How to File a Small Claims Suit in California

By Tina Amo

Filing a small claims case in California involves several steps but the courts provide free help. Individuals may sue for $10,000 or less.

You can resolve some disputes quickly and informally in small claims court. In California, you may do so if you are at least 18 or an emancipated minor, and the amount you are seeking is $10,000 or less. The limit is $5,000 when the plaintiff is a business and $7,500 for damages for personal injury or property from a car accident. Common types of small claims cases include failure to satisfy the terms of a contract, repay a loan or make repairs properly. California has specific requirements for filing small claims lawsuits. Follow each carefully to avoid having your case dismissed.

Naming the Appropriate Party

Name the defendant carefully. If you sue the wrong person, you may lose the case or be unable to collect a judgment. If you are suing a store manager for lost wages, for example, he might have simply followed directives from the corporate office, which may absolve him of blame. If you haven't named the proper corporate parties as defendants, you may have a problem collecting your money if the judge rules in your favor.

Request Payment

Ask the defendant for payment before you file suit. You can do this in person, by phone or in writing. Use the California Courts' website, which provides sample demand letters. Your letter should be brief. State the amount you're requesting and why, and your intention to take the matter to court if the other party refuses to pay. Use firm wording. If you do end up in court, produce the letter as evidence.

Court Location

Carefully choose the court in which you file suit. Each county court deals with specific issues, and your case could be dismissed if you file in the wrong place. Generally, you must file in the district where the other party resides or does business, or where the event leading to the case occurred, but these requirements can vary depending on the case. If your case is the result of an accident, for example, file it where the event happened or where the defendant lives. If you're suing your credit card company, file in the county where you signed the contract or where you lived when you signed it. A small claims legal adviser can help you choose the right court for your case. This service is free. California does not allow lawyers in small claims courts, so you must represent yourself.

File the Necessary Forms

You must complete several forms to initiate your case once you have determined the right court. These include:

The court may require additional forms, such as the "Plaintiff's Statement to Clerk," on which you describe the charges against the defendant. This form may be available on the court's website or by mail, depending on the court. A small claims legal adviser can examine your forms to ensure you have accurately completed the right ones.

File a Claim

Submit the forms and the required filing fee to the court clerk. The filing fee depends on the amount you are seeking. The clerk will give you a hearing date and copies of the forms.

Serve Your Claim

The other party must receive notice of the case and copies of the forms you have filed. Commonly accepted forms of service for all cases include service by a third party not involved in the case and service by certified or registered mail. File a Proof of Service within five days of the hearing as evidence that each defendant has been served. The California Courts website provides more information on the service process. Gather any necessary evidence and contact witnesses to prepare for your case.