What is a Small Claims Action?
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.
In general, an individual cannot ask for more than $10,000 in a claim. Businesses 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 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
- Many other issues
Naming the Defendant
When you are preparing to file a small claims case, you need to find out exactly who the defendant (the person or business you are suing) is so you can name him or her correctly on your claim. This may seem like a simple issue, but it can be very complicated.In general, if you are:
- Suing a person: Write the person's first name and last name (and middle initial, if known). If the person has used different names, you can list each of them as an “aka” (also known as). For example, if the person you are suing signed a contract as John Doe, but you know he goes by the name of John Roe at work, you can sue him as “John Doe aka John Roe."
- Suing a business: A company name by itself is not necessarily sufficient information to properly identify a party. To properly name the business you will need to know if the business is a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a corporation. You can generally find this information by business licensing for the city where the business is located. For a sole proprietorship, write the owner’s name and the business’ name. If the business is a corporation, you must also have the correct information of who to serve documents at the business. Generally this can include the company’s Agent for Service of Process, an officer of the corporation, President, Vice-President, Secretary, or Treasurer. You can locate companies’ Agent for Service of Process on the California Secretary of State website (online business search)
How to Complete Service
Every Defendant should be served, and a separate Proof of Service must be filed for each Defendant. Your case will not be heard unless you properly serve your claim and file your completed Proof of Service with the court clerk at least 5 Days before the hearing dateIf the Defendant resides in San Bernardino County, he/she must be served prior to the court date as follows:
- If the Defendant lives within the county, they must be served no later than fifteen (15) days prior to the court date
- If the Defendant lives outside the county, they must be served no later than twenty (20) days prior to the court date
- If the person you are serving is not home, you can leave the documents with a person 18 years of age or older. This is called substituted service. Substituted Service is considered complete 10 days after the claim is mailed. Therefore, the substituted service must be performed prior to the court date as follows:
- If the Defendant lives within the county, they must be served by substitution no later than twenty-five (25) days prior to the court date
- If the Defendant lives outside the county, they must be served by substitution no later than thirty (30) days prior to the court date
Re-set Hearing Date for Service
If you are unable to serve the Defendant(s) with the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order before the court date you must request a reset within at least five days before the scheduled hearing date. If you do not reset your case at least five (5) days before the court date, or, appear at the hearing, the court will dismiss your case without prejudice. You will receive no further notice regarding this dismissal. If the court dismisses your case, you will have to start your case over.
Please note there is no charge for you to reset your hearing date. You must bring all copies of the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to the court clerk’s office when requesting a reset. (Note: This does not apply to an Order to Appear for Examination Hearings or Judgment Debtor examinations)
Options When You are SuedIf you have been sued in small claims court, you have several options:
- You can settle your case before the trial. You and the plaintiff (the other side) can work out an agreement to settle the case. The court’s small claims mediation program can help you accomplish this. If you settle your case, you have to let the court know
- You can go to your trial and try to win. You can take witnesses, receipts, and evidence that you need to prove your case
- You can sue the person suing you. If you believe the plaintiff owes you money, you can file a defendant's claim. There is a deadline for you to do this so act quickly
- You can agree with the plaintiff’s claim and pay the money. You can ask the plaintiff to dismiss the case if you pay. If you cannot pay it all at once, you can go to your trial to ask the judge to let you make payments
- You can do nothing. If you do nothing and do not go to your trial, you will “default” and the judge will probably enter a default judgment against you. The plaintiff will probably get what he or she is asking for plus any filing fees or other court costs related to the small claims case. If this happens, the plaintiff can legally take your money, wages, and property to pay the judgment
If you think the person suing you (called "the plaintiff") owes you money or hurt you, you can ask the court to decide your claim and the plaintiff’s claim at the same time. If you want to do this, you must normally file and serve a defendant's claim using form SC-120 at least 5 days before the hearing date. But, if you were served with the Plaintiff's Claim (Form SC-100) ten days or less before the hearing date you must file and serve your defendant's claim at least 1 day before the hearing date.
Keep in mind that, if you want to sue the plaintiff as part of the claim he or she filed against you, you have to meet the requirements for small claims court. That means that you cannot ask for more than $10,000 in your claim. If you are a business or other entity (like a government entity) you cannot ask for more than $5,000. And you cannot have a lawyer represent you in court. But you can talk to a lawyer before or after your court trial.
If you want to ask for more than $10,000 (for individuals) or $5,000 (businesses and other entities), you need to sue in the civil division of the superior court and not in small claims court. In the civil division, lawyers can represent each side.
Note: You can only file a defendant's claim against those who have sued you. For example, if you were only sued by the owner of a car for a car accident you were in (and not by the driver of that car), then you cannot file a defendant's claim against both the owner and the driver.
Preparing for TrialBelow are general helpful steps to 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. You can also talk to a small claims advisor or a lawyer before court.
2. Prepare the proof to take to courtTake any papers that support your story and take 2 more copies of everything. This is called "evidence." Evidence can be:
- Diagrams that show how an accident happened
- Police reports
3. Take copies of all your court papers and your Proof of Service
4. Take people to support your story (witnesses)
5. If you do not speak English well, ask the court clerk as soon as possible to have a court-provided interpreter available at your hearing
6. If you are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or have another disability request an accommodation
Request to Postpone (Continue) Small Claims Hearing
If the defendant has been served, but a party needs a continuance, you may submit a request for continuance and it must be made in writing at least ten (10) days before the court date. The court will charge a $10.00 fee for rescheduling your hearing.
