Small Claims

FAQs

No. You do not have to have a lawyer when you go to court. In California, several hundred thousand people each year go to court without a lawyer. This is called being in "pro per" -- the legal term for a person representing him or herself without a lawyer. However, some cases are complicated. This is when a lawyer can be most helpful.

You may find that you need a lawyer if:

  • anyone involved has an estate with substantial assets;
  • anyone involved lives outside of California;
  • there are some other legal proceedings going on at the same time;
  • anyone involved has special needs (physically/emotionally disabled);
  • anyone involved is a member of the armed services, or
  • anyone involved is Native American (in which case, federal laws may apply).

Lawyers are trained to research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances you face. In addition to skills in legal research, a lawyer will usually have:

  • familiarity with courtroom rules and procedures;
  • an understanding of when a witness is needed, and how he or she should be prepared for a trial;
  • an understanding of when an expert, consultant, or investigator is needed – where to find such a person, and how much is reasonable to pay; and
  • experience with different strategies for effective presentation of a case in court.

If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer there are several options that may help.

  1. Every superior court in California has legal help available in family law and in small claims cases. Several superior courts can also help you with other legal issues. Find out what services are available at your court.
  2. There are legal aid offices in many cities throughout California. These are non-profit organizations that provide free legal services to people below a certain income level. Find legal aid offices in your area and find out what areas of law they cover.
  3. If you don’t have much money but the other party in your case does, the court might order the other party to pay for some or all of your lawyer’s fees. (You would have to ask the court for this. It is not automatic.)
  4. Many bar associations have Modest Means Panels made up of lawyers who will take certain kinds of cases for a reduced fee. (You would have to find your local bar association and ask if it could help you with this.)
  5. You may be able to find a lawyer who will coach you on representing yourself (called "coaching"), or who will only handle (and charge you for) the more complicated parts of your case. This is called "limited scope representation" or "unbundled legal services.” (Your local bar association may have a list of lawyers who do limited scope representation.)

Generally, lawyers specialize in a particular area of the law. They may specialize in trial law (civil or criminal), bankruptcy law, elder law, family law, etc. When working with a lawyer, it is important to know his or her specialty.

NOTE: A lawyer cannot represent you in Small Claims court but they may help you prepare for your case.

If you decide to hire a lawyer, make sure you understand:

  • what you will be paying for,
  • how much it will cost, and
  • when you will be expected to pay your bill.

You may want to talk to several attorneys before you hire one.

You can also find attorneys listed in the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory, or through the internet.

There are valid reasons for choosing either Small Claims or Limited Civil court.
Each court is a trial court.

Small Claims

  1. In Small Claims court, individuals and sole proprietorships can sue for $10,000 or less. Businesses (other than sole proprietorships) and government agencies can sue for $5,000 or less.
  2. Nobody may bring an attorney (unless there is an appeal).
  3. The court costs are less than Limited Civil court.
  4. Small Claims court is faster.
  5. There is no discovery, and rules of evidence do not apply.
  6. A judicial officer (a Judge, Commissioner or Temporary Judge) tries the case; there is no jury.
  7. An appeal is a new trial before a new judge. Therefore, all evidence is presented again.

Limited Civil

  1. In Limited Civil court, you may sue for up to $25,000.00.
  2. You may have an attorney represent you.
  3. There is limited discovery allowed. (Discovery is a way to get information that will lead to evidence or evidence itself that you may use in court.)
  4. The trial is either by the judge or a jury.
  5. Appeals are not new trials; therefore, no evidence is offered. Only arguments are presented as to how the trial court applied the wrong law to the case, or misinterpreted one it applied. Appellate judges hear the case on appeal.

Most cases are about:

  • Car accidents
  • Property damage
  • Security deposit issues between landlord and tenant
  • Money owed
  • Home or car repair services.


Here are some other kinds of cases heard in small claims court:
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Injuries Caused by Animals, or Injuries to Animals

  1. Dog bites.
  2. Injuries caused by a pet.
  3. Injuries to a pet or farm animal.

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Broken Contracts:

A “contract” is an agreement between two or more parties to do something. Contracts may be written, verbal, or implied. Some examples of broken contracts are:

  1. Someone did not do what he or she agreed to do in the contract. For example, the contractor did not fix the roof. Or, the customer did not pay the contractor who fixed their roof.
  2. Someone who has a contract with another person tells the person that he or she will break the contract in the future.
  3. Someone promises to do something and the other person believed him or her. Then the first person does not do what he or she agreed to do and this harms the second person.

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Defamation and Privacy

  1. Someone harms the reputation of someone else in writing, with a picture, or electronic media.
  2. Someone harms the reputation of someone else through speech.
  3. Someone intrudes into someone else's private affairs without permission.
  4. Someone makes public, facts that were private.

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Emotional Distress

  1. Someone causes extreme personal suffering to someone else, on purpose.
  2. Someone causes extreme personal suffering to someone else, because they were not careful.

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Employment

  1. Discrimination against someone for a protected reason.
  2. Hiring or continuing to employ staff in a negligent way.
  3. Employer does not have worker’s compensation insurance policy.
  4. Dangerous conditions in the workplace.

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Broken Contracts, or Injuries Caused by a Government Agency or Official

  1. Local or State Government
    Before you can file a claim against a government agency, you have to follow that agency’s claim procedures.
    • If you received a written rejection of your claim by the agency, you have 6 months from the date you received the notice to file your claim.
    • If you do not get a rejection letter, you have 2 years to file from the day the event happened.
  2. The Federal Government
    You cannot sue a federal government agency in Small Claims Court. To sue the United States government, you may file in a Limited Civil Court or in a Federal District Court.

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Your Insurance Company

  1. The insurer breaks the written insurance contract.
  2. The insurer does not act in the best interest of the person or business insured.

NOTE: In California you cannot sue someone else’s insurance company.

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Intentional Injury Involving a Contract

1. Someone intentionally encourages a person with a contract to break that contract, causing damage to the relationship between the contracting parties.

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Negligence -- when someone is careless and injures another person or their property, such as:

  1. Accidents by a common carrier, like a railroad;
  2. Malpractice by a professional;
  3. Someone's children injure someone, or someone’s property (parents may be held responsible);
  4. Providing alcohol to people under 21;
  5. Conditions or activities on a landlord's property injure someone (landlord may be held responsible).

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Physical Injury

  1. Touching another person without permission – it could be violent or not.
  2. Threatening to use force on someone else.
  3. False imprisonment.

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Property Injury

  1. Intentionally taking property without permission.
  2. Damaging property accidentally.
  3. Damaging property intentionally.

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Real Estate Broker, Escrow Agent & Notary Public

  1. Broker intentionally did not give the purchaser very important information.
  2. Broker didn’t tell the purchaser about problems the property has.
  3. When a person who authorized another person to be their agent didn’t deal with their agent fairly.
  4. When an agent that temporarily holds something of value to two parties to a contract causes harm because of lack of care or not fulfilling his or her duty.

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Real Property

  1. A person intentionally enters onto someone else’s visibly enclosed land illegally. Or, a person causes something to enter another person’s land illegally, such as throwing a rock on purpose at a neighbor’s window.
  2. Intentionally making a false statement that casts doubt on another person’s ownership of property.
  3. Creating a condition that interferes with a person’s enjoyment of his or her property, or creating a condition that interferes with the general public’s use of public property.

In Small Claims cases:

  • A person or sole proprietorship cannot ask for more than $10,000 in
    a claim.
  • Other businesses or government agencies cannot ask for more than $5,000.

Special Small Claims Cases:

  • Guarantors
    A "guarantor" is a person or company which promises to be responsible for what another person or company owes. A guarantor can only be sued for up to $4,000 or $2,500 if they don't charge for the guarantee.
    • But, a person filing against the Contractors' State License Board can sue this guarantor for up to $10,000.
  • Multiple Plaintiffs
    If the case came out of the same event , for example, a car accident where several people were injured, then each person injured may sue for up to the amount allowed. Some contracts may also include several claims by several plaintiffs. Consider getting advice from an attorney or a Small Claims Advisor if you are not sure if this applies in your case.
  • Multiple Plaintiffs and Defendants
    Some cases involve several defendants and one or more plaintiffs. A plaintiff may have a claim against each defendant for up the amount allowed. Consider getting advice from an attorney or a Small Claims Advisor if you are not sure if this applies in your case.


NOTE: It is not legal to split an over-the-limit claim into two smaller ones if they come from the same event or transaction.

If you want to claim more than $10,000, you may file in Limited Civil Court. You may also file in Limited Civil Court if or you are not asking for money, but want the court to order someone to do something. If you want to claim more than $25,000, you may file in Unlimited Civil Court.

In California, you may file as many claims in small claims court as you want for up to $2,500 each. But you may only file two (2) claims in a calendar year that ask for more than $2,500 (and up to $10,000 if you are an individual or sole proprietor of a business, or up to $5,000 for other businesses).

NOTE 1: A calendar year is from January 1 of a year to December 31 of that same year.

NOTE 2: If you file more than 12 other small claims in the state within the previous 12 months, then the filing fee is $100 for each claim you file beginning with the 13th claim. (Keep in mind: “previous 12 months” is different from the “calendar year.”)

NOTE 3: Government agencies (cities, counties, school districts, etc.,) may file more than two (2) claims in a calendar year if the claims do not exceed $5,000.

Mediation is a process for resolving disputes informally. It is voluntary and confidential. It works like this:

You and the other person would meet with a third person who is neutral – a trained mediator. That person would help the two of you talk things over in an attempt to resolve your dispute. Usually, mediation of a small claims dispute lasts between 30 minutes and 2 hours. It can be tried before or after filing a lawsuit.

  • Mediation can really help if you have an on-going relationship with the person you have the dispute with. If you are suing a family member, neighbor, business partner, landlord, or tenant, mediation may help you work out your problems and keep your relationship.
  • Mediation allows people to make their own decisions about how they will resolve their disputes.

If you decide that mediation might resolve your dispute, ask a court clerk if the small claims court offers a mediation program. If not, the clerk may know of a publicly funded program in your county.

You can also locate a mediation program by looking in the business section of your telephone directory, on the website of the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

If you DO settle your dispute, write down what was agreed to. Include:

  • The names and addresses of the two people,
  • A brief description of the “what,” “when” and “where” of the dispute that has been resolved,
  • A statement of what the person giving up a claim is getting in return,
  • The date the agreement is being signed, and
  • The signatures of everyone involved.

Make sure everyone has a copy of the agreement, and keep your copy of the agreement in a safe place.

Before you can file a claim in court against a government agency, you have to follow that agency’s claim procedures. (This is called 'exhausting administrative remedies.')

How can I present my claim to the government agency?

Get an official claim form from the agency:

  • If your claim is against your county government, get the forms from the county clerk.
  • If your claim is against the city government, get the forms from the city clerk.
  • If your claim is against the State of California, contact State Board of Control. Click here for information about filing a claim against the State of California.
  • If your claim is against another agency, get the forms from that agency.

When do I have to file with the agency?

  • If you or your personal property [not real estate] was damaged, you have 6 months to file.
  • If your claim is about damage to your real property, you have 1 year to file from the date you knew or should have known about the problem.
  • If your claim is about a contract, you have 1 year to file after the contract was broken.

The agency will tell you if your claim is approved or denied. If you hear nothing it is considered denied after 45 days.

IF the agency denies your claim, you can sue in small claims court.

  • If you receive a written rejection of your claim by the governmental agency, you have 6 months from the date the notice was personally delivered or deposited in the mail to file the claim.
  • If you don't get a rejection letter, you have 2 years to file from the day the incident occurred.

What happens after I file in small claims court?
Everything is the same as any other small claims court case. Name the government agency as the defendant.

NOTE: You cannot sue a federal government agency in small claims court.
These cases must be filed in a Limited Civil Court or a Federal District Court.

If you were in a car accident, you may only sue the driver and/or owner of the car that hit you. You may not sue their insurance company.

You may sue for:

  • property damage to your car, and
  • personal injury.

If there was only property damage

You are limited to suing for:

  • the costs of repairing the car,
  • the loss of use of your car – car payments you make while your car is being repaired, rental costs, and deductibles, or for
  • the amount of money it would take to replace the car (at its value at time of the accident).

If you suffered personal injury

You may ask for:

  1. all actual medical costs (doctor’s visits, therapy sessions, and medicines);

    NOTE: It doesn’t matter if you only paid a co-pay, or if your insurance paid it all. What matters is what you and/or insurance actually paid or will owe.
  2. costs of buying or renting medical appliances (such as crutches);
  3. lost wages -- because you have to go to the doctor or for therapy, or because you can’t return to work due to the accident, and
  4. pain and suffering. (Add up the actual medical costs. In small claims it is suggested that you multiply these by 3.)

Your claim would be the total of the amounts of 1 to 4.

NOTE 1: If you had no insurance
You may not recover damages for pain and suffering or other non-money damages.

NOTE 2: If you were driving under the influence
You may not recover damages for pain and suffering or other non-money damages.

NOTE 3: If you collect money from the defendant after your insurance paid the medical bills, you may have to repay your insurance company – depending on your policy. Most insurance policies include repayment. Read your policy or call them to find out.

In any of these cases, seek the advice of an attorney or a Small Claims Advisor to help you evaluate your case.

If someone injures you, you can sue that person or company for money. This money is called “damages” and includes:

Medical Bills

Ask for medical costs you’ve already paid, have been billed for, expect to be billed for, or that your insurance has paid, such as:

  • Ambulance charges;
  • Emergency room service;
  • Hospital fees;
  • X-rays;
  • All doctors, including therapists;
  • On-going treatment.

Lost Wages and Benefits

  • Ask for wages you:
    • Did not receive;
    • Will not receive because you need more time off because of your injuries.
  • Ask for wages that were paid to you as benefits, for instance if you had to take vacation or sick leave because of your injuries.

NOTE: Do you think you won’t be promoted because your injury is long term or permanent -- or you must take a lower paying job? If so, then your case probably does not belong in small claims court, which can only award damages up to $10,000. Seek the advice of an attorney to help you assess your case.

Pain and Suffering

This money is to pay you for the aches, pain, anxieties, fears, etc., you suffer due to your injuries.

Ask for money:

  • For pain you have already suffered;
  • For pain you are likely to suffer in the future.

NOTE 1: If you want to sue for “pain and suffering” your case may not belong in small claims court, which only can award damages up to $10,000. Get advice from an attorney to help you assess your case.

