California Small Claims Court Process

California Small Claims Court Process

Last Updated: December 29, 2022 by Ashley Porter

Quick Facts Answer
Small Claim Maximum $10,000 if filed by individual

$5,000 if filed by business entity

Deadline to File 2 years – Oral lease agreement

3 years – Property damage, security deposit disputes

4 years – Written lease agreement

Filing Fees $30 – Claims $1,500 or less

$50 – Claims from $1,500.01 to $5,000

$75 – Claims over $5,000.01

Appeal Deadline 30 days

Small Claims Court Basics in California

Small Claims Court is an informal court designed for minor cases limited to a maximum claim amount. The trial does not involve a jury. Instead, the plaintiff and defendant present their case to the judge, who makes a decision.

In California, Small Claims Court is a division of Superior Court, but it may also be called Small Claims Court in your county.

Common suits filed by landlords include:

  • Recovery of unpaid rent
  • Damages that exceed the amount of the security deposit
  • Failure to uphold the responsibilities of the rental agreement
  • Early termination of a lease

Common suits filed by tenants include:

  • Failure to return the security deposit correctly
  • Failure to uphold the responsibilities of the rental agreement
  • Overcharging for damages

How Long Does the Small Claims Court Process Take in California?

A typical small claims case in California takes one to two months, from the date of filing, but can be longer if there are problems serving the defendant, the trial is continued, or other delays occur.

How Much Can You Sue For in Small Claims Court in California?

In California, the maximum amount that can be recovered by individuals through Small Claims Court is $10,000. If the plaintiff is not a person, such as a corporation or partnership, the maximum amount that can be recovered is $5,000. However, plaintiffs cannot sue more than twice in a calendar year for more than $2,500.

To attempt to recover a higher amount, the suit must be filed as a civil case in Superior Court.

note

There is no maximum demand amount for cases filed in Small Claims Court until September 30, 2025, if the case is for nonpayment of COVID-19 rental debt.

How Long Do You Have to File a Small Claims Case in California?

The time limit for filing a small claims case in California depends on the type of case filed:

  • Two years: Violation of an oral lease agreement
  • Three years: Damage to property ordisputes regarding a security deposit
  • Four years: Violation of a written lease agreement
note

Due to the pandemic, California passed a law that paused the time periods above between April 6, 2020 and October 1, 2020. If you file a case for an event that occurred before October 1, 2020, you can add 178 days to the applicable time limit.

Are Lawyers Needed or Allowed in Small Claims Court in California?

Small Claims Court is designed to be simple and not require an attorney. California Small Claims Court does not permit the use of an attorney in most situations.

Attorneys can represent themselves in Small Claims Court in these situations:

  • If the plaintiff or defendant is an attorney and a partner of a partnership where all of the partners are attorneys
  • If the plaintiff or defendant is an attorney and an officer or director of a corporation where all of the officers and directors are attorneys

Where are Small Claims Cases Filed in California?

Small claims cases in California are generally filed in the county where the defendant lives, except claims regarding a contract like a lease agreement, which should be filed in the county where the agreement originated.

Most counties have a small claims advisor you can contact to ensure you are filing in the correct court and ask other questions related to the process.

How to File a Small Claims Case in California

Step 1: Send a demand letter. If it is feasible, you must send a demand letter to the defendant to attempt a resolution before filing a small claims case. California law does not regulate the form or delivery of the letter, but you can generate a demand letter on the California Courts website.

The demand letter should include a reasonable deadline for the defendant to respond before you file a small claims case. Although California law does not require a specific waiting period, the courts recommend 10 to 14 days.

Step 2: File a Claim and Order. Complete the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order form and file it in the appropriate court. There is a special form for recovering COVID-19 rental debt. Check with your local Small Claims Court to determine which filing methods they allow, typically, by mail, in person, or online.

The court will schedule the trial for a date between 20 to 70 days after the filing of the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order.

Step 3: Pay the filing fee. If you file in person or online, you will pay immediately after filing. If you file by mail, you will need to include a check for the filing fee.