Complete the Request to Postpone Trial form (SC-150) and serve a copy by mail to all parties in the case. You will also need to complete a Proof of Service form verifying that you mailed out a copy of the Request to Postpone to the other party. (Form SC-104 or SC-112A) File the “original” Request to Postpone Trial, Order on Request to Postpone Trial (SC-152), and Proof of Service forms with the court clerk’s office and include a copy to be stamped for your records. The clerk will set a new date and send notice to all the parties of the court’s order by mail on the Order on Request to Postpone Trial form SC-152. (Note: Form SC-150 does not apply to Order to Appear for Examination Hearings or Judgment Debtor examinations).
Small Claims Judgment Basics
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, there is no longer any waiting period for you to start collecting.
Only a defendant can file an appeal of a Plaintiff’s small claims judgment. BUT if you are the plaintiff, and the defendant counter-sued you by filing a Defendant's Claim in response to your Plaintiff's Claim and you lose, you CAN appeal. A small claims appeal is a brand-new trial. The entire case is decided from scratch.
When you appeal a small claims judgment, you ask the superior court to change the small claims court judge's decision. You will have another court hearing and must present your case again.
A small claims appeal is a "trial de novo" or "new trial." This means that the case is decided by a new judge from the beginning so you have to present your case all over again. The only real difference between the appeal hearing and the original small claims hearing is that each party is allowed to have an attorney represent him/her at the appeal.
To File an Appeal of a Small Claims Judgment
1. You must file your appeal within 30 days of the date the small claims judgment was mailed to you. This date will be towards the bottom of your copy of the small claims decision
2. File a Notice of Appeal (Small Claims) (Form SC-140) with the small claims court
3. The court will mail you the date and time of your hearing on the appeal. The hearing on your appeal will be in the civil division of the superior court
4. Go to your trial. You and the other side will have to present your case all over again
5. If you do not go to the trial, the judge will not hear your side of the story and may dismiss the appeal
Collecting your judgment can be one of the most difficult parts of your small claims case. The court cannot collect the money for you, but it can help you get the tools you need to collect your money. Keep in mind, not all judgments are collectable because the debtor may not have any income or property of value.
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. However, if you agree to accept less than the whole judgment, you will give your right 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.
The Debtor Has 30 Days from the Mailing of the Entry of Judgment Before He or She Has to PayDuring this time, the debtor can:
- Voluntarily pay the judgment
- Ask the court to order an installment payment plan
- File an appeal (if present in court on the day of the hearing)
- Fill out and send you a Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets (Form SC-133)
- File a Motion to Vacate Judgment and SC-135 if not present at the day of the hearing
The Debtor Can Pay the Judgment Directly to the Court
A debtor in a small claims case can pay the judgment directly the court, if he or she prefers. Often this is done so that the debtor can immediately get proof of payment from the court in order to clear their credit record.To pay the judgment to the court, the debtor must pay:
- The principle amount of the judgment
- Costs after judgment
- Interest accrued on the judgment
- The court’s processing fee (usually $25)
- Complete the “Judgment Creditor’s Request for Funds” (a portion of Form SC-145, the Request to Pay Judgment to Court
- Claim the money by either mailing your completed request to the court or giving the form in person to the court clerk.
It is very important that the court has your current mailing address at all times. If the court is unable to reach you to tell you that it is holding payment of your judgment within 3 years, the money becomes the property of the court. If you have questions about this payment, be sure to tell the court the case name, case number, and date of entry of judgment.
The Debtor is Required to Send you a Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets (Forms SC-133)
If the debtor does not appeal or file a motion to vacate (cancel) the judgment (and that does not voluntarily pay the judgment) her or she must fill out a Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets (Form SC-133) an send it to you. In many counties the court clerk will mail a Form SC-133 to the debtor with the original Judgment.
Unfortunately, many debtors do not fill out and deliver the Form SC-133. If the debtor does not complete and send you this form (and he or she has not paid or appealed the judgment or asked for a payment plan), you may be able to ask the court for sanctions against the debtor.
If you do not receive a Form SC-133 and need information about the debtor’s assets to collect your judgment, you will have to do a debtor’s examination.
The Debtor Can Ask the Court to Let Them Pay the Judgment in Installments
The debtor will make the request using a Request to Make Payments (Form SC-220) (which must include a Financial Statement (Form EJ-165). The court clerk will mail a copy of the request to you.You then have 10 days to tell the court that:
- You will accept the proposed payment schedule
- You will accept payments in a different amount
- You do not want to accept installment
You can give the court this information and your reasons for your response using a Response to Request to Make Payments (Form SC-221) or in a letter or Declaration (Form MC-030). If you do not respond within 10 days, the court may assume that you accept the proposed payment schedule and will grant the debtor's request. If you do not accept the proposed payment schedule, the court will probably hold a hearing to discuss the request and your opposition.
This payment plan option affects the interest on the judgment as it may stop all interest from accruing until the judgment is paid off or the debtor fails to keep up with the payments.
Note: If the debtor already got the court's permission to pay you in installments (through a payment plan) and he or she has stopped paying you (or never paid you), you can ask the court to cancel the payment plan and make the full balance due right away.
For collection problems and special situations visit us at the Self-Help Center.
Renewing the Judgment
Money judgments automatically expire (run out) after 10 years. To prevent this from happening, you (as the judgment creditor) must file a request for renewal of the judgment with the court BEFORE the 10 years run out. If the judgment is not renewed, it will not be enforceable any longer and you will not be able to get your money.
Once a judgment has been renewed, it cannot be renewed again until 5 years later. But make sure it is renewed at least every 10 years or it will expire.
When the judgment is renewed, the interest that has accrued will be added to the principal amount owing. From that point on, you are entitled to interest on the principal and the accrued interest.