If your insurance paid the medical bills

You are allowed to collect money from the other person even if your insurance paid you, because the damage was caused by the defendant.

NOTE 1: If you collect money from the defendant after your insurance paid the medical bills, you may have to repay your insurance company. Most insurance policies include repayment. Read your policy to find out.

NOTE 2: Medicare, Medi-Cal and workers’ compensation will put a lien on whatever you recover for your medical costs to make sure that they get their money back.

Automobile Accidents

  • If you had no insurance
    You cannot get damages for pain and suffering or other non-money damages.
  • If you were driving under the influence
    You cannot get damages for pain and suffering or other non-money damages.

In either of these cases, seek the advice of an attorney to help you assess your case.

The most common disagreement between landlords and tenants is over the refund of the tenant's security deposit after the tenant has moved out of the rental unit.

California law allows the landlord to use a tenant's security deposit for 4 purposes:

  • For unpaid rent;
  • For late fees;
  • For cleaning the rental unit when the tenant moves out -- but only to make the unit as clean as it was when the tenant first moved in; and
  • For repair of damages, other than normal wear and tear, caused by the tenant or the tenant's guests.

NOTE: If the lease or rental agreement allows it, the landlord can also use a tenant’s security deposit for the cost of restoring or replacing furniture, furnishings, or other items of personal property (including keys), other than normal wear and tear.

The tenant’s responsibility: notify the landlord before you move out.

  • If you pay rent once a month, you have to give your landlord 30 days' notice in writing. If you don't, the landlord can charge you for the unpaid rent. Unless a new tenant pays the rent, you'll have to pay for those 30 days.
  • If you pay rent every week, you have to give 7 days' notice.

The landlord’s responsibility: inspect the rental unit and allow the tenant to repair any damage.

  • Within 2 weeks of the date that the tenant is going to move out, the landlord must advise the tenant, in writing, of the right to be present at a walk-through with the landlord. The purpose of the inspection is to allow the tenant an opportunity to repair damage pointed out by the landlord.

After the tenant moves out, the landlord has 21 days to return the security deposit -- or send a list of repairs and receipts or estimates.

  • The tenant has a right to receive a copy of all receipts for the work done and materials purchased.
  • If the repairs are going to take more time due to extensive work needed, the landlord should provide copies of the estimates for the work and materials within 14 days. After the work is complete, the landlord has to provide copies of the receipts to the tenant.

If you, the tenant, don't get your deposit back within 21 days write a letter to your landlord.

  • State the amount of the security deposit that you paid, and ask the landlord to return it all to you – or send you a list of repairs made and how much each cost. Ask for copies of the receipts for each repair.
  • Keep a copy of the letter for your records

Get help writing a letter asking a landlord to return a security deposit.

If the landlord does not honor the 21-day rule -- or if the tenant thinks the landlord is keeping too much money for repairs -- the tenant has two options.

1. Ask for mediation.
Mediation is a process for resolving disputes informally. It is voluntary and confidential. In mediation, the landlord and the tenant would meet with a third person – a neutral, trained mediator. That person would help the two talk things over in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Many disputes that go to mediation are settled outside of court because the people involved have control over the outcome.

2. File a lawsuit in small claims court
If mediation doesn’t help and there is still no agreement, the tenant can sue the landlord in small claims court. He or she can ask for the deposit plus twice the amount of the security deposit in damages (if the landlord kept the deposit in bad faith).

A “bad check” is a check that you cannot cash. There are two kinds of bad checks:

  • Non-Sufficient Funds – the person who wrote the check didn’t have enough money in the account to cover the check.
  • Stop Payment -- the person who wrote the check told the bank to stop payment, although there may be money in the bank account to cover it.

NOTE 1: Sometimes there are valid reasons for stopping payment on a check. For example, the goods or services paid for with the check were never delivered or were defective. Stopping payment for this reason is called a “good faith dispute.” If you go to court over this and the person who wrote the check can prove that a good faith dispute exists, the judge might not award any damages.

NOTE 2: A bank may cash a check even if the writer of the check had put a stop payment on it. If the “stop payment” was done orally, such as by phone, the stop payment is only valid for 14 days. If the “stop payment was done in writing, it is valid for 6 months. (“Stop payments” may be renewed.) Therefore, if a bank cashes a check after the “stop payment” time has passed, you cannot sue the bank.

If someone writes you a bad check without a good reason, you can sue for 3 times the amount of the check - up to an additional $1,500 (maximum) - plus the original amount of the check.

If someone stops payment on a check without a “good faith dispute,” you can sue for the amount of the check -- plus 3 times the amount of the check, with a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $1,500.

However, BEFORE you can file a “bad check” lawsuit in small claims court,
you must:

1. Send a “demand letter” to the person who wrote the check. Ask the post office to send it by “certified mail” with “return receipt requested” (there will be a fee).

In your letter, demand to be paid within 30 days -- by cash or money order -- the following amounts:

  • the amount of the check,
  • the cost of certified mail and
  • the service fee, charged by your bank, of up to $25 (and up to $35 for each subsequent check).

See a sample “Bad Check" demand letter.

See a sample "Stop Payment" demand letter.

2. Then wait 30 days.
If you are paid within the 30 days, your dispute is resolved. (You cannot sue for the check or for bank fees or for “statutory damages.”)

3 File your lawsuit.
If you are not paid in 30 days, you can ask the court to order the other side to pay you the full amount of the check, plus the cost of certified mail, plus your bank fees, plus the “statutory damages” of 3 times the amount of the check, with a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $1,500.

4. Attend your court hearing. Be sure to take:

  • A copy of the demand letter you sent.
  • Proof from the post office that you sent the letter certified mail.
  • Any other papers you need to prove your case. For example, bank statements, notes about your conversations, or any other letters to or from the check writer.

California’s Department of Consumer Affairs has a Bureau of Automotive Repair to help keep repair shops from taking advantage of people. If you're unhappy with work done on your car, you can file a complaint with the Bureau.

Before you file a complaint

Talk to the person in charge of service or repairs at the shop. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Be polite and stay calm.
  • Explain your problem.
  • Tell the person in charge what you think is a fair settlement.
  • Tell the person if you are willing to negotiate.
  • If you can't work it out, tell the person you're going to consider all of your legal options, including filing a complaint with the Bureau of Automotive Repair.
TIP: As soon as you start to think that you may need help solving this problem with the repair shop – either from the Bureau of Automotive Repair or the court:

A. Start to organize your evidence that the repair shop did a bad job.

  1. Save all of your receipts,
  2. Get your used car parts, if you haven’t already (California law requires that your used parts be returned to you upon request),
  3. Make notes of every visit or phone call – date, time, what was said, etc.

B. Have your car checked by an expert.

  1. Before you drive many miles, have your car checked by an experienced mechanic. Ask him or her to write a letter stating his or her experience, training, and what, in his or her opinion, is wrong with the car. (You may need to pay a mechanic to do this.)
  2. Get 3 estimates of how much it will cost to repair your car. You will use these to prove the amount it will take to get your car fixed. If you have already fixed the car, provide that receipt as evidence of costs.

To file a complaint with the Bureau of Automotive Repair:

Go to their website to file a complaint.

What happens after you file with the Bureau?
You'll get a postcard telling you your case number and the name of your Bureau representative.

  • The representative will try to work things out with the repair shop for you.
  • You will get phone calls and letters with information about your case.

What if you can't work things out?
If the shop broke any laws, the Bureau will get proof. Then they may give the shop a "Notice of Violation."

  • You will be told when your case is closed.
NOTE: The Bureau can't represent you in court or collect money for you.

If the Bureau of Automotive Repair cannot help you, you can sue the repair shop in small claims court.

There are several things you may do if you have a problem with a contractor who did home repair, remodeling, or other work for you.

1. File a lawsuit in Small Claims court
File a lawsuit if you want to get your money back, want money to fix the problem, or want the court to order that the contractor fix the problem. You can sue for up to $10,000 if you’re an individual or sole proprietor, and up to $5,000 if you are a company other than a sole proprietorship.

You have 4 years from the date of the problem to file your lawsuit. You have 10 years, if the problem was hidden and it took time to find out about the problem.

2. File with the California Contractors State License Board (CSLB)
File a case if you want to complain against the contractor. This has other consequences for the contractor, including a possible fine up to $15,000.

  • The CSLB investigates complaints against both licensed and unlicensed contractors.
  • The CSLB can review complaints about contractors’ work up to 4 years from the date of the problem. They can review complaints up to 10 years after the problem if the problems were hidden and it took time to find out about the problem.

If you decide to file a complaint with the CSLB before you file a lawsuit in small claims court, make sure that your time to file a claim in court doesn’t run out. It is the same amount of time to file a complaint with the CSLB and in small claims court.

Licensed Contractors – You may sue in small claims court or file a complaint with the CSLB for:

  • Work that was done wrong;
  • Work that was not finished or finished on time;
  • Unpaid subcontractors, material suppliers or employees;
  • Not following building code requirements, not getting the required permits, etc.; or,
  • False, misleading or deceptive advertising

Unlicensed Contractors – You may sue in small claims court or file a complaint with the CSLB for the same issues as licensed contractors, plus for being unlicensed.

It is illegal to contract to do home repairs or remodeling without a license for more than $500 including labor and materials. Therefore, if you file in small claims court you may ask for any money you paid beyond $500 up to the limit for small claims cases.

Check on the License
To see if the contractor is licensed or not, check with the Contractors State License Board.

Your Judgment
If you win a judgment against a licensed contractor, you may file a copy of the judgment with the CSLB. If the judgment is due to a repair, remodel or construction issue, the CSLB may suspend the contractor’s license until the judgment is paid.

California’s Department of Industrial Relations has a Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE). The DLSE has a unit for Wage Claim Adjudication. This unit decides claims that people have about their wages.

Wage Claim Adjudication Unit
Workers can file claims with this unit if they are not paid their wages at a regular time, or if they are not paid for overtime, or for vacation pay as described under California Labor Code, Sections 96 and 98.

To file a complaint with the unit for Wage Claim Adjudication:
Go to their website and click on File a Wage Claim. Follow the instructions they provide.

What happens after you file your complaint with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement?

  1. The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) deputies will hold an informal conference between you and your employer to resolve your wage dispute.
  2. If you cannot solve the problem at the informal conference, the DLSE will hold an administrative hearing to decide the matter.

If the Wage Claim Adjudication unit cannot help you, you can sue your employer in small claims court for the work done but not paid for.

If you decide to file a complaint with the Wage Claim Adjudication unit before you file a lawsuit in small claims court, make sure that your time to file a claim in court (‘statute of limitations’) doesn’t run out.

  • Usually, you have 2 years to file your case in court from the date you were to be paid.
  • In some instances, you may have up to 4 years to file in court if you have an employment contract in writing.

If your problem isn’t resolved by the DLSE about 6 months before the time to file in court runs out, seriously think about filing in court at that time.

When you file a court case, you have to know the exact legal name and address of the person, business or government agency that you want to sue.

NOTE: The address you may use to sue a person could vary. For example, you could use the person’s last known address, such as the address of his or her parents if that was the defendant’s last known address.

If the person you are suing has moved:
Send a letter to their last address. Under your return address, write "Return Service Requested. Do Not Forward." If the person filed an address change with the post office, you'll get the letter back with a new address. Get information from the United States Postal Service.

If you think that the person you are suing owns property:
Your local tax assessor's office can search the tax rolls for you. You can find the tax assessor's address and phone number in the government pages of your phone book. It is usually in the county section under ASSESSOR.

You can also get this information from the county registrar/recorder's office. You can find the address and phone number in the government pages of your phone book. It is usually in the county section under CLERK - RECORDER.

If you only know the person's phone number:
You can get the address from a reverse directory. You can look at this directory at the main branch of your public library. The address will not be in the reverse directory if the phone number is unlisted.

You can also use the reverse directory online.
There is usually a fee for this search.

When you file a court case, you have to know the exact legal name and address of the person or business you want to sue.

If you only know the phone number of the business:
You can get the address from a reverse directory. You can look at this directory at the main branch of your public library. The address will not be in the reverse directory if the phone number is unlisted.

You can also use the reverse phone directory online.
There may be a fee for this search.

If you are suing a corporation or LLC:
You can find out the name of the corporation and its agent for service at the Web site of the California Secretary of State. There is no fee.

The Web site can also tell you how to write to the Secretary to get more information about the corporation or LLC, such as a list of the corporation's officers. There will be a fee for this service.

If you are suing a partnership or a business with one owner:
Get the names and addresses of the owners from the county clerk-recorder's office or city clerk's office. Ask to see the business' "fictitious business name statement." The business license office of some cities will give you the address of the business.

Or, you can find the address and phone number of your county clerk-recorder's and city clerk's offices in the government pages of your phone book.

If you are suing a limited partnership:
You can find the name of the limited partnership's agent for service from the California Secretary of State. There is no fee.

You can also write to the Secretary to get more information about the limited partnership. There will be a fee for this service.

It is very important to name the defendant or defendants correctly.

If you only learn the defendant's correct name later, you can ask the judge to change your claim at the hearing. You also can file a request with the court to change the judgment at any time to show the correct name.

If you're not sure which of several possible defendants caused the problem, name each person or business you believe is responsible. The court will decide which defendant you named is legally responsible.

Here are some examples of ways to name a defendant:

  • An individual — Write the first name, middle initial, and last name. For example: "John A. Smith."
    • If an individual has more than one name, list all of them separated by the words "also known as" or "aka". For example: “John A. Smith aka Jack Smith.”
  • A business owned by an individual — Write the names of both the owner and the business. Example: "John A. Smith, individually and doing business as Smith Carpeting, a sole proprietorship." If you win your case, you can enforce your court judgment against both the individual and the business.
  • A business owned by two or more individuals — Write the names of both the business and all of the owners that you can identify. Example: "John A. Smith and Mary B. Smith, individually and doing business as Suburban Dry Cleaning, and Suburban Dry Cleaning, a partnership." Then, you can collect from the assets of either the business or an individual owner if you win your case.
  • A corporation or limited liability company — Write the exact name of the corporation or limited liability company. Check the Secretary of State website for the legal name. You don’t name any person for a corporation (or LLC). For example: "Fourth Dimension Graphics, Inc., a California corporation."
    • If the corporation operates through a division, corporate subsidiary or fictitious business name, both should be listed. For example: "Eastern Quality Petrol, a Delaware corporation, doing business as Fast Gas."
  • A vehicle accident defendant —Write the names of the registered owner or owners, and the driver. For example: If the owner and the driver are the same person, "Joe Smith, owner and driver." If the owner and driver are not the same, "Lucy Smith, owner, and Betty Smith, driver."

