • Breaking a written contract, from the date of the break,
  • Breaking a legal duty, from the date of the break,
  • Breaking an agreement about sale of goods, from the date of the break,
  • Construction defects, from date of construction, if the defect is obvious.

10 years:

  • Construction “defects,” from date of construction if you can't easily see the problem.
NOTE: Cases against government agencies have different rules. Learn more about suing a government agency .

Each county in California has a small claims court. The person or business starting the case needs to figure out which county's small claims court is the right court for their case, then file their case there.

Where can a case be filed?

Usually, the case is filed in the court where the defendant lives or does business. But there may be more than one “right” location. For example, the case may be filed:

  • Where the damage or accident happened.
  • Where the contract was signed by the person being sued.
  • Where the person agreed to carry out the contract.
  • If the defendant is a corporation, where the contract was made.

There are special rules for consumers. You can read more about these rules at the Department of Consumer Affairs.

NOTE: If a case is filed in the wrong court, the court will usually dismiss the case unless everyone agrees it can be heard in that court. For more information, you can contact the Small Claims Legal Advisor in your county.
Before going to court, the people having a dispute must try to settle it themselves. In fact, the very first court form filled out by the person who starts the case says:
4. You must ask the Defendant (in person, in writing, or by phone) to pay you before you sue. Have you done this? If no, explain why not.

A. Try to Talk It Out

If you are having a dispute with someone, try to talk about it with them. Perhaps, when the problem first came up words were said in anger, or decisions were made before all of the facts were known. It is possible that later, emotions will have cooled off. It’s worth trying to resolve the dispute on a friendly basis.

IMPORTANT: Don’t wait too long. Remember, there are laws that limit the time you have to file a case (statutes of limitations). If you think you are running out of time to file your case, you can file your claim and still try to work it out.

B. Try Mediation

Mediation is a process for resolving disputes informally. You and the other person meet (in person or by phone) with a third person – a trained mediator – who would attempt to help you to resolve your dispute.

  • Mediation can help if you have an on-going relationship with the other person. If you are suing a neighbor, business partner, landlord, or tenant, mediation may help you work out your problems and keep your relationship.
  • To try mediation, ask a court clerk if the small claims court offers a mediation program. If it does, it may be free. If not, the clerk may know of a free or low-cost program in your county. You can also locate a mediation program by calling your local bar association or by calling the California Department of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-952-5210.

C. Write a Formal “Demand” Letter

Before going to court, send the other person a short letter (e-mail is fine) demanding payment. Your “demand” letter should be business-like.

  • Start by reviewing the main facts of the dispute. Include dates and times.
  • Include how you came up with the amount owed.
  • Ask for what you want, when you want it, and where it is to be delivered. For example, the full amount owed should be delivered to your home address by 5:00 pm, Sept. 21, 2018.
  • Conclude by saying that you will pursue your legal options, including filing in Small Claims Court, if the demand is not met by the date you set.

This program may help you write a demand letter.

If you DO settle your dispute, write down your agreement.

  • The names and addresses of the people involved,
  • A brief description of the dispute,
  • What the person owed money is getting and how they will get it,
  • The date the agreement is signed, and
  • The signatures of both people.

Keep a copy of the agreement in a safe place.

Before filing a case in small claims court, it's important to decide whether going to court is the best way to solve your problem.

Some Considerations:

  1. Filing a lawsuit requires time and effort. This includes preparing for the hearing, gathering evidence, meeting with witnesses, and going to your court date.
  2. Neither you nor the other side will be compensated for your time for preparing and going to court, even if you win.
  3. You cannot hire an attorney to represent you in court. The lawyer may help you before or after the trial. (The costs of hiring an attorney may be high.)
  4. If you start a small claims case and lose, you may not appeal the decision.
  5. Even if you win in court, the person who owes you money may still refuse to pay it. The court does not collect the money for you. There are legal ways to try to force them to pay, but these take a lot of effort and sometimes money. You may never get paid or it may take years.

Some of the questions you might ask yourself before you file a case include:

  1. Is your dispute about money? Is the amount $10,000 or less?
  2. Have you tried to contact the other side to settle the dispute?
  3. Are you within the time limits set by law to file your type of case?
  4. Can you file the case in a court that is not too hard for you to get to?
  5. Do you know the full legal name of the person or business you want to sue and where to find them?
  6. Are you sure that the person or business you want to sue is legally responsible for the problem?
  7. Can you prove your case? Do you have the evidence you need to convince a judge you are in the right about your claim?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you may be better off seeking other ways to solve your problem.

If the answer to all of these questions is “yes” and you decide to file a small claims court case, please read the section called Filing a Claim.

Small Claims Advisors

In California, each county's superior court has a Small Claims Advisor to help people with their small claims cases. This service is free.

  • The Small Claims Advisor can't represent you in court nor act as your attorney, but can offer legal information you may need to represent yourself in court. The Small Claims Advisor may provide help to either side in a case.

  • Get information about the Small Claims Advisor in the county where you live.

Some other resources or options to consider include:

  • Go to a library, buy a self-help book, or look on the internet. Find your nearest California Public Law Library in your county.
  • Consumer issues: Contact the Better Business Bureau, the Bureau of Automotive Repair, and the California Department of Consumer Affairs.