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Pursuing a legal claim is an inherently frustrating and stressful process, especially when filing suit in the Federal District Court or California Superior Court. The process involves a multitude of steps and the trials themselves can be grueling. However, small claims court was designed with the average US citizen in mind. If you’re looking to settle a dispute easily, quickly, and inexpensively, then you may be looking to file a small claims case.

Of the 712,299 civil cases filed in California in 2017, approximately 22.23% or 158,347 were small claims cases. Small claims court is a legal tool available to every United States citizen and it is one that is well utilized. To determine if small claims court makes sense for your case, it’s first important to understand what small claims court is.

What Is Small Claims Court?

Small claims are heard in a separate division of county civil courts. As the name implies, small claims court is structured to take cases with a limited claim value. In California, individuals can collect up to $7,500 in small claims court, while corporations and limited liability companies are limited to $5,000. The court can handle a number of different cases. The most popular types of small claims suits include personal injury, unpaid debts, breach of contract, defective products, unsatisfactory service, business disputes, landlord-tenant disputes, fraud, and property damage.

While the claims are limited, the benefit is that most cases are generally settled within 3 months. If you win, the court can also order that the losing side pay your court fees. Nevertheless, the state of California bans attorneys from small claims proceedings. If you decide to file a small claims case, you’ll have to go it alone. Therefore, it’s important that you understand the steps to successfully filing a claim.

How Do You Take Someone To Small Claims Court?

If you’ve decided you’d like to file a claim against an individual or business, the process can be broken down into seven simple steps. It’s also worth noting the statutes of limitations in California which states that you have to file a claim within two years of a personal injury accident or oral breach of contract, three years from the event of property damage, and four years from the breach of a written contract. If you fail to file within those time restrictions, your case will not be heard. That being said, filing a case starts with filing the paperwork.

1) Identify The Parties Being Sued

Before anyone can be sued, you have to first be able to properly identify who you are suing. This may seem straightforward, but there are a number of variables to consider. For instance, if you get into an accident with a borrowed car, you may sue the driver and win, but if the insurance is the name of the car owner, you may not be able to collect a judgement. On the other hand, if you sue both the driver and the owner, you’ll have no problem collecting judgment if you win.

To file a claim, you need the exact name of the person or company you are suing. If you are suing:

  • A person: You’ll need the first and last name of the individual. If the individual goes by multiple names, you can list them all as AKAs.
  • A husband & wife or domestic partners: You’ll need to write both of their full names.
  • A business owned by a single individual: In this case you’ll need the full name of the business owner and the name of the business.
  • A partnership: You’ll need the name of the partnership and the full names of the partners.
  • A corporation: You’ll need the exact legal name of the corporation.
  • A business owned by a corporation: You’ll need the name of the business and the name of the corporation.
  • Individuals in a car accident: You’ll need to identify the name of the driver and the owner of the car (if they are different people). If there were multiple cars involved, you’ll need to list each driver and owner.

Once you’ve identified the individual or business you’ll need to find them to be able to deliver a copy of your claim once you file it. There are a few different ways to go about finding an individual or business depending on what information you already know.

Finding An Individual

If you already know where the person lives, you’re in good shape, but this may not always be the case. If you know the individual’s phone number, you can use a reverse directory to find their address. If the individual owns property, you local tax assessor’s office can help you find an address based on the tax rolls. If the person has moved, you can send a letter to the last known address. If you write “Return Service Requested. Do Not Forward.” under the return address, the post office will return the letter with the new address if that individual filed an address change with the new address.  

Finding A Business

If you are suing a corporation or limited partnership you can search on the California Secretary of State’s website to find a business and their agent for service. If you know the business’s phone number you can also use a reverse directory to find the business.

2) Demand Payment Prior To Filing

Once you’ve identified the individual(s) or business, you’ll want to issue a demand for payment before bringing about a lawsuit. The initial demand gives the opposing party the ability to settle a dispute before being pulled into court. You could issue a demand letter, but you can also request payment in person or over the phone. Regardless of how you decide to approach the demand, the court will request proof that you’ve attempted to collect payment outside of court before filing.

3) Pick The Right Small Claims Court

Your natural instincts may be to file at the small claims court nearest to your home, but this is not always the case. If you are suing your credit card company or a business or individual for a defective product or unsatisfactory service, then you can file in the county where you live. If you are suing because of a car accident or breach of contract, you’ll want to sue in the county where the accident or breach of contract occurred. If you are suing because an individual owes you money from a purchase, you’ll want to sue in the county where the buyer lives or the item or service was purchased.

It’s imperative you select the right court, because failure to do so could result in the dismissal of your case.

4) Prepare The Necessary Documentation

After finding the correct court to file in, you’ll need to obtain and prepare the necessary court documentation. The forms involved will vary depending on the type of claim you’re filing and the type of defendant involved. For every case, you can expect to fill out a Plaintiff’s Claim form. Once you’ve completed the forms, you’ll need to deliver them to the courthouse clerk and pay the required filing fee. The filing fee ranges from $30-$75 depending on the court.

5) Serve The Papers

Once you’ve filed your forms you’ll have to notify the other party that they are being sued. There are three ways you can notify the defendant of a lawsuit. You can either mail a copy of the claim via certified mail service, have the sheriff deliver the copy, or hire a private process server to do so. The court will not set a pre-trial hearing or trial date until the defendant has been served.

6) Go To Court

Before trial, courts will often require that all parties involved attend a pre-trial hearing. At the pre-trialing hearing, you can only bring documents (not witnesses) to prove your case. At the pre-trial hearing you will be given the option to have your case heard by a mediator instead of going to trial. In certain cases, mediation can be faster and more affordable than going to trial.

If you decide to go to trial, you’ll have the opportunity to present your case before a judge or court-appointed official. During the trial you can call upon witnesses. However, calling a witness requires additional service fees and the witness has to be served with a subpoena well in advance before trial.

7) Collect Your judgement

The judge will deliver a judgment once both parties presented their arguments. What many fail to realize is that the court only delivers a judgement and is not responsible for collecting your judgement for you. Ideally, the defendant will pay immediately. If this is not the case, you can utilize wage garnishment or enact a property liens to ensure you get the payment you deserve.

The defendant also has the right to appeal the judgement. If this occurs, the case will need to be tried in a more formal manner and you will likely need to obtain a lawyer to represent you.

Small Claims Might Not Be The Best Fit

While small claims court offers individuals a cheap and easy route to settle disputes, it may not always be the best way to recover the compensation you deserve. You may not receive the full value of your claim, because small claims court is capped at a threshold of $10,000. Before pursuing a litigation, it’s always best to speak to a knowledgeable California attorney. An experienced attorney can help you determine the true value of your case and decide whether or not filing in small claims court makes sense. Depending on your case you may be able to recover far more than $10,000. Best of all, most attorneys offer a free initial consultation, so there is no cost in seeking legal advice.

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