If there are more than 2 plaintiffs or defendants in your small claims case, there will not be enough room on the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100) to list everyone. Therefore, you need to add an attachment.

  • The attachment is Other Plaintiffs or Defendants (Form SC-100A).

For more than 2 plaintiffs:

On your Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100):

  1. Check the box in no. 1 that states: “Check here if more than 2 Plaintiffs and attach Form SC-100A".
  2. Get and fill out the first part of Other Plaintiffs or Defendants (Form SC-100A).
  3. Date, print and sign your name at the bottom of the form and attach it to your Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100).

For more than 2 defendants:

On your Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100):

  1. Check the box in no. 2 that states “Check here if more than 2 Defendants and attach Form SC-100A".
  2. Get and fill out the second part of Other Plaintiffs or Defendants (Form SC-100A).
  3. Date, print and sign your name at the bottom of the form and attach it to your Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100).

NOTE: If you are adding a corporation (or an LLC) as a defendant, read How Do You Name the Defendant.

Usually, you have to sue someone in the place where he or she lives or works. So if you want to sue someone who lives and works in Nevada, you will have to sue in Nevada courts -- because an out-of-state resident cannot be served outside of California.

There are two exceptions to the general rule that out-of-state residents cannot be served outside of California:

1. If the case has to do with California real estate and the owner lives out-of-state, the owner can be sued in California courts and served in their home state, and

2. People who are involved in a car accident on a public road in California, and own the car, may be served no matter where they live. To do this, papers must be served on both the out-of-state defendant and the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Also, out-of-state residents can be served with California court papers if they visit California.

Rules for starting a small claims case are different from state to state. You will need to find out about the law in the state you are suing in. Usually, you can do some of this by looking at that state’s court website.

  • Check to see if there are small claims courts in the state where the person you want to sue lives.
  • Check to see if the state in which you wish to file the small claims suit allows documents to be filed by mail or online, and how to pay the fee to file.
  • Check to see if attorneys are allowed at the trial there. You may be able to hire a local attorney to represent you in court.

At the same time, think about trying to reach a settlement with the individual without going to court. Even a settlement for a smaller amount of money than you want may be cheaper for you than going to court in another state.

Generally, businesses that do not operate in California can only be sued in the states where they were organized or are headquartered, or where they operate.

NOTE: You CAN use a California small claims court to sue a company if the business has an office, a warehouse, retail establishment, restaurant, or other physical facility in California – even if that business is headquartered or organized somewhere else.

If you are suing a corporation or limited liability company (LLC) that operates in California, you can find its name and its agent for service (who would have a California address) with the California Secretary of State.

NOTE: On the Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100, page 2, number 2), you will name the company as a defendant. Put its out-of-state address on the “Street Address” line. Then, cross out “Mailing Address” and write in “Agent for Service” and write in the agent’s name and address there.

If you are suing a small business in the state in which it operates, you will need to learn about the law in the state where it is located. Usually, you can do some of this by looking at that state’s court website.

  • Check to see if there are small claims courts in the state where the business you want to sue operates.
  • Check to see if the state in which you wish to file the small claims suit allows documents to be filed by mail, or via the Internet.
  • Check to see if attorneys are allowed at the trial there. You may be able to hire a local attorney to represent you in court.

The small claims court usually only settles disputes about money. Generally, it cannot order the other side to do something - or stop doing something.

If you do not want money, but only want the trees trimmed, or to have the dog stop barking, or to have the car you loaned someone returned, then probably small claims court is not for you. It might be better for you to sue in the court of limited jurisdiction (or the court of unlimited jurisdiction if the property you want returned is worth more than $25,000). Or, you might try mediation.

However, the small claims court does have the power to give a conditional judgment. (See California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 116.610)

In a conditional judgment the court can order someone to do or stop doing something by a certain time or pay a specific amount of money -- without a further act by the court.

You can ask for a conditional judgment on your Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100):

In question number 3a – “Why does the Defendant owe the Plaintiff money?” -- put the words ‘I want a conditional judgment.” (after you put in why the defendant owes you money).

TIP: You might also remind the court at the beginning of the hearing that you are asking the court for conditional judgment, if you win the case.

REMEMBER: In a conditional judgment the defendant may choose
to do or not do something.

If the defendant chooses not to do what you want within the time set by the court (usually 2 weeks), he or she is choosing to pay the money instead.

For example, if someone borrowed a ring from you that is not worth much money but has a lot of sentimental value, the defendant may choose not to give the ring back to you within 2 weeks as ordered. A small claims court cannot make the defendant return the ring. It can only order that if the defendant doesn’t return the ring, he or she must pay you for the ring by including the sum owed in the same judgment. Therefore, you may not get the result you wanted. Now you only have a money judgment to enforce – you may not get your ring.

To get an order to get your ring back, you need to sue in the court of limited jurisdiction instead. Or, you can try discussing the matter with a mediator’s help to see if you can resolve the dispute another way.

In California, you will have to pay a fee to file a claim in small claims court. The fee is based on the amount of your claim and the number of claims you have filed in the past 12 months. (See California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 116.230)

If you have filed 12 or fewer claims in the past 12 months:

Amount of your claim: Filing Fee:
$0 to $1500 $30
$1500.01 to $5,000 $50
$5000.01 to $7,500 $75

If you have filed more than 12 claims in the past 12 months, the filing fee is $100, beginning with the 13th claim -- for any claim amount.

For example, if on March 1, 2015, you began filing claims for your business, and by October 1, 2015, you filed the 12th claim, then you would have to pay a $100 filing fee for any other claims filed through February 28, 2016.

NOTE: If you are on public assistance or suffering hardship the court may excuse your having to pay the costs of filing a case. This is called a fee waiver.

In most cases, you have to pay a fee to file papers with the court.

If a person can’t afford the court’s filing fees, there are forms he or she may file asking permission to not pay all or some of the court fees and costs. This is called getting the fees “waived,” and fee waiver packets are available for free at the courthouse, or can be downloaded from this site.

Eligibility for the fee waiver is based upon the person’s household income or if he or she is receiving public assistance. If a person files a fee waiver but is found not to be qualified, he or she must pay the appropriate filing fees.

To see if you qualify for a fee waiver, read:

  • Information Sheet on Waiver of Court Fees and Costs (Form FW-001-INFO)

If you qualify for a fee waiver, select the forms you need.

NOTE: Fee waivers are only valid for 6 months. File for another fee waiver if the prior order for a fee waiver has expired and you need another fee waiver.

NOTE: If you get a fee waiver but then collect money because you win the lawsuit, you may have to repay the court for the waived fees.

California law requires you to give the defendants that you are suing formal notice that you have started a case against them in small claims court.

This is called "service of process," and it is very important. In fact, the judge cannot make any decisions until the other party has been properly "served."

NOTE: You cannot serve your court papers in your case (except for subpoenas). Your server must be at least 18 and not a plaintiff in the case.

  • A relative or friend may serve the papers for you if they are 18 or older, legally competent, as long as he or she is not a plaintiff in the case.
  • A court clerk can serve your papers by certified mail for a fee.

TIP 1: Service by mail will only be successful if the defendant(s) signs for the letter. It is only successful about 50% of the time.

TIP 2: After 2 weeks from the date you filed, call the court clerk and ask if the defendant(s) was served. If not, then consider having the papers served in person or by substitute service. (See How is Service Done? )

TIP 3: You may also need to ask the court for an extension if the clerk was not able to serve the papers by certified mail. (See Motion to Change Court Date.)

  • A professional "process server" is someone you pay to deliver court papers. Look in the Yellow Pages under "Process Serving" or call your local Bar Association. To find out how much it will cost, call several servers and ask what they will charge.

NOTE: In Contra Costa County, California, you may call the Contra Costa County Bar Association for names of registered professional process servers. The phone number is: (925) 825-5700.

  • In many counties, the Sheriff (or Marshal, if your county has one) can also deliver court papers. Ask the court clerk how to contact the Sheriff. Or look in the county section of your phone book under "Sheriff." You must pay the Sheriff, unless you qualify for a fee waiver.

NOTE: In Contra Costa County, California, the Sheriff will not serve your papers for you unless you get a fee waiver from the court.

For more information read: How is Service Done.

How is personal service done?

Ask someone who is at least 18 years old and not a plaintiff in the case to personally "serve" (deliver) a copy of your court papers to the person you are suing, to a corporation’s (or LLC’s) agent for service, or to another person legally authorized to accept court papers for the defendant.

Your server can deliver the papers to the defendant anytime, anywhere. However, for personal service to be valid it must be done at least 15 days before the court hearing (or 20 days, if the hearing is in a county different from where the service took place).

Tell your server to:

  • Walk up to the person to be served.
  • Identify the defendant (or agent for service) – preferably by name. (If this isn’t possible, note what the defendant (or agent for service) looks like to be able to describe him or her.)
  • Say courteously and calmly, "These are court papers."
  • Give the person copies of all the court papers. If the person won't take the papers, just leave them near the person and say, “I’m leaving them here.” (What the defendant does or does not do with the papers is up to him or her.)
  • Fill out and sign page 2 of the Proof of Service (Small Claims) (Form SC-104).

TIP: If you are using a friend or family member to serve for you, ask your server to read the Proof of Service, Form SC-104, before serving so they will be able to more easily fill out the form after delivering the legal papers.

How is substituted service done?

Substituted service can only take place at the defendant’s home or place of work. For it to be valid, substituted service must be done at least 25 days before the court hearing (or 30 days, if the hearing is in a county different from where the service took place). The days are counted from the day your server mailed the 2nd copy of the papers to the defendant. See below.

If the person you have to serve is not at home or work when your server goes there, your server can give the court papers to:

  • A competent adult (at least 18) who appears to be living at the home with the person to be served, or
  • An adult who seems to be in charge where the person to be served usually works, or
  • An adult who seems to be in charge where the person receives mail (including a private mailbox, but not a U.S. Postal Service P.O. Box). Note: This is only for cases where the physical address of the person to be served is not known.

Your server also has to:

  • Tell the person that he or she is leaving the court papers with to give them to the person you're suing.
  • Write down the name of the person he or she gave the court papers to. If the person won't give his or her name, your server must write down a physical description of the person who took the papers.
  • Mail (on the same day) another copy of the court papers by first-class mail to the person you're suing at the same address where he or she left the papers.
  • Fill out and sign page 2 of the Proof of Service (Small Claims) (Form SC-104).

How is service by mail done?

In small claims court cases, only the court clerk may serve your papers by certified mail. (There will be a fee for each defendant served.) But if the person you are suing, or the business' agent for service, doesn't sign the U.S. Postal Service mail receipt with his or her complete name, or if someone else signs the receipt, there is no service and you will have to serve using personal or substituted service.

TIP: After 2 weeks have passed from the time you filed the claim call the court clerk to find out if they were able to serve the defendant by certified mail. If not, you will have to consider using personal service of substituted service.

An “agent for service of process” is a person or company who can accept legal documents on behalf of a business. “Agents for service of process” for corporations, limited liability companies (LLCs) and limited partnerships (LPs) are supposed to be registered with the Secretary of State.

  • Go to the California Secretary of State’s records page to find the agent for the defendant in the case.

If you are suing a corporation, limited liability companies, or limited partnership and need to get copies of your court papers to them, have your server deliver the legal documents to the company's “agent for service of process.”

Learn what to do if the corporation or other business does not have an agent for service of process.

REMEMBER: You are suing the business - not the agent for service of process.

On the Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100, page 2, number 2), you will name the company as a defendant. Put its out-of-state address on the “Street Address” line.

Then, cross out “Mailing Address” and write in “Agent for Service” and write in the agent’s name and address there.

If suing a sole proprietorship
Serve the individual who owns the business, or the manager or person in charge of the business.

If suing a partnership

  • If you're just suing the general partnership, serve one of the partners.
  • If you're suing the general partnership and the partners, serve each partner.
  • If you're suing a limited partnership, serve the agent for service or the general partner.

If suing a corporation
Try serving the agent for service, if possible. If not, serve one of the officers of the corporation: the president, vice-president, secretary, or chief executive officer. Or, serve the general manager of the business location where the problem occurred.

You can find out the name of the corporation's agent for service at the web site of the California Secretary of State. The Web site can also tell you how to write to the Secretary of State to get more information about the corporation, such as a list of the corporation's officers.

If suing the county
Serve the county clerk or agent authorized to accept service. Check your county's web site for the clerk's address and telephone number. Or find the address and phone number in the government pages of your phone book.

If suing the city
Serve the city clerk or agent authorized to accept service. Find the address and phone number in the government pages of your phone book. It's usually listed in the city section, under “clerk.”

If suing the state
You can serve the State Attorney General's office if you are suing the California Highway Patrol, or most consumer affairs boards. If you are suing Caltrans, you must serve the California Department of Transportation. Get the Headquarters’ address.

Get the mailing address of the Office of the Attorney General. Call the Attorney General's office at 1-800-952-5225 for more information.

NOTE: You can't sue the federal government in small claims court. Contact an attorney for advice if you are going to sue the federal government.

See a chart called How to Serve a Business or Public Entity (Small Claims)
(Form SC-104C).

If you are suing your landlord, have the property owner served. If the landlord has a manager for the property, you may serve the manager instead.

  • Your landlord's name, address and phone number should be on your lease, or posted on 2 places on the property that are in plain sight.
  • You can also get the address from your local tax assessor's office.

See a chart called How to Serve a Business or Public Entity (Small Claims) (Form SC-104C). It includes information about serving a landlord.

If you get in a car accident in California, you can sue the driver in a California court. This is true even if the driver lives out-of-state, as long as they own the car. Papers must be served on the out-of-state driver. Papers must also be served on the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

1. First serve the DMV. Have your server mail a copy of the claim to:

Department of Motor Vehicles
Office of the Director
2415 First Avenue
Mail Station F 101
Sacramento, CA 95818

The server should mail it by certified mail, addressee only, return receipt requested. For each driver, include a $2.00 check or money order made out to the DMV.

Once the DMV is served, you will receive a letter from the DMV. The letter will include the signed certified mail receipt. This receipt is your proof that you served the Director of DMV.

