1. WHAT IS SMALL CLAIMS COURT?
Small Claims is a special court in the California judicial system where individuals represent themselves in order to resolve disputes quickly and inexpensively in a relatively informal setting. A main advantage of trying a case in Small Claims Court versus regular Superior Court is, in broad terms, Small Claims saves time and money. The filing fees in Small Claims Court is lower than Superior Court. Cases get to trial much quicker in Small Claims, typically a few months for Small Claims rather than a year or more for Superior Court. The quicker you can get to trial and have your day in court, the quicker you can get your judgment and resolve your situation.
Also, since individuals represent themselves in Small Claims Court, the attorney’s fees are much lower in Small Claims Court. In Superior Court, most people hire attorneys to help them prepare for trial and to represent them at trial. In Small Claims Court, most if not all of the legwork is done by the individuals involved in the suit. As we all know, attorneys cost money. The less work attorneys do, the less hours they have to charge you for. The other side of this coin is that less attorney work and less attorney’s fees means more work for you. You may not be experienced in presenting your case in a public setting and may not have the expertise that a seasoned attorney may have.
Another disadvantage to Small Claims Court, and perhaps the biggest one, is that there are strict monetary limits to the amount of damages you can sue for. Typically, the amount is capped at $10,000, with certain further restrictions. In other words, if you have been damaged in an amount greater than $10,000, the maximum amount you can recover in Small Claims would be $10,000.
2. HOW MUCH CAN I SUE FOR AND WHO CAN FILE A CLAIM?
In Small Claims Court, an individual, which includes a sole proprietorship, may file a claim up to a maximum of $10,000. An exception to this rule is that if you are suing for injuries incurred in an automobile accident and the defendant is insured, your claim is limited to a maximum amount of $7,500.
You must be the actual party to the claim in order to file a suit in Small Claims Court. For instance, if your Uncle Bob was wronged by his auto mechanic in the amount of $10,000, your Uncle Bob must bring the claim. You cannot bring the claim on his behalf. Furthermore, attorneys are not permitted to represent a party in Small Claims Court. However, if a husband and wife sue or are both sued, one spouse may represent the other in Small Claims.
Also, you must be at least 18 years old to file a claim. If you are under 18, you may ask the court to appoint a guardian ad litem, who can then act on your behalf. The guardian ad litem is typically a parent, relative or adult friend of the minor, but cannot be someone who is a party on the same case.
If you are an individual who owns a business (i.e. sole proprietor) and you do business under a fictitious business name, you are considered to be an individual for Small Claims purposes. If your business is a corporation, partnership or anything other than a sole proprietorship, the maximum amount you can claim is $5,000.
A corporation or other entity that is not an individual must be represented by a regular employee or representative. The employee cannot be hired solely to represent the corporation or other entity and he/she is required to file a declaration with the court stating the basis of their authority to represent the entity.
Lastly, you cannot file more than two small claims cases anywhere in California for more than $2,500 each during a single calendar year.
3. HOW DOES SMALL CLAIMS WORK?
Before filing your claim in Small Claims Court, you should attempt to resolve your dispute with the opposing party informally, preferably in writing. We typically advise our clients to issue a demand letter to the opposing party stating the reason of the dispute, the terms that you wish to establish, and the damages you wish to recover. If you are not successful in this first attempt, it may be time to file your Small Claims lawsuit.
The California judicial branch has official forms that help simplify getting your case on file. These forms can be found on the San Diego Court’s website at www.sdcourt.ca.gov, then searching for small claims forms. You need to be careful to designate the defendant(s) properly using his/her/their exact legal name. If the defendant is a corporation, check with the California Secretary of State’s website for the exact name and agent authorized to receive service for the corporation. For other types business, check with the city business license or the county fictitious business name statement. Note that if you do not designate the defendant’s exact legal name, you may not be able to enforcement your judgment, should you get one.
Once all the requisite forms are completed, you need to file them in person at either the Central Courthouse downtown or the Vista Courthouse, depending on the party of the county you reside and where the dispute occurred, and pay the requisite filing fee. The zip code where the defendant lives or where the defendant business entity has its principal place of business and/or the zip code where the incident occurred is used to determine the proper courthouse to file the suit. The court website outlined above specifies which zip codes are covered by the Central or North County Courthouse if you are unsure. When your case documents are filed, you will receive a date for your trial.