How Much Does it Cost to File a Case in Small Claims Court in California?

In California, the filing fee for a small claims case ranges from $30to $75 depending on the claim amount:

  • $1,500 or less – $30
  • $1,500.01 to $5,000 – $50
  • $5,000.01 to $10,000 – $75

If the plaintiff has already filed 12 cases in the past 12 months, the fee is $100.

What if You Can’t Afford to File a Case?

You can still file a case if you cannot afford the fees by filing a Fee Waiver. The request can be filed in person, by mail, or online, if your court supports online filing.

Alternatively, you can utilize local mediation programs, which offer free or low-cost mediation services that can be used instead of filing a small claims case.

Small Claims Court Process in California

After filing a small claims case in California, the case is scheduled for a trial, and the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order is served on the defendant.

Step 1: Serve the defendant. After you have filed the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order in person, by mail, or electronically, you will need to serve the defendant. Service must be completed at least 15 days prior  to the trial if the defendant is located in the same county where the case was filed, or 20 days prior  to the trial if the defendant is located in a different county.

note

If the deadline to serve the defendant falls on a weekend, holiday, or any other day when the court is closed, the deadline to serve falls on the closest day before the deadline that the court is open.

Service on the defendant can be completed by:

  • Hand delivery to the defendant
  • Hand delivery to someone other than the defendant who is over 18 at the defendant’s home or work (the server must also mail a copy to the defendant)
  • Court clerk sends the forms by certified mail ($15 fee)

The defendant cannot personally hand deliver the complaint, but service can be completed by:

  • Sheriff (if available in your county and by paying a fee)
  • Professional process server
  • Any individual over 18 not related to the case like a friend or family member

Step 2: File a Proof of Service. An original Proof of Service form must be filed in person or by mail with the court at least 5 days before the trial.

Step 3: Gather evidence and witnesses. Gather all physical evidence you may have to support your case and ensure that any witnesses are available to attend the trial. For example, you may ask the apartment manager to serve as a witness to how clean you left the apartment after moving out.

You may need to subpoena a witness if you are unable to get them to attend voluntarily by serving the defendant a Small Claims Subpoena. Service on the defendant can be completed by anyone over 18, including the plaintiff. It must be done in person. Check with the court to determine their fees for the subpoena.

After you have served a copy of the subpoena to the witness, you must provide the original to the court clerk by mail or in person before the trial.

note

The defendant can file a countersuit if they file a Defendant’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court at least 5 days before the trial, or 1 day before the trial if the Defendant’s Claim and Order was served within 10 days of the original trial date. If a countersuit is filed, the trial will be rescheduled.

Step 4: Attend the trial.On the trial date, you should bring copies of any evidence you have to support your claim. The judge will allow you and the defendant to provide your arguments before deciding to dismiss the case or issue a judgment. The judge may issue a judgment at the trial or a few days later.

Winning a Small Claims Judgment in California

If you win the judgment in California, the defendant may appeal the case, you may be paid the judgment within the allotted time period, or you may need to pursue additional actions to recover the debt.

If the defendant disagrees with the outcome of the trial, they have 30 days after the judgment is issued or mailed by the clerk to file an appeal by filing a Notice of Appeal. If the plaintiff loses the case, they cannot appeal the judge’s decision unless they are ordered to pay the defendant.

note

If the judgment debtor lost the case because they failed to attend the trial, or they believe a legal or clerical error was made during the trial, they would request another trial through a request to vacate, rather than an appeal.

When the judge issues the judgment, the debtor must pay within 30 days, unless the judge establishes a payment plan. In the best case, the judgment debtor pays their debt within this period.

If the debtor is delinquent on their payment or refuses to pay after the judgment was issued, you can file a case to recover the debt. The most common methods of enforcing a judgment are wage garnishmentproperty lien, or bank levy.

A judgment gains interest at a rate of 10% annually. You have 10 years to collect or renew a judgment before it expires.

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