2. Then, serve the out-of-state driver/owner with:

1. A copy of the filed Plaintiff’s Claim (Form SC-100)
and
2. A copy of the letter from DMV and signed certified mail receipt.

Your server may serve the driver by personal service or by registered mail (addressee only, return receipt requested).

For personal service
Have your server complete and sign a:

  • Proof of Service (Form SC-104)

For service by registered mail
Have your server fully complete and sign a:

To help your server fill out the POS-010:

  • in No. 2, check box ‘f’, and write “Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court” and “Copy of DMV’s letter confirming service.”
  • in No. 5(c), fill in No. (1) and No. (2), and check box No. (4)

3. File these papers with the court:

  1. the original signed receipt to the DMV
  2. the original of the letter from the DMV,
  3. if served by mail, the return mail receipt from the driver and,
  4. the original Proof of Service.

If the home office of the corporation or limited liability company (LLC) is not in California, you may serve the corporation in one of the following ways.

1. If the company does not have an office or store in California but is doing business in the state, you may serve its registered agent for service of process. Check with the Secretary of State for the name of the agent of service of process and the legal name of the corporation.

2. If the company does have an office or store in California, you may have the general manager of that office or store served.

REMEMBER: Your defendant is the business, not the manager. The manager is just who you serve. See How to Serve a Business or Public Entity (Small Claims) (Form SC-104C) for more help.

3. If the out-of-state company does business in California but has not registered an agent for service of process, then the court may order the California Secretary of State be served for the out-of-state company.

You have to get a court order before serving the Secretary of State for the out-of-state company. To get the court order you have to prove to the court in your request that:

(a) You took steps to look, but could not find an authorized agent for service of process;

(b) You believe that the company does enough business in California to require them to have an agent for service. Ads targeting California residents would be useful to prove this.

NOTE: You must personally serve the court order and Plaintiff's Claim (Form SC-100) on the Secretary of State. You must include $50.00, payable to the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State will serve the out-of-state company by forwarding the copy of the Plaintiff’s Claim to the company's main executive office.

If the Secretary of State does not have an address for the company's main executive office, it can forward the Plaintiff’s Claim to the last known agent for service of process.

If the Secretary of State has no valid address, it cannot do anything.

4. If none of the above work, you will have to go to the company's home state to sue it there. Check to see if that state has a Small Claims Advisor to help you.

People who own property in California may be sued about that property in a California court, even if they live in another state.

You may serve a property owner who does not live in California by any of the three service methods normally used in small claims cases: personal service, substituted service, or certified mail service by the court clerk.

Please read the page on How is Service Done?

If the owner of the property is a business, please also read the page on Serving a Business or Government Agency.

If the owner of the property is a corporation or LLC, please also read the page on Serving Out-of-State Business.

Normally, if a person or company receives a court order to go to small claims court it is not a complete surprise. Usually he or she knows why they are being sued.

If you do not know why you are being sued, contact the plaintiff immediately and ask for an explanation.

  • The plaintiff’s name and address are on the Plaintiff’s Claim (Form SC-100) that was given to you.

There are a number of possibilities, including:

  • It may be a case of wrong identity. The plaintiff may be suing the wrong person or business, or the papers may have been served on the wrong person or business.
  • There may be a misunderstanding. If you know the plaintiff, he or she may not have understood how you propose to pay. Or perhaps a payment you made was not recorded.

If you believe that this lawsuit is a mistake there are several things you can do.

  • Ask the plaintiff to dismiss (cancel) the case with prejudice – if you are the wrong person or business.
  • Ask the plaintiff to dismiss (cancel) the case with without prejudice – if you are the right person and you and the plaintiff can agree on how and when you are going to pay the debt.

If the plaintiff refuses to dismiss the claim for some reason:

  • You can file a request to dismiss the case (see Motion to Dismiss with Prejudice).
    Or, you can write a letter to the court, explaining that you are the wrong person or business being sued. If the judge agrees, he or she could dismiss the case.
    • When you file your request or mail your letter to the court, be sure to have a copy of your paperwork served on the plaintiff. The service can be by mail. (See How Service is Done.)
  • If you are the right defendant and fully intend to pay the debt in payments, you can try to persuade the plaintiff to go to mediation to set up an agreement and payment plan. (See What is Mediation?) Most neighborhood dispute resolution centers offer mediation services.

IMPORTANT: If the plaintiff has not dismissed the case before the trial hearing date, you must go to the hearing prepared to present evidence through documents or witnesses to explain your side of the case to the judge.

If you are the defendant and the plaintiff owes you money or hurt you, you can sue the plaintiff back now. This is called "countersuing," or filing a defendant’s claim.

NOTE: If you don’t want to sue now, you can choose to sue later – as long as the statute of limitations has not run out in your case. However, it is often better to sue back at the same time and put both cases before the same judge to avoid conflicting judgments.

Before you file your countersuit, ask the plaintiff to pay the money you are owed.

  • Get help writing a letter to the person or business asking for payment.
  • Get help writing a letter for a bad check or a stop-payment check.
  • You can only countersue those who have sued you. For example, if you were only sued by the partnership then you cannot countersue both the partnership and a partner.
  • Your claim does not have to be related to the plaintiff’s claim. A defendant’s claim could be a dispute about an entirely different problem.
  • The same rules apply to the defendant’s claim as apply to the plaintiff’s claim. To read about who can use the small claims court, limits of time and place, etc., read the section called Before You Start a Court Case.

If you are the defendant and want to sue the plaintiff back now in the small claims case take the following steps:

Step 1. Get and fill out:

  • Defendant's Claim and Order to Plaintiff (Small Claims) (Form SC-120)

Make photocopies of the form – one copy for you and one for each plaintiff you are suing back. (The court will keep the original.)

Step 2. File the original Defendant’s Claim (SC-120) at court. Also include your photocopies so they can be stamped by the court clerk to become “conformed.”

You can file your court forms in one of three ways:

  • In person (By visiting the courthouse, handing the forms to the clerk yourself and paying the appropriate filing fee.)
  • By mail (This process can be slower than filing in person if you have made mistakes in completing the forms.)

TIP: If you file by mail, include a stamped, self-addressed envelope with enough postage so the court can mail your copy of the forms back to you. Also, write a simple letter to the court clerk explaining what you are mailing to the court and why. Be sure to include the fess for filing and service.

  • By hiring a forms filing service (For a fee, some companies will take your forms to the courthouse and make sure they are filed and that the filing fees are paid. These companies are called “attorney services” and can be found in the yellow pages of your phone book.)

Step 3. Serve a copy of the filed-stamped copy of the Form SC-120 on the plaintiff. This must be done at least 5 "court" days before your court hearing date. (“Court days” are Monday through Friday. Court days do not include Saturday, Sunday, or holidays.)

NOTE: You may not serve the court documents on the plaintiff yourself.

  • You have to have someone over the age of 18, not a defendant in the case, serve the plaintiff. The person may be a relative or a friend.
  • You can also hire a professional server. Look in the yellow pages or contact your local bar association for service of process or process servers. If you think you are going to have problems with the other person, use a professional server.

There are three ways copies of your counterclaim can be "served":

  • Personal Service (A person over 18 who is not a defendant in this case delivers a copy of the forms to the plaintiff in person at least 5 days before your court hearing date.)
  • Service by Mail (The court clerk sends a copy of the claim by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the plaintiff. The plaintiff must sign and return a receipt to the clerk. There is a fee for this type of service.)

If the court clerk mails the claim to the plaintiff, it must be mailed 10 days before your court hearing date.

  • Substituted Service: Someone over 18 - not you or another defendant in the case - must leave a copy of the claim with someone in charge at the plaintiff's office, or with a competent adult who is at least 18 years old at the plaintiff's home.
  • Your server must tell that person "this is a small claims lawsuit against [name of plaintiff]; please be sure to give it to [name of plaintiff]."
  • Your server must write down the name of the person to whom he or she gave the court papers. Or, if that person’s name is not known, your server should be able to describe him or her in the Proof of Service (see below).
  • Then your serve must mail another copy of the claim to the plaintiff at the same address where he or she left the first copy of the claim. Service is considered complete 10 days after mailing.

Step 4. Tell the court that you have served your forms.

Your server should complete a:

  • Proof of Service (Form SC-104)

Then you should file this form with the small claims clerk before the hearing.

Next, you should prepare for your hearing.

Every county in California has a small claims court, and larger counties have several small claims court branches. A claim has to be filed in the right county, in the right court branch (if there is more than one.)

You can ask for your case to be dismissed if you are sued in the wrong court. You can do this in one of two ways:

  1. File a Motion to Dismiss the case “without prejudice” with the court.
    • You must also send a copy of your Motion to the other side and
    • File a proof of mailing with the court clerk.
  2. Or, you can go to court on the hearing date and ask for your case to be dismissed because it is the wrong court.

If the judge agrees with you, he or she will probably dismiss the case without prejudice, meaning that the plaintiff can file the same suit again in the proper court.

If you do not go to court – and you ask the court to dismiss the case in writing -- and the judge does NOT agree with you (denies your request), the judge may:

  • postpone the hearing for at least 15 days to give you the opportunity to appear, or
  • enter a default judgment against you. (If the judge enters a default against you, you will have to file a request to cancel the judgment.)

The following are some questions that may help you decide what to do:

  • Where should a claim usually be filed?
    The plaintiff can always sue you in the county where you live or do business.
  • What if I'm being sued because of a contract?
    You can also be sued where you signed the contract. Or, you can be sued where you were supposed to perform the contract, or where you allegedly broke the contract.
  • What if a corporation or Limited Liability Company (LLC) is being sued?
    The corporation (or LLC) can be sued where the corporation (or LLC) broke the contract. If the person suing says he or she was hurt, or if their property was damaged, the corporation (or LLC) can be sued where that happened. A corporation (or LLC) can also be sued where its business is located.
  • What if I don't have a contract, but the plaintiff says I owe them money?
    The plaintiff can sue you where you lived when you allegedly made the agreement, or where you live now, or where the plaintiff was hurt.
  • What if the plaintiff says I owe them money for layaway, a sales contract, or a car sale?

The plaintiff can sue:

  • Where you live;
  • Where you lived when you signed the contract;
  • Where you signed the contract; or
  • Where the car or other thing involved in the dispute is permanently located.
  • What if I do not live in California?
    An out-of-state resident or business can be sued in a small claims court in California. However, an out-of-state resident or business cannot be served out-of-state. If you do not live – or do business – in California and you receive small claims papers in the mail, file a Motion to Dismiss the case “without prejudice” with the court.
    • You must also send a copy of your Motion to the other party, and
    • File a proof of mailing the motion to the defendant (Form POS-030) with the court clerk.

NOTE: There are some exceptions to this rule. Out-of-state residents or business owners may be served out-of-state:

  • If the dispute involved real property you own in California;
  • If the lawsuit is about a traffic accident that occurred when you were in California on a public road;
  • If you happened to be served with the court papers while you were in California.
  • If the corporation or Limited Liability Company is registered to do business in California and has an Agent for Service of Process in California.

If your case does not fit into one of these situations, contact the Small Claims Advisor in your county.

In California, the person who starts a lawsuit in small claims court (called "the plaintiff") has to have a copy of his or her Plaintiff’s Claim (Form SC-100) delivered to you, the defendant, in person, by certified mail, or by substituted service. The Plaintiff’s Claim will have the date, time and place of the court hearing.

There are specific rules about how and when the defendant is to be given a copy of the court papers. These are called the rules of “service of process” and include:

  • The defendant is entitled to receive at least 15 days’ advance notice of the court hearing (or 20 days’ advance notice if the defendant lives outside the county where the plaintiff filed the claim.)
  • Each defendant is entitled to receive his or her own copy of the Plaintiff’s Claim, even if other people named as defendants received a copy and could tell the others about it. Each defendant has to be served with a copy of the Claim separately.

If you are the defendant and you were not served on time

You may write a courteous letter to the court informing it that you are not “waiving” (excusing) service, and that you are not going to attend the hearing.

Include in your letter the fact that you mailed a copy of the letter to the Plaintiff.

  • You must mail a copy of your letter to the Plaintiff.
  • Keep a copy of your letter in your own file.

If it is less than 5 days before the hearing, deliver the letter to the court filing window and ask that the letter be brought to the attention of the court.

If the judge agrees with you, he or she will probably postpone the hearing for at least 15 days to give you the opportunity to prepare your case. The court will mail its decision to you.

You and the other side should continue to try to reach agreement about your issues on your own. Because a judge can never know the facts of your case as well as you know them yourselves, it often makes sense to work out your own issues. In most cases, resolving your own disputes saves time, money, and a lot of the stress associated with going to court.

If you DO settle your dispute, write down what was agreed to. Include:

  • The names and addresses of the two people,
  • A brief description of the “what,” “when” and “where” of the dispute that has been resolved,
  • A statement of what each person is giving up and what each agrees to do,
  • The date the agreement is being signed, and
  • The signatures of everyone involved.

Make sure everyone has a copy of the agreement, and keep your copy of the agreement in a safe place.

  1. If you settle the case after it was filed at court, but before the hearing – and you both agreed that the case would NOT be filed again -- your hearing needs to be taken off the court calendar and the case has to be dismissed with prejudice.
  2. If you settle the case after it was filed at court, but before the hearing –and there was NO agreement that the case could not be filed again -- your hearing needs to be taken off the court calendar and the case has to be dismissed without prejudice.

Usually, it is the plaintiff’s responsibility to file a Motion to Dismiss the case. This is the best and easiest way to finalize the matter. However, the plaintiff might not know they should do this. In this case the defendant might consider contacting them and explaining this to them.

If the plaintiffs won't dismiss the case, even though it has been settled, the defendant may make a motion asking the court to dismiss the case. The defendant may make the motion in one of two ways:

  1. The defendant can go to court on the hearing date and ask for the case to be dismissed. He or she would have to give the court proof that the case was settled by providing the original receipt or original cancelled check proving the amount was paid in full. The judge will make a ruling.
    Or -
  2. The defendant can fill out and file a Request for Dismissal (Form SC-105) and Order on Request for Court Order (Small Claims) (Form SC-105A) with the court. Attach a copy of the cancelled check or receipt of having paid the plaintiff, or other written proof that the case is settled, to the form. The clerk will set a hearing for this Request and mail a copy of the form
    to the Plaintiff.

NOTE 1: The Request for Dismissal (Form SC-105 and SC-105A) must be filed at least 20 days before the hearing.

