If you decide to file a claim in a California small claims court, be prepared to spend some time getting ready for and attending your hearing, which is also referred to as your trial. You will need time to prepare for your hearing, gather evidence, meet with witnesses and attend the hearing in person.
A plaintiff is the person, business or public entity that initiates a lawsuit by filing a claim to sue another but the defendant who is being sued may also file a claim in the same lawsuit.
A plaintiff's first step is to find the right court. Each county in California has a small claims court. The plaintiff will have to find out which county's small claims court is the right court for their claim. Click here for help finding the right court. The court may dismiss the case if it's brought in the wrong court.
Next, the plaintiff needs to fill out and file the appropriate court forms, which are the papers that tell the court and the person, business or public entity being sued about the plaintiff's claim. The plaintiff may ask the court clerk for assistance with filing their papers with the court. Some courts have local rules for filing and some of those rules require special cover sheets or local forms.
The court clerk is the official record keeper of the courthouse. The clerk will:
- Know the hours of the court
- Explain how to find the correct courtroom
- File papers with the court
- Collect filing fees
- Help you find court forms
- Check forms for completeness
- Help you find the local court rules
- Know about places where claimant can go to talk to a lawyer
- Know court schedules and deadlines
Time Limit for Filing Claim
A plaintiff will have up to the following number of years to file a claim after the incident occurred:
- Six months if suing a state or local government agency
- Two years if suing because of a physical injury
- Two years if suing because a spoken agreement was broken
- Three years if suing because of property damage
- Three years after discovery of fraud if suing because of fraud, which is when you lose money because someone lied to you or tricked you on purpose
- Four years if you're suing because a written agreement was broken
A defendant may decide to sue the plaintiff. To do this a defendant files a claim in the same lawsuit. This helps to resolve all of the disagreements between the parties at the same time. An individual defendant may sue for a maximum of $7,500. A business or entity may sue for a maximum of $5,000.
If the value of the claim is more than this amount, the defendant may either give up the amount over $7,500 or $5,000, whichever is applicable, and sue in the small claims court or file a motion to transfer the case to the appropriate court for the full value of the claim.
Both the plaintiff's and the defendant's claims will be heard by the court at