It’s a common story – your neighbor’s pet kangaroo escapes from its cage, hops over to your house, and then proceeds to box its way into your living room thereby destroying your best antique china dishes worth $1,000.
You want to sue your neighbor to kingdom come. The only problem is that the time and expense of going to court is probably going to be more costly than $1,000. At the same time, $1,000 is too great a sum to simply let the incident slide. What to do?
The answer that the good Lord came up with is Small Claims Court.
What is Small Claims Court?
It is a legal process that bypasses both lawyers and lengthy legal procedures in order to settle disputes by two parties.
Can any case or legal matter be handled by Small Claims Court?
No. With a few small exceptions, the only kinds of cases that Small Claims Court in California handles are those for money damages no greater than $7,500, or enforcing contracts dealing with goods and services valued at the same amount. (Note: Corporations that sue in Small Claims Court can only ask for $5,000.)
Any disputes over $7,500 must be handled in other courts outside of Small Claims. You are also limited to just two small claims lawsuits per year if you ask for more than $2,500 each time.
Where can I sue in Small Claims Court?
Most state courthouses will have a Small Claims Division. However, you must sue a defendant in the appropriate venue. Generally, this means suing people in the same city where they live, where they agreed to the disputed contract with you, or where the action took place that led to your injury. Businesses can also usually be sued in any city where they do business.
What are the advantages of Small Claims Court?
1. It’s quick! If the person you are suing lives in the same county as you, you should get a court date no later than 40 days from the time you file your lawsuit. If he lives outside the county, you will still get a court date within 70 days. Regular courts take months or even years to go through the legal process.
2. It’s cheap! The only unavoidable cost is the filing fee for your case which is usually just $22. Even if you can’t afford this, you can ask the court clerk for a fee waiver which is granted in some instances. Beyond that, people will usually pay a fee to get their lawsuit served on the person they are suing. Costs will vary depending on how you go about serving the papers, but the filing fee and service costs are usually recoverable if you win your case in court.
3. It’s informal! There are no arcane court procedures of evidence or objections. Just show up and tell your side of the story.
4. No lawyers! Lawyers can consult with you before your court date, but they aren’t allowed to represent people in Small Claims Court. This makes things cheaper with less hassle.
What are the disadvantages of Small Claims Court?
1. If you are the person filing the lawsuit and you lose, there are no appeals. It’s a one-shot deal.
2. No lawyers! If you aren’t used to presenting a case persuasively, a high-priced mouthpiece won’t be able to help you (at least at the actual court hearing).
How Does Small Claims Court Work?
Step 1: Write the person you are suing a letter either demanding payment or other action required to resolve the dispute out of court.
Courts usually insist that you at least make an attempt to resolve these issues on your own before your bother them with your problems in life. If talking it out doesn’t work, then its best to write a letter and keep a copy for the court to see.
Assuming Step 1 doesn’t work, then it’s time for…
Step 2: Fill out a Plaintiff’s Statement or Claim Form
These can be found either at the Small Claims clerk’s office or on the Internet
( http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/fillable/sc100.pdf ).
Follow the instructions on the form and list the correct name and address of the person or business you are suing. Also provide a brief description of the nature of the dispute. (Do not write a legal version of “War and Peace” here, just one or two sentences will do at this point.)
Step 3: File the Claim and serve the Defendant
File your claim with the Court Clerk’s office at the courthouse in the appropriate venue.
Next, you will have to take a copy of your claim, and serve it on whoever you are suing in order to give them appropriate notice of the lawsuit.
To serve an individual with your lawsuit, the best way to ensure proper service is to find out where they live or work and have the papers shoved directly in front of them (leaving it under their pillow or in their mailbox will not work). This can be done by anyone who is at least 18-years-old and is not involved in your case, provided that they return a proof of service form to the court clerk’s office.
Oftentimes, the sheriff’s department will perform the service of lawsuits for a small fee. Private service companies will also do the job for a slightly larger fee. The court’s clerk will often have information on how to go about getting this done.
If serving the defendant personally isn’t possible, you can try doing it by certified mail. The court clerk’s office can do this for you for a small fee. The catch is that anyone you are suing must sign the certified mail receipt in order for the process to be legit. If they know that a letter is a lawsuit before they sign for it, then they probably won’t. Post Office Boxes won’t work either. You will need to get their physical address.
If you are suing a business, you usually want to serve either the owner or corporate officer. Corporations are also required to designate at least one person who can accept service of papers on behalf of the company. Their names and addresses can be obtained from the California Secretary of State’s office ( http://www.ss.ca.gov/ ).
Service of your lawsuit must be completed within 10 to 15 days of your court hearing, depending on where the defendant lives.
Step 4: Go to court!
The clerk will give you the specific date, time and location of your court hearing which will also be listed on the complaint served on the defendant. Be sure to show up on time or you will risk having your case thrown out and you will have to at least go back to Step 2 and repeat the process all over again. If there is in emergency such that you know you will be unable to go to court on the assigned date, you can write to the court and explain the situation in the hopes that a new date will be assigned.
How should I present my case in court?
Dress appropriately and bring any evidence and/or witnesses that are important to your case. Use notes if you have to. But most of all – Be Precise! Small Claims judges usually hear dozens of cases in a single session and often hold multiple sessions during a day.
In other words, don’t think that you will be able to ramble on for hours trying to explain your case. There are no “trials of the century” in Small Claims. You will be given a few minutes at most. Present the most important facts first and then fill in the details if you are given time to do so. Always be courteous and only present your arguments to the judge (not the person you are suing) unless you are instructed to do otherwise.
The thing Small Claims judges hate the most are long-winded, cranky plaintiffs who come in to court with a chip on their shoulder. No matter how frustrated you are with the person you are suing, just remember that the judges have to spend their entire careers dealing with such people and probably got tired of it after their first day on the job.
[ * For further information, visit the official California Small Claims Court Self-Help Center at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/selfhelp/smallclaims/ ]
[Note: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither the author, handelonthelaw.com, or any of its affiliates shall have any liability stemming from this article.]