NOTE 2: If the hearing for the Request for Dismissal would be set at a date later than the original hearing set for trial, the defendant might choose to go to the first court date and simply ask the judge to dismiss the case. If the defendant does that, he or she needs to take the proof of settlement to show the court.

“Parties” are the people or organizations who are named in the case as plaintiff or defendant.

The court has to give permission for someone else to appear for a party in small claims court.

To request this, the person who will appear (instead of the party) needs to fill in the Authorization to Appear on Behalf of Party (Small Claims) (Form SC-109).

The person who will appear should take the original Form SC-109 and 2 copies to the hearing. At the beginning of the hearing, a copy will be given to the other side. The original will be given to the judge.

Only the people below may appear in Small Claims court cases.

1. For Individuals

  • Only the people named in the case.

2. For Spouses
Someone who sues or is sued with his or her spouse may appear and participate for his or her spouse if:

  • the claim is a joint claim,
  • the spouse has given permission, and
  • the court agrees.

3. For Corporations

  • A regular employee, or
  • An appointed or elected officer or director, with duties beyond representing the corporation in small claims court.

4. For Parties Who Are Not Individuals Or Corporations (such as Partnerships)

  • A regular employee, or
  • An appointed or elected officer, director, or partner, with duties beyond representing the party in small claims court.

5. For an Individual “Doing Business As” a Sole Proprietorship (DBA)
The party does not have to personally appear and can instead have a representative if:

  • The claim can be proved or disputed by evidence in a business record as defined in the California Evidence Code, Section 1271, and there is no other issue of fact in the case. AND,
  • The representative is a regular employee of the party with duties beyond representing the party in small claims cases AND
  • the representative is qualified to testify to the identity and preparation of the business record.

6. For a Landlord
A landlord may have a property agent appear in small claims court for them if:

  • The owner has contracted with the property agent mostly to manage the rental of that property and not mostly to represent the owner in small claims court, AND
  • The claim relates to the rental property.

7. For an Association
An association created to manage a common interest development, as defined in California’s Civil Code, Section 1271, may participate in the small claims case through an agent, management company representative, or bookkeeper who appears on behalf of that association.

Generally, Attorneys Are Not Allowed in Small Claims Court

An attorney can always represent:

  • Themselves;
  • A party, to enforce a judgment in Small Claims court; or
  • A party, in an appeal from Small Claims court.

NOTE: Translators/interpreters
Parties may use interpreters in small claims court. However, translators and interpreters do not represent the party.

Evidence is information you may present in court to prove your case. It can be in two main forms:

1. People: witness testimony

  • You
  • Other people who have direct and relevant information about the case
  • People who keep records
  • Experts

2. Things: exhibits

  • Photographs
  • Records: police, medical, bills, appraisals, school records, etc.
  • Other documents or things

In either case, the judge will want to know: Why is this witness or exhibit helpful in deciding your case?

If you need help selecting evidence to use, or understanding how to present it to the judge, you can contact:

Learn more about using people as evidence (witnesses).

Learn more about using things as evidence (exhibits).

A witness is a person called by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the judge. It could be you, other people who have direct and relevant information about the case, people who keep records, or experts who are qualified to give an opinion in an area of the case. Usually, the witness must be present in court for the hearing or trial.

Normally, at the beginning of the court session, all of the parties and their witnesses are sworn in by the courtroom clerk. If your witness testifies, generally it is in the format of the judge asking him or her questions.

How do I prepare my witnesses for court?

He or she should be ready to state:

For an eyewitness:

a. His or her legal name and address
b. The date of the event that was witnessed
c. What he or she saw, heard, smelled, felt or tasted – and how he or she did so.

For an expert witness (by declaration, usually):

a. His or her legal name and address
b. His or her work and education credentials, which show expertise in the field being commented on.
c. What he or she did related to the situation to be able to render an opinion.
d. When he or she did this.
e. His or her conclusions.
f. If necessary in the situation, an estimate of the cost to redo the work properly.
g. Any other facts that might be important in this dispute.

Remind your witnesses that they must tell the truth. It is ok to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember,” if that is the truth.

TIP: You may want to write down ahead of time why you want to offer this witness. Then, when the judge asks, you can answer even if you’re nervous.

What if a key witness says he or she won’t come to court?

You can ask the court to order a witness to appear at your hearing. The court order is called a subpoena.

You can get subpoenas from the court that order someone:

  • To appear
  • To appear and produce documents or things

NOTE 1: Some witnesses may want to appear but need to be served with a subpoena in order to get the time off of their work to go to court.

NOTE 2: You probably would not want to make a witness go to court unless he or she has already agreed to testify. Dragging someone into court who doesn’t want to be there could set him or her against you.

What if a key witness is willing to testify but cannot come to court?

In small claims court, witnesses usually appear in court to give their testimony before the judge. However, this is not always reasonable. For example, a witness may have an illness, be disabled, or live out-of-state. The judge will accept a written statement as evidence. Also, the judge may take their testimony over the telephone on the day of the hearing, if you ask in advance. (An out-of-state witness must use a written affidavit, sworn according to the laws of California, for their testimony.)

An exhibit is a document or an object used by either side in a lawsuit to prove his or her claim. Exhibits could be financial statements, medical records, counselor’s reports, photographs, tools, equipment or other things.

How do I prepare my exhibit for court?
Once you have selected what you want to use:

  • Make a copy of each exhibit for your files. (The court may keep the original until it reaches a decision.)
  • You May Have to Mark Your Exhibits
    • Some courts will want you to mark each piece of evidence with an exhibit identifier. (For example, attach a sticker labeled “Exhibit 1,” “Exhibit 2”, etc. – OR “Exhibit A,” “B,” etc. Ask the clerk if you have to do this and -- if yes - which format to use.)
    • Some courts will mark the exhibits in court.
    • Some courts will not mark the exhibits at all.

TIP: Some documents have confidential information, such as bank account and social security numbers. Since you are required by law to show all evidence to the other side before the judge sees it, be sure to block out the sensitive information on a document in a way that is not damaging to the original – such as by using removable white typing tape over the information. Make a copy which you can show the other side. Don’t remove the tape on the original. Show the original to the judge. Once you retrieve the original from the court after its decision, you may remove the tape.

How do I introduce an exhibit in court?
To show the court one of your exhibits:

  • First, show the exhibit to the other side in the case.
  • Next, the bailiff will give the exhibit to the judge.

TIP: You may want to write down ahead of time why you want to offer this evidence. Then, when the judge asks, you can answer even if you’re nervous.

The other party may object to the exhibit for some reason. Try to answer these objections as best you can. Finally, the judge will decide whether to allow the exhibit or not.

If you do not have the documents you need to prove your case, you can learn how to get them sent to the court or taken to your hearing:

Witnesses usually appear in court to testify before the judge. However, this is not always reasonable. For example, a witness may have an illness, be disabled, or live out-of-state. In these cases, the judge may accept a written statement as evidence. Also, expert witness testimony is often written.

Written statements are either a declaration or an affidavit:

  • A declaration: A statement in writing in the witnesses’ own words about what he or she saw, heard, smelled, felt or tasted, and when and how he or she did so. The witness must declare under penalty of perjury that the statement is true and correct.
  • An affidavit: A statement in writing in the witnesses’ own words about what he or she saw, heard, smelled, felt or tasted, and when and how he or she did so. The witness must sign the document, under penalty of perjury, in front of someone like a judge or notary public, that the statement is true and correct.

NOTE: If the witness is from out-of-state, then his or her statement must be an affidavit.

In California, there is a form that can be used by the witness to provide a declaration (or an affidavit, if it is signed by a notary public). This is the Declaration (Form MC-030), which includes the necessary language required in California courts.

Or, your witness may write his or her declaration or affidavit in a letter to the court, as long as the letter includes at its end the following statement: “I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of California that the foregoing is true and correct.” Then your witness must write the date the statement was made, and print his or her name, and sign the document.

Whether in a letter or on the form, the witness must be sure to include the following facts:

For an eyewitness:

  • His or her legal name and address
  • The date of the event that was witnessed
  • What he or she saw, heard, smelled, felt or tasted – and when and how he or she
  • did so.

For an expert witness:

  • His or her legal name and address
  • His or her work and education credentials, which show his or her expertise in the field being commented on.
  • What he or she did related to the situation to be able to give an opinion.
  • When he or she did this.
  • His or her conclusions.
  • If necessary in the situation, an estimate of the cost to re-do the work properly.
  • Any other facts that might be important in this dispute.

TIP 1: Get a declaration from your expert witness in advance of the hearing to make sure you have it in time.
TIP 2: If the expert has a written resume that shows his or her qualifications to make a statement about this case, you can attach this resume to the declaration or affidavit.

On the day of your hearing:
Take the original declaration or affidavit with you to court to present as evidence. Also, take the witness’s daytime telephone number in case the court wants to call him or her.

In small claims court, witnesses usually appear in court to give their testimony before the judge. However, this is not always possible. For example, a witness may have a serious illness, be disabled, or live out-of-state. In some cases like these, the judge may allow testimony to be given to him or her over the telephone on the day of the hearing.

1. Contact the court at least 5 days before your hearing to learn if this is possible and how you may arrange for the telephone call.

  • In Contra Costa County, California, parties must use a service called “Court Call.” There is a fee. Other courts may use different vendors, or have other steps you must follow.

2. If testimony by telephone is allowed, be sure to prepare your witness as if he or she were going to be in the courtroom. He or she should be ready to state:

For an eyewitness:

  • His or her legal name and address
  • The date of the event that was witnessed
  • What he or she saw, heard, smelled, felt or tasted – and when and how he or she did so.

For an expert witness:

  • His or her legal name and address
  • His or her work and education credentials, which show his or her expertise in the field being commented on.
  • What he or she did related to the situation to be able to render an opinion.
  • When he or she did this.
  • His or her conclusions.
  • If possible, an estimate of the cost to redo the work properly.
  • Any other facts that might be important in this dispute.

In California, if you want an opposing party to take evidence to the hearing that he or she has in their possession you can write a letter to them with this request and file this letter in court. In legal terms, such a letter is called a “Notice in Lieu of Subpoena.” There is no form for this request.

NOTE: In small claims court, you cannot use a Subpoena (Form SC-107) to ask the other side to bring evidence to the hearing. This is because subpoenas are only for people who are not a plaintiff or defendant in the case, such as witnesses or record keepers.

For a “Notice in Lieu of Subpoena”

Step 1. Write a letter to the person or business that has the evidence you need.

  • Title the letter “Notice in Lieu of Subpoena.”
  • Ask the other side to take the specific documents (or other evidence) that you need to prove your case to the court hearing.
  • Make 2 copies of the letter. Make one copy for your files and one copy for the court.

Step 2. Serve the letter to the other side who has the documents or items. This service may be done by you, or by another adult.

  • If the letter is mailed, it must be mailed at least 25 days before the hearing date.
  • If the letter is delivered in person, it must be personally served at least 20 days before the hearing date.

Step 3. Inform the court that the letter was provided to the other side.

  • Get a copy of the Proof of Service (If by mail, use Form POS-030. If in person, use Form POS-020).
  • Fill out the form. Have the person who served the letter (either you or another adult) sign the form.
  • Make a copy of the Proof of Service (Form POS-030 or POS 020) for your file.

Step 4. File a copy of the letter and the completed Form POS-030 or POS 020 with the court.

NOTE: If the other side objects (in writing), the court may have a separate hearing before the trial to decide whether or not the other side has to bring the documents or items you requested on the day of the trial. Or, the court may decide without scheduling a separate hearing. The court will let you know its decision in writing.

In California, one party can ask the other side in a case to take evidence that is in their possession to the hearing. This request can be done by letter, with the letter filed at court.

  • In legal terms, such a letter is called a “Notice in Lieu of Subpoena.” There is no form for this request.

If you have received a “Notice in Lieu of Subpoena,” you can formally object to taking the documents or items to court.

To object to a “Notice in Lieu of Subpoena”

Step 1. Write a letter to the court.

  • Title the letter “Objections to Notice in Lieu of Subpoena.”
  • Write the reasons why you should not be required to bring the evidence to court. Put your reasons into a list, and write as briefly and clearly as possible.
  • Make 2 copies of the letter. Make one copy for your files and one copy for the court.

Step 2. File a copy of the letter with the court.

  • If the Notice was served to you in person, you have 5 days to file a written objection with the court.
  • If the Notice was served to you by mail, you have 10 days to file a written objection with the court.

Step 3. Personally Serve your letter to the other side. This service may be done by you, or by another adult.

  • Serve your letter the same day that you file it in court.

Step 4. Inform the court that a copy of the letter was provided to the other side.

  • Get a copy of the Proof of Service (Form POS-020).
  • Fill out the form. Have the person who served the letter (either you or another adult) sign the form.
  • Make a copy of the Proof of Service (Form POS-020) for your file.

Step 5. File the Proof of Service (Form POS-020) with the court at least 5 days before your trial date.

NOTE: The court may have a separate hearing before the trial to decide whether or not you have to bring the documents or items requested on the day of the trial. Or, the court may decide without scheduling a separate hearing. The court will let mail its decision to you.

In California, you can ask the court to order a witness to show up at the hearing to testify.

Normally you would just ask the person to appear at the hearing as a witness. But your witness may need proof that he or she is testifying for you in court on a specific day in order to get approval to miss work. Or you may really need testimony from a reluctant witness.

TIP: You probably would not want to make a witness go to court unless he or she has already agreed to testify. Dragging someone into court who doesn’t want to be there could set him or her against you. See if you can get the evidence you need from another source before getting a subpoena for a reluctant witness.

A “subpoena” is a court order that says that your witness has to go to court. It can also be used to tell someone to send or bring specific documents or items to court for your hearing. There is a special court form to use for these orders. (Use the same form for witnesses, documents or items.)

To subpoena a witness

Step 1. Get your court form. Use:

  • Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents and Things at Trial or Hearing and Declaration (Form SC-107)
  • If you are requiring a person to go to court, fill out page 1 only.
  • If you are also requesting the person to take documents, complete pages 1 and 2.
  • In either case, you will fill out page 3 later.

NOTE: You need to know the name of the witness who you want to go to court.

Step 2. Take the form to the court (the court “issues” the subpoena).

Take the Subpoena (Form SC-107) to the court filing window. The clerk will look at the form and may ask you a few questions. If everything is in order, the clerk will sign and stamp the original form and give it back to you (called “issuing the subpoena”).

Make 2 copies of the completed pages. Make one copy for your files and one copy for the person you are subpoenaing.

Step 3. Give a copy (not the original) of the form to the person being subpoenaed at least 20 days before the court hearing.

Any adult – even you -- can deliver the subpoena to the person you want to be your witness. However, it must be by personal service. You cannot mail the subpoena to the witness, or use any other form of service.

Step 4. Inform the court that the copy was provided to the witness.

After the subpoena has been given to the person you want to be your witness, have the server (you or someone else) fill out page 3 of the original of Form SC-107. This page is called: “Proof of Service of Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents and Things at Trial or Hearing and Declaration.”

  • Make a copy of page 3 for your files.
  • At least 5 days before your trial hearing, return the entire original Subpoena to the court.

NOTE 1: Witnesses can ask for $35 a day, plus 20¢ a mile each way, at the time you serve the subpoena. Be prepared to pay the witness fees. Make a receipt for the witness to sign, if possible.

  • Form SC-107 lets the witness know that they have a right to these fees. One day’s fees must be paid when you serve the subpoena if the witness asks for them.
  • In small claims court, the hearings only last one day. So if the witness asks for the money and you don’t pay it, then the witness does not have to show up at your hearing.
  • If you win the case, you may be able to recover your witness fees from the other side. You will have to ask the court at the end of the hearing to order the losing side to pay these fees.

NOTE 2: Different fees apply to witnesses who are police officers or firefighters. The fee for them is $150 or higher per day. Serve the subpoena and pay the fees to the precinct or fire house where the officer or firefighter is stationed.

In California, you can ask the court to order someone (other than the opposing party) to send documents to the court that might help to prove your case.

Normally you would just ask the person or organization to give copies of the documents to you. But some organizations – such as a police department, phone company, hospital or business that have books, ledgers, papers or other documents – may require a court order to release the information.

NOTE: You will not be allowed to see the documents you ask for by subpoena. The documents will be sent directly to the court in a confidential and sealed envelope. It will be up to the judge to decide whether or not either you or the other side will be allowed to see the documents sent in response to a subpoena.

A “subpoena” is a court order. A specific subpoena that requires someone (other than the opposing party) to take or send documents or records to the court is called a subpoena duces tecum.” The court form to use for this in small claims cases is the same as the form used to subpoena witnesses.

To subpoena a document

Step 1. Get and fill out your court form. Use:

  • Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents and Things at Trial or Hearing and Declaration (Form SC-107)
  • Page 1 – Leave most of page 1 blank.
    • Check 4a – if you want the person (record keeper) to appear at the hearing and bring the documents you need with him or her.
    • Check 4b – if you want the record keeper to send the documents only.
  • Page 2 – This page is called “Declaration in Support of Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Document and Things at Trial or Hearing.” Fill in the whole page.
    • You need to know which documents or things you want the organization to send to the court or have taken to your hearing.
    • You need to know who is in charge of the documents or things you want produced in court.
      • It may take a few phone calls to find the correct person. However, if you list someone on the Subpoena who has nothing to do with the documents, you may not get them. Contact the Small Claims Advisor in your area for more information on naming the correct person.
  • Page 3 – Leave this blank for now. You will fill it in later.

Step 2. File the form with the court.

  • Take the Subpoena (Form SC-107) to the court filing window. The clerk will look at the form and may ask you a few questions. If everything is in order, the clerk will sign and stamp the form and give the original back to you.
  • Make 2 copies of the completed pages. Make one copy for your files and one copy for the record keeper.

Step 3. Give a copy (not the original) of the form to the person (record keeper) being subpoenaed at least 10 days before the court hearing.

Any adult – even you -- can hand the subpoena to the person who has possession of the documents. However, it must be by personal service. You cannot mail the subpoena to the record keeper, or use any other form of service.

NOTE 1: At the time you serve the subpoena, you have to pay the copying fees -- $25 per hour, plus $0.10 per copy for the documents you are asking for. Make a receipt for the record keeper to sign, if possible.

NOTE 2: If you are asking for records from a corporation or a limited liability company, you will name the record keeper on 4a or 4b of Form SC-107, but you may need to serve the Agent for Service Process.

Step 4. Inform the court that the copy was given.

After the subpoena has been given to the person who has the documents, have the server (you or someone else) fill out page 3 of Form SC-107. This page is called: “Proof of Service of Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents and Things at Trial or Hearing and Declaration.”

  • Make a copy of page 3 for your files.
  • Return the original subpoena, with its “Proof of Service” on page 3, to the court for filing at least 5 days before your hearing.

NOTE 1: If the record keeper is being asked to appear in court, he or she can ask for $35 a day, plus 20¢ a mile each way, at the time you serve the subpoena – the same as any other witness. Be prepared to pay these fees. Make a receipt for the record keeper to sign, if possible.

  • Form SC-107 lets the record keeper know that they have a right to these fees, which must be paid when you serve the subpoena.
  • In small claims court, the hearings only last one day. So if the record keeper asks for the money and you don’t pay it, then the record keeper does not have to show up at your hearing.
  • If you win the case, you may be able to recover the fees you paid the record keeper from the other side. You will have to ask the court at the end of the hearing to order the losing side to pay these fees.

NOTE 2: Different fees apply to record keepers who are police officers or firefighters if they are required to appear with documents in court. The fee for them is $150 of higher per day. Serve the subpoena and pay the fees to the precinct or fire house where the officer or firefighter is stationed.

In California, you can ask the court to make someone other than the opposing party send it documents that might help prove the truth of your case.

If you request consumer or employee records – for example, for bank, medical, insurance or education records – the consumer or employee has the right to know about the request. He or she also has the right to ask the court to not allow, or to limit, your request.

To let the consumer or employee know about your request for these records, send a copy of the request to him or her at least 10 days before you send the actual request to the record keeper who has the records. See below.

A “subpoena” is a court order. A specific subpoena that requires someone (other than the opposing party) to take or send documents or records to the court is called a subpoena duces tecum.” The court form to use for this in small claims cases is the same as the form used to subpoena witnesses.

To subpoena consumer or employee records

Step 1. Get and fill out your court form. Use:

  • Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents and Things at Trial or Hearing and Declaration (Form SC-107)

Page 1 of Form SC-107:

  • Check 4a – if you want the person (record keeper) to appear at the hearing and bring the documents you need with him or her.
  • Check 4b – if you want the record keeper to send the documents only.

Page 2 – This page is called “Declaration in Support of Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Document and Things at Trial or Hearing.” Fill in the whole page.

  • You need to know which documents or things you want the organization to send to the court or have taken to your hearing.
  • You need to know who is in charge of the documents or things you want produced in court.
    • It may take a few phone calls to find the correct person. However, if you list someone on the Subpoena who has nothing to do with the documents, you may not get them. Contact the Small Claims Advisor in your area for more information on naming the correct person.

Page 3 – Leave this blank for now. You will fill it in later.

Step 2. File the form with the court.

Take the Subpoena (Form SC-107) to the court filing window. The clerk will look at the form and may ask you a few questions. If everything is in order, the clerk will sign and stamp the form and give it back to you.

Make 3 copies of the completed pages. Make one copy for your files, one copy for the consumer or employee about whom the records are requested, and one copy for the record keeper.

Step 3. Give a copy (not the original) of the form (SC-107) to the consumer or employee about whom the records are requested BEFORE you serve the subpoena on the record keeper.

  • if by mail - at least 20 days before the court hearing.
  • if in person - at least 15 days before the court hearing.

In addition to the form, you must include a written Notice that you are asking for these records. Here is a sample of a notice:

“Notice to Consumer (or Employee):

“I am asking for records from the record keeper named on the Subpoena Duces Tecum (Form SC-107, page 2), who holds consumer (or employee) records about you. Your records may be protected by a right of privacy. If you object to the record keeper’s providing those records to the court, you may file papers with the court, at least 5 days before the hearing date, to stop the subpoena (a ‘motion to quash”) or to limit the documents requested (a “motion to modify”).

“If you ask me to cancel or change my subpoena and I don’t agree in writing to do so, you should consider consulting an attorney about your privacy rights.”

If the consumer or employee objects to these records being given to the court as you are requesting, he or she will have to file a motion (a request) to have your subpoena stopped. This is called filing a “Motion to Quash.” (Or they may file a “Motion to Modify” to limit the documents released to the court.) He or she will serve this Motion on you.

The court may have a separate hearing before the trial to decide whether or not the person or organization being subpoenaed has to bring or send the documents or items you requested on the day of the trial. Or, the court may make a decision without scheduling a separate hearing. The court will let you and the other side know in writing.

If the consumer or employee did not file a “Motion to Quash” (or a Motion to Modify) within 10 days after you served Form SC-107 on him or her (call the court clerk to find out), or if the court denied the Motion to Quash, then you may serve the subpoena to the keeper of the customer or employee records.

Step 4. Give a copy (not the original) of the form to the record keeper at least 10 days before the court hearing.

Any adult – even you -- can hand the subpoena to the person who has possession of the documents. However, it must be by personal service. You cannot mail the subpoena to the record keeper, or use any other form of service.

NOTE 1: At the time you serve the subpoena, you have to pay the copying fees -- $25 per hour, plus $0.10 per copy for the documents you are asking for. Make a receipt for the record keeper to sign, if possible.

NOTE 2: If you are asking for records from a corporation or a limited liability company, you will name the record keeper on 4a or 4b of Form SC-107, but you may need to serve the Agent for Service Process. Learn what an Agent for Service of Process is.

Step 5. Inform the court that the subpoena was given.

After the subpoena has been given to the person who has the documents, have the server (you or someone else) fill out page 3 of Form SC-107. This page is called: “Proof of Service of Small Claims Subpoena for Personal Appearance and Production of Documents and Things at Trial or Hearing and Declaration.”

Make a copy of page 3 for your files.

Mail or take this “Proof of Service” to the court for filing at least 5 days before your hearing.

NOTE: If the record keeper is being asked to appear in court, he or she can ask for $35 a day, plus 20¢ a mile each way, at the time you serve the subpoena – the same as any other witness. Be prepared to pay these fees. Make a receipt for the record keeper to sign, if possible.

  • Form SC-107 lets the record keeper know that they have a right to these fees, which must be paid when you serve the subpoena.
  • In small claims court, the hearings only last one day. So if the record keeper asks for the money and you don’t pay it, then the record keeper does not have to show up at your hearing.
  • If you win the case, you may be able to recover the fees you paid the record keeper from the other side. You will have to ask the court at the end of the hearing to order the losing side to pay these fees.

This is a complicated process. If you need help, contact your Small Claims Advisor for more information or consider consulting with a private attorney.

Before, during or after your hearing you may ask to the court to consider a specific issue in your case and make a decision about it. Requesting this is called “making a motion.” There are many types of motions. Some motions are so common they have their own, specific forms. To learn if there is a specific form for a motion you want to make, check with your Small Claims Advisor.

If there is no special form for the motion you want to make in small claims court, you can use the general form listed below and take the following steps:

Step 1. Get and fill out your court forms.

For most motions, you may use the:

  • Request for Court Order and Answer (Form SC-105)

At the same time, get a copy of the:

  • Order on Request for Court Order (Form SC-105A)

Leave this form blank – except for the information about the parties in the case, in the top portion of page 1. Include this SC-105A when you file your Form SC-105. The clerk and court will fill out the rest of Form SC-105A – the Order.

Fill out Form SC-105, except for the boxes which instruct the clerk to fill in (or sign). Pay special attention to:

  • Question 3: Since this is a general form, be sure to tell the court specifically what you want.
  • Question 4: Tell the court why you are asking it to do what you are requesting.
    • If you need more space than is provided in Question 4, attach a Declaration (Form MC-031) and write ‘See attached Declaration’ in #4, instead of your reasons.
    • Put the reasons for your request on the Declaration (Form MC-031).

Make copies of Form SC-105, any declarations, and any documents that will help you prove to the court why it should decide in favor of doing what you are requesting. Make one copy for your files and one copy for each other party in the case. (The court will keep the original.)

For example, if you are asking the court to dismiss the case against you because you are the wrong defendant corporation, attach paperwork that shows you are the wrong defendant -- such as a blank original of company letterhead or a declaration of a witness.

Your witness can make his or her Declaration on (Form MC-030).

Step 2. Inform the other side (service of process).
You will have to give or mail a copy of the forms and attached documents and/or declarations to the other side before or on the same day that you file the paperwork, depending on when you are filing the request.

  • Before the trial hearing:
    • If you have served the defendant(s) in the case – you must mail a copy to all of the other parties.
    • If you have not served the defendant(s) – you don’t mail anyone a copy of the paperwork.
  • After the trial hearing:
    • The court clerk will mail a copy of your motion to all other parties.

NOTE: This is different from most service of process.

Step 3. File your court forms.
Mail or take the court forms -- and declarations, if there are any, and/or attachments, if there are any -- to the court filing window. The clerk will put the original papers in the case file, then stamp the photocopies and return them to the person doing the filing.

  • Remember to include the Form SC-105A – the court order.

The court’s decision
The court will use the Order on Request for Court Order (Form SC-105A) to let each side know if it granted the request or denied it.

NOTE: The court may hold a special hearing on the request. If the court sets a hearing, the court will inform each side in writing on Form SC-105A.

Before, during or after your hearing anyone involved in your case may ask the court to consider a specific issue and make a decision about it. This is called “making a motion.” There are many types of motions.

You may object to a request (motion) made by someone else

Step 1. Write a letter to the court.

  • Generally, there are no forms for this. However, some Motion forms include an “Answer” portion. If the Motion form you were served with includes an “Answer” portion, use this space for your objection.
  • You have to provide evidence that shows why the court should not grant the request. You do this by attaching a Declaration (Form MC-030) with the supporting facts involved (signed under penalty of perjury). Attach any copies of documents that prove your facts.
  • Write in the letter that you have served a copy of your letter, Declaration and copies of your supporting documents to the other side.
  • Make copies of your letter and its attachments – one copy for your files and one copy for each party on the other side. (The court will keep the original.)

Step 2. File the original Answer (or letter) with the court.

Mail or take your Answer (or letter), with its attachments, to a court clerk. The clerk will put the original papers in the case file, then stamp the photocopies and return them to the person doing the filing.

Step 3. Serve your Answer (or letter) and attached declaration to the other side.

Have your server (an adult not related to the case) serve the Answer (or letter) and attached declaration to the other side. Your server may either deliver the papers in person or by mail.

Step 4. Inform the court that a copy of the letter was provided to the other side.

Have your server fill out a proof of service. If service is:

File the proof of service form (POS-020 or POS-030) with the court.

The court will inform each side of its decision about the request (motion) by mail.

NOTE: The court may hold a special hearing on the request and your objection. If the court sets a special hearing, it will inform each side of this by mail.

Before the hearing, a plaintiff (or a defendant who filed a counterclaim) in the small claims case may ask to change their claim. The plaintiff can change the Plaintiff’s Claim (Form SC-100), and the defendant can change the Defendant’s Claim (Form SC-120) – if they have one.

Some reasons to change your claim include:

  • You learned the correct name of the plaintiff or defendant after you filed your claim;
  • You want to change what you asked for in your claim;
  • You decided you don’t want to sue one of the parties anymore, or want to sue another party.

Changing the name of a person or business listed on the claim

A. If your claim has ALREADY been served:

Step 1. If your claim already has been served, fill out a:

  • Request to Amend Party Name Before Hearing (Form SC-114)

Step 2. File form SC-114 with the court clerk.

Step 3. Serve -- mail or personally deliver a copy of your Form SC-114 -- to all of the other parties in your case.

NOTE: Another approach would be simply to ask the judge to amend the name at your hearing. (See Code of Civil Procedure, Section 116.560(b))

B. If your claim has NOT been served simply amend your claim form, as described below:

Making changes using an “amended” claim form (SC-100 or SC-120)

If you want to change what you asked for in your claim, decided you don’t want to sue one of the parties anymore, or want to sue another party.

Step 1. Get a new copy of the claim form:

  • Defendant's Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100) (for the Plaintiff’s claim.)
    See the instructions for this form.
  • Plaintiff's Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-120) (for the Defendant’s claim.)
    See the instructions for this form.
  • Write “Amended” on the 1st page, above the title of the form. If possible, highlight “Amended” in yellow.
  • Make the changes you need to make.

To add a defendant on the Plaintiff’s Claim (Form SC-100):
On the 2nd page, no. 2 -- on the line that says “If more than one Defendant, list next Defendant here” – put the new defendant’(s) name. Add the other information -- their phone number and address -- for the defendant you are adding.

To remove a defendant on the Plaintiff’s Claim (Form SC-100):
On the 2nd page, no. 2 -- on the line that says “If more than one Defendant, list next Defendant here” – write only: “Remove… (and put the name of the defendant you are removing in parentheses).” Don’t add any other information -- their phone number and address -- for the defendant you are removing.

  • Complete the remainder of the form like the first copy of your claim.
  • Make as many copies as you need: 1 for you and 1 for each of the other people or businesses involved in the case.

Step 2. File the form with the court. There is no fee for filing. The clerk will file stamp the copies.

Step 3. Serve the claim on all of the other people or businesses involved in the case. (If you already served a claim on any of the other parties in this case, and you then make any changes, you must re-serve everyone.)

Making the changes using a “Declaration” form

Another way to tell the court that you want to change your claim in some way is to use a Declaration (Form MC-030).

Step 1. Get a copy of the Declaration (Form MC-030)

  • Fill in the form, briefly telling the court what you want to change on your claim and why.
  • Make as many copies as you need: 1 for you and 1 for each of the other parties in the case.

Step 2. File the original Declaration (Form MC-030) with the court.

Step 3. Serve the Declaration (Form MC-030) on all of the other parties in the case.

NOTE: You may not use the clerk to serve a Declaration by certified mail.

Either side in the small claims case may ask for the court to change the date for their hearing – if they have a very good reason. This is called asking for a “continuance,” or for an “extension” or a “postponement.”

Some reasons to postpone the hearing include:

  • The plaintiff was not able to serve the defendant on time;
  • The defendant asked that the hearing be heard in a different court;
  • A key witness cannot appear on the date set for the hearing.

To ask the court to postpone the hearing

A. At least 10 days before your hearing date:

Step 1. Get and fill out your court form:

  • Request to Postpone Small Claims Hearing (Form SC-110)

Step 2. File form SC-110 with the court clerk.

NOTE: You'll have to pay a $10 fee to ask for a continuance.

Step 3. Serve – by mail or in person -- a copy of your Form SC-110 to the other people named in the claim.

B. If the hearing is in less than 10 days:

Step 1. Go to your hearing and ask the judge for a continuance in person. Or, if you absolutely can’t make it to the hearing, take your completed Form SC-110 to the clerk's office. Ask them to attach it to your file.

In your Request to Postpone Small Claims Hearing (Form SC-110), give the judge a good reason why you are late in filing your request.

NOTE: You'll have to pay a $10 fee to ask for a continuance.

Step 2. Also, mail or personally give a copy of your Form SC-110 to the other parties named in the claim.

If the court decides to give you a continuance, it will mail a new date to you and the other parties in the case.

If the court decides NOT to give you a continuance, the case will be heard on the original hearing date. Both sides will be expected to be in court on that original date.

Courts may be asked to dismiss, or cancel, a case. Usually this is done by the person who started the case, but it may be requested by the defendant under some circumstances.

The court may dismiss the case:

  • “With prejudice.” This is when a court ends a case and will not allow any other suit to be filed on the same claim in the future.
  • “Without prejudice.” This is when a court closes a case but will allow other suits to be filed on the same claim (if the statute of limitations has not run out).

Making a motion to dismiss a case “with prejudice”

Some reasons to dismiss a case with prejudice include:

  • The case was settled and the amount agreed upon was fully paid.
  • The defendant named in the case is not the right person or business.
  • The case has already been heard and decided upon before – for example, in another court.

NOTE: The court can also be asked to dismiss a specific person or business only, or a specific cause for the lawsuit – or counter claim – only. The same forms and procedures as given below would also be used for these requests to the court.

If you DO settle your dispute, write down what was agreed to. Include:

  • The names and addresses of the two people,
  • A brief description of the “what,” “when” and “where” of the dispute that has been resolved,
  • A statement of what the person giving up a claim is getting in return,
  • The date the agreement is being signed, and
  • The signatures of everyone involved.

Make sure everyone has a copy of the agreement, and keep your copy of the agreement in a safe place.

To ask the court to dismiss the case (or part of the case) with prejudice

Step 1. Get and fill in your court forms.

To dismiss a case with prejudice, use a:

  • Request for Dismissal (Form CIV-110)

At the same time, get a copy of the:

  • Notice of Entry of Dismissal and Proof of Service (CIV-120)

For the Request for Dismissal (Form CIV-110):

  • In the Request for Dismissal box, check ? Other and write in Small Claims case.
  • In No. 1 -- “TO THE CLERK: Please dismiss this action as follows:

Check a. (1) ? With prejudice
Check b. (2) ? if you are the plaintiff.
Check b. (3) ? if you are the defendant and filed a counter-claim. Fill in your name and the date you filed the cross-complaint.

Write the date you are filling out the form.

Print your name, and sign the line for (signature).

  • In No. 2 -- “TO THE CLERK: Consent to the above dismissal is hereby given:”

Leave blank if you are the plaintiff.

Fill in if you are the defendant, you filed a cross-complaint and are agreeing to the dismissal of both your claim and theirs.

  • The clerk will fill in the bottom potion of the form.

For the Notice of Entry of Dismissal and Proof of Service (Form CIV-120):

Fill in the top section.

Do not fill in the Proof of Service section.

Make copies of Form CIV-110 – one copy for your files and one copy for each of the other parties involved in the case. (The court will keep the original.)

Step 2. File the Forms CIV-110 and CIV-120.

Mail or take the Forms CIV-110 and CIV-120 to the courthouse. A clerk will put the originals in the case file, then stamp the photocopies and return them to the person doing the filing. (If you file your papers by mail, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the court can mail the copies back to you.)

Step 3. Inform the other side (service of process).

  • Attach a filed (stamped) copy of Form CIV-110 to a Form CIV-120.
  • Have an adult, other than you, mail a copy of the two forms to each person or business involved in the case.

Step 4. Inform the court that the copies were mailed (proof of service).

  • Have your server complete the “Proof of Service” section at the bottom of the original
    CIV-120 form.
  • Either you or your server may mail or take the completed Proof of Service (on Form
    CIV-120) to the court clerk for filing.
    • If you file your form by mail, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the court can mail a copy back to you.

Courts may be asked to dismiss, or cancel, a case. Usually this is done by the person who started the case, but it may be requested by the defendant if he or she countersued.

The court may dismiss the case:

  • “With prejudice.” This is when a court ends a case and will not allow any other suit to be filed on the same claim in the future.
  • “Without prejudice.” This is when a court closes a case but will allow other suits to be filed on the same claim (if the statute of limitations has not run out).

Making a motion to dismiss a case “without prejudice:”

Some reasons to dismiss a case without prejudice include:

  • The case is partially settled and the plaintiff agrees to drop it in exchange for a total settlement. But the plaintiff will file a new claim in court if the defendant does not keep their agreement.
  • The defendant agrees to make payments so the plaintiff does not have to take them to court now. But the plaintiff will file a new claim in court if the defendant does not keep their agreement.
  • The plaintiff is not ready to go to court because he or she has not been able to serve the defendant. But the plaintiff will file a new claim in court if he or she finds the defendant.

Caution: Keep in mind the Statutes of Limitations for your type of case. If you may run out of time to re-file before the defendant(s) makes the payments, do not have your case dismissed at all. Continue with your case if you can.

The names and addresses of the two people,If you DO settle your dispute, write down what was agreed to. Include:

  • A brief description of the “what,” “when” and “where” of the dispute that has been resolved,
  • A statement of what the person giving up a claim is getting in return,
  • The date the agreement is being signed, and
  • The signatures of everyone involved.

Make sure everyone has a copy of the agreement, and keep your copy of the agreement in a safe place.

To ask the court to dismiss the case without prejudice

At least 5 days before your hearing date:

Step 1. Get and fill in your court forms.

To dismiss a case without prejudice, use:

  • Request for Dismissal (Form CIV-110)

At the same time, get a copy of the:

  • Notice of Entry of Dismissal and Proof of Service (CIV-120)

In the Request for Dismissal box, check Other and write in Small Claims case.

For the Request for Dismissal (Form CIV-110):

  • In No. 1 -- “TO THE CLERK: Please dismiss this action as follows:”
    • Check a. (2) Without prejudice
    • Check b. (2) if you are the plaintiff.
    • Check b. (3) if you are the defendant and filed a cross-complaint. Fill in your name and the date you filed the cross-complaint.
    • Write the date you are filling out the form.
    • Print your name, and sign the line for (signature).
  • In No. 2 -- “TO THE CLERK: Consent to the above dismissal is hereby given:”
    • Leave blank if you are the plaintiff.
    • Fill in if you are the defendant, you filed a counter-claim and are agreeing to the dismissal of both your claim and theirs.
  • The clerk will fill in the bottom potion of the form.

Make copies of Form CIV-110 – 1 copy for your files and one copy for each of the other parties in the case who have been served. (The court will keep the original.)

For the Notice of Entry of Dismissal and Proof of Service (Form CIV-120):

Fill in the top section.
Do not fill in the Proof of Service section

Step 2. File the Forms CIV-110 and CIV-120.

Mail or take the Forms CIV-110 and CIV-120 to the courthouse. A clerk will put the originals in the case file, then stamp the photocopies and return them to the person doing the filing. (If you file your papers by mail, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the court can mail the copies back to you.)

IMPORTANT: If the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-100) has been served on the defendant (or if a defendant has filed a counter-claim), then follow Steps 4 and 5.

If the defendant has not been served with the Plaintiff’s Claim, then you do not have to send him or her a copy of your request to dismiss the case.

Step 3. Inform the other side. (service of process)

  • Attach a filed (stamped) copy of Form CIV-110 to a Form CIV-120
  • Have an adult, other than you, mail a copy of the two forms to each person or business involved in the case.

Step 4. Inform the court that the copies were mailed. (proof of service)

  • Have your server complete the “Proof of Service” section at the bottom of the original CIV-120 form.
  • Either you or your server may mail or take the completed Proof of Service (on Form CIV-120) to the court clerk for filing.
    • If you file your form by mail, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the court can mail a copy back to you.

Or, at your court hearing you may ask the court to dismiss your case without prejudice. However, it is recommended that you don’t wait until the hearing, if you don’t have to.

1. For Military Personnel
A plaintiff is not required to personally appear, if:

  1. He or she is serving on active duty in the United States Armed Forces outside of the State of California,
  2. He or she was assigned to his or her duty station after the claim arose,
  3. The assignment is for more than six months,
  4. The representative is serving without payment, and
  5. The representative has appeared in small claims cases on behalf of others no more than four times during the calendar year.

You may submit declarations to serve as evidence supporting your claim. Or, you may allow another individual to appear on your behalf. For example, your parent or spouse may appear in court for you.

2. For People in Jail
A person in a county jail, a Department of Corrections facility, or a Youth Authority facility is not required to personally appear. He or she may submit declarations to serve as evidence supporting his or her claim. Or, the person may authorize another individual to appear on his or her behalf. The person making the appearance must serve without payment. He or she cannot have appeared in small claims cases on behalf of others more than four times during the calendar year.

3. For Non-resident Owner of Real Estate (defendant only)
A defendant who is a nonresident owner of real property may defend against a claim relating to that property without personally appearing by:

  1. Submitting written declarations to serve as evidence supporting his or her defense,
  2. Allowing another individual to appear and participate on his or her behalf if that individual is serving without payment and has appeared in small claims cases on behalf of others no more than four times during the calendar year.

If you could attend a court hearing but the date scheduled is one that you can’t make, you may ask for the court to change the date. This is called asking for a “continuance."

California Rules of Court, Rule 1.100 allows lawyers, parties, witnesses, jurors, or other people with a disability to make confidential requests for accommodations from the court.

If you have a disability (as defined by the Americans with Disability Act) and would like to request an accommodation, you may fill out a:

  • Request for Accommodations by Persons With Disabilities and Response (Form MC-410)
    See the instructions for this form.
  • You can also make a request for an accommodation by writing a short letter to the court OR
  • You can go to the court, ask a clerk for the form, fill it out, and return it to the clerk that same day.

Requests can be made at any time, although you should give the court at least 5 court days’ notice if possible.

If you, the plaintiff, did not appear at the hearing, the court probably dismissed your case without prejudice. You will have to start your case all over again.

If you, the defendant, did not appear at the hearing, the court probably entered a default judgment against you. This means you lost the case.

If you had a very good reason why you did not show up, you may ask the court to cancel (called “vacate”) this judgment and hold another hearing. (See California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 116.730)

  • If you, the defendant, were properly served and did not appear, you have 30 days to file this request. (The 30 days are from the date the court clerk mailed the Notice of Entry of Judgment, Form SC-130, to you.)
  • If you, the defendant, were improperly served (for example, the plaintiff had an incorrect name for you) and you did not appear, you have 180 days to file this request. (The 180 days are from the date you knew – or should have known – that the judgment was entered against you.)

Learn how to ask the court to cancel the default judgment and hold another hearing.

At the new hearing, the judge will decide whether to cancel the judgment or not.

  • You will need to bring proof that you had a very good reason to not go to the first hearing (for example, a letter from a doctor or a hospital bill to prove that you were in the hospital and could not attend).

IF the judge decides to cancel the judgment, he or she may immediately hold a new hearing. Be prepared to defend your case.

  • Bring evidence or witnesses you need to prove your case.
  • Be prepared to tell your side of the story.

IF the judge decides NOT to cancel the judgment, it is possible to for you to appeal this decision.

  • You have 10 days to file an appeal.

If you, the defendant, did not appear at the hearing, the court probably entered a default judgment against you. This means you lost the case.

If you had a very good reason why you did not show up, you may ask the court to cancel (called “vacate”) this judgment and hold another hearing. (See California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 116.730)

  • If you were properly served and did not appear, you have 30 days to file this request. (The 30 days are from the date the court clerk mailed the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) to you.)
  • If you were improperly served (for example, the plaintiff had an incorrect name for the defendant) and did not appear, you have 180 days to file this request. (The 180 days are from the date you knew – or should have known – that the judgment was entered against you.)

To ask the court to cancel the default judgment

Step 1. Get and fill out your court form:

  • Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment and Declaration (Small Claims) (Form SC-135)

You must have a good reason for not going to the trial hearing. If you have documents that prove you had a good reason, such as a letter from a doctor or a hospital bill, attach a photocopy of the document to the Form SC-135. (Take the originals with you to the hearing.)

Make copies of Form SC-135 – one copy for your files and one copy for each other person or business involved in the case. (The court will keep the original.)

Step 2. File the form.

Mail or take Form SC-135, with any attachments, to the courthouse. A clerk will put the original in the case file and stamp the copies. (If you file your papers by mail, be sure to include the filing fee and a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the court can mail the copy back to you.)

The court will set a date for a hearing on your motion and will mail a notice of the hearing to both sides. The hearing will be set for at least 10 days after you filed.

At the new hearing, the judge will decide whether to cancel the judgment or not.
You, the defendant, will need to bring proof that you had a very good reason to not go to the first hearing (for example, a letter from a doctor or a hospital bill to proved that you were in the hospital and could not attend).

IF the judge decides to cancel the judgment, he or she may immediately hold a new trial. Both sides need to be prepared to defend his or her case.

  • Bring evidence or witnesses you need to prove your case.
  • Be prepared to tell your side of the story.

IF the judge decides NOT to cancel the judgment, it is possible to for the defendant to appeal this decision.

  • The defendant has 10 days to file an appeal.

Either the plaintiff or defendant may ask the judge to correct a clerical error, or to cancel the judgment in their case because of a wrong or incorrect “legal basis for the decision.” (See California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 116.725)

You must file your request (called a “motion”) within 30 days after the clerk mails you the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130).

To Make a Motion to Correct or Cancel the Judgment

Step 1. Get and fill out two court forms:

  • Request to Correct or Cancel Judgment and Answer (Small Claims) (Form SC-108)
    • For the Request to Correct (Form SC-108), fill out the form completely.
  • Order on Request to Correct or Cancel Judgment (Small Claims) (Form SC-108A)
    • For the Order on Request (Form 108A) only fill in the case number, case name, and the information about the parties – including addresses. For “Attorney” write “self.” The court will fill in the rest.

If you are claiming that the judge applied the wrong law or interpreted the law wrong then you may want to get a copy of the recording of the hearing to know exactly what the judge said. Ask the court for a recording of the hearing on compact disk. There will be a charge of $25. It usually takes the court about 2 weeks to make a copy and mail it to you.Make copies of Form SC-108 – one copy for your files and one copy for each other person or business involved in the case. (The court will keep the original.)

Step 2. File both forms with the court.

Mail or take Form SC-108 and Form SC-108A to the courthouse. A clerk will put the originals in the case file, and stamp the copies. (If you file your papers by mail, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the court can mail the copy back to you.)

Step 3. The clerk will send a copy to the other side.

The other side has the opportunity to respond to your request.
The judge will review your request and decide whether or not to cancel or correct the judgment by reading your Form SC-108 and any response the other side made.

The court may hold a hearing on your request. If there is a hearing, be prepared to present your case again at that time.

The court’s decision on your request will be mailed to you on the Order to Correct or Cancel the Judgment, Form SC-108A.

Defendants may file an appeal at the same time, in case his or her request to cancel the judgment is not granted.

Plaintiff: If you are the plaintiff and you lost your small claims case, you cannot appeal the court’s decision. (See California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 116.710)

  • But, if the defendant filed a counterclaim against you, and you lost that counterclaim, you may file an appeal on that counterclaim.

Defendant: If you are the defendant, attended the hearing and lost the case, you may appeal the judgment. (The defendant's insurance company can also file an appeal if it's asked to pay more than $2,500.)

NOTE 1: The defendant (or his or her insurance company) must ask for an appeal within 30 days of the day the court mailed out the Notice of Entry of Judgment.

NOTE 2: You will need to file a Notice of Appeal (Small Claims) (Form SC-140) with the court.

In small claims, an appeal is a hearing of the whole case again, held in Superior Court in front of a different judge.

At the appellate hearing, the new judge will hear the case from the beginning. Each side will be expected to tell his or her side of the story again.

  • You may use all of the same evidence as you used before, or you may change the evidence if you think it will present a stronger case. This might include witnesses, documents, items, etc.

At the end of the trial, the judge will make a decision about the case.

  • He or she may agree with the decision of the first judge, that the plaintiff should win the case, or that the defendant should win less or more, OR
  • He or she may overturn the decision of the first judge, and decide that the defendant should win the case.

Once an appeal has been decided, the parties cannot file a second appeal of the case.

At the end of the last court hearing in the case, the judge will make a decision about who should pay how much money to whom.

  • The person who won the case is now called the “judgment creditor.”
  • The person who lost the case is now called the “judgment debtor.”

It is up to the person who won the case – the creditor – to collect the money from the debtor. The court will not collect the money.

Normally, the person who lost the case simply pays the money owed. The creditor then files an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (at the end of Form SC-130 or Form EJ-100) and that is the end of the case.

However, if the judgment debtor does not pay the money owed right away, the court can be asked to issue orders and other documents required to force the debtor to pay. These could include:

The judgment creditor can also:

To learn how to take these steps, please go to the section on Collection of Judgment.

After the trial hearing, the court clerk will mail the plaintiff and the defendant a Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130), which states that the small claims case has been decided – and who won and lost.

NOTE: The person who won the case is now called the “judgment creditor.”
The person who lost the case is now called the “judgment debtor.”

The judgment debtor has 30 DAYS from the date the Notice of Entry of Judgment was mailed to:

  • Pay the judgment,
  • File an appeal of the judgment (if the defendant appeared at the trial).
    • If the judgment creditor wins the appeal, the payment is due immediately.
  • File a motion to vacate (cancel) the judgment (if the defendant did not appear at the trial).
    • If the defendant was not properly served and did not appear at the trial, he or she has 180 days to file a motion to vacate the judgment.
  • Or complete and mail directly to the judgment creditor a Judgment Debtor’s Statement of Assets (Form SC-133). This form has information about the debtor’s property, including what it is, where it’s located, and who has it. (The debtor does not send Form SC-133 to the court.)

NOTE: If the court made a conditional judgment, the Notice of Entry of Judgment will say what the defendant has to do (or not do) by the stated date
or pay the amount of money specified.

If the debtor does not do any of the above, the creditor must go to court to ask it to issue orders and other documents required to force the debtor to pay. These could include:

The judgment creditor can also:

To learn how to take these steps, please go to the section on Collection of Judgment

NOTE: Ten percent (10%) interest per year can be added to the judgment amount from the day it is entered in court until it is paid in full. If partial payments are made, those payments are first applied to the accrued interest and then to the unpaid principal.
(See California Code of Civil Procedure, Sections 685.010 to 685.030)

Basically, the creditor can pursue the debtor as long as it takes to get the judgment paid.

1. Judgments are enforceable for 10 years from the date of entry of judgment.
(See California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 683.020)

If the judgment is paid in installments, the 10 years run after each installment is due.
(See California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 683.030)

2. The judgment may be renewed for another 10 years, and then is renewable after that.

TIP: Renew the judgment at least six (6) months before the 10 years run out. You may need several months to locate the debtor, etc.

3. Once a judgment’s been renewed, it can’t be renewed again until 5 years later.

NOTE: When the judgment is renewed, the interest that has accrued will be added to the principal amount owing. From that point on, the judgment creditor is entitled to interest on the accrued interest.

Learn how to compute the interest due on the unpaid portion of the judgment.

If you are the judgment creditor, you may not need to know the debtor's location if, for example, you know the bank branch where the debtor has his or her accounts.

On the other hand, you may need to do a debtor's examination at the courthouse. If you need to do a debtor's examination, you will need to fill out form SC-134, which must be personally served by a process server or sheriff/marshal. You have to know where the debtor can be found so you can tell the process server where to look.

Some ways to try to locate the debtor:

  • Use the Internet and its search tools: white pages, reverse look-up, etc.
  • Check with the county assessor to see if the debtor, debtor's spouse, or the debtor's domestic partner owns real property. Some county assessors will confirm if a debtor owns real property over the phone. Find a local tax assessor.
  • Search the county clerk's records to find if the person has a fictitious business name statement on file with an address.
  • Check with the court to see if there are any other lawsuits filed against the debtor, the debtor's spouse, or the debtor's domestic partner and see if an address is listed in that file.

YES. The credit reporting bureaus will know the debtor has a judgment against him or her because the debtor's name will appear on the court's "Judgment Roll," and this is a public record.

The credit reporting bureaus get the information from each courthouse for their records. The court does not provide the information to the bureaus specifically.

When the judgment debt has been paid in full, the debtor can go to court to update his or her credit history.

Ten percent (10%) interest per year can be added to the judgment amount from the day it is entered in court until it is paid in full. If partial payments are made, those payments are first applied to the accrued interest and then to the unpaid principal. (See California Code of Civil Procedure, Sections 685.010 to 685.030)

To calculate 10% interest on the judgment debt owed

1. Figure out the amount of interest that can be charged a day.

Formula: Judgment amount owed x .10 = interest per year
Interest per year ÷ 365 (days) = amount of daily interest

Or, said another way:

Take the amount of judgment owed
Multiply it by 10% (or 0.10)
Divide that number by 365 days (1 year)

The result is the amount of interest that can be charged a day.

Example: Let’s say the judgment debtor owes the judgment creditor $5,000.00 (called ‘the principal’) on the judgment.

$5,000.00 x 0.10 = $500.00
$500.00 ÷ 365 = $1.37 a day

The interest will be $1.37 a day as long as the unpaid amount remains $5,000.00.

2. Figure out the amount of interest owed on the day the judgment debtor pays the debt.

Formula for a lump-sum payment:

Multiply the number of days that have passed since the day the court entered the final judgment to the day of payment x amount of daily interest = amount of interest owed on day of payment.

Or, said another way:

Figure out the number of days that have passed since the court entered the final judgment up to the day of payment.

Multiply the days by the amount of daily interest you figured out.
The result is the amount of interest owing on the day of payment.

Example: In the above example, if the judgment debtor owes the judgment creditor $5,000.00:

The interest owed is $1.37 a day
If 72 days have passed since the final judgment, then
$1.37 per day X 72 days = $98.64

The judgment debtor owes $98.64 in interest on the principal of $5,000.00.

3. Add the amount of interest due on the day the judgment debtor pays the judgment debt to the original judgment debt owed.

Example: Let’s say the judgment debtor is ready to pay $5,000.00 to the judgment creditor 72 days after the final judgment.

$98.64 interest + $5,000.00 debt = $5,098.64.

The judgment debtor owes a total of $5,098.64 on the 72nd day after the court entered the judgment.

To calculate 10% interest on installment payments

Often a judgment debtor will pay all of the money they owe, but not all at the same time. In this case, the installment payments the debtor made are applied to the interest first and then to the judgment debt (the principal) owed.

Example: After 145 days, the judgment debtor pays $400.00 on the judgment debt of $5,000.00.

1: Figure out the amount of interest that can be charged.

After 145 days, $198.65 in interest (145 days x $1.37 per day) will have accumulated on the $5,000.00 judgment.

2: Subtract the interest owed from the debtor’s payment.

The $198.65 interest is paid first. That leaves a $201.35 payment toward the $5,000.00 debt. ($400 - $198.65 = $201.35).

3: Subtract the remainder of the debtor’s payment from the total debt owed.

Now credit the remaining $201.35 against the $5,000.00 judgment ($5,000.00 - $201.35 = $4,798.65 of unpaid judgment).
The judgment debtor now owes $4,798.65 on the judgment.

4: Figure out the new amount of interest that can be charged.

The new daily interest will then accumulate at a rate of $1.31/day ($4,798.65 x 10% = $479.86 ÷ 365).

Assume then, that 215 days later, a $1,700.00 payment is made.

During the 215 days, $281.65 (215 days x $1.31/day) of interest will have accumulated.

Out of the $1,700.00 received, pay the accumulated interest first ($1,700.00 - $281.65 = $1,418.35) leaving $1,418.35 to apply to unpaid judgment principal.

Now credit the $1,418.35 against the remaining judgment principal of $4,798.65, and we find that $3,380.30 remains unpaid.

The new daily interest will then accumulate at a rate of $0.93/day ($3,380.30 x 10% = $338.03 ÷ 365).

Repeat these calculations until you are completely paid.

The judgment debtor may sue the judgment creditor for losses suffered because the creditor did not file an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (SC-130 or EJ-100) on time. The claim may include the losses suffered as well as a $50.00 penalty. (See California Code of Civil Procedure, Section 116.850(b))

NOTE: In order to collect the penalty and damages, the debtor will have to file a new claim in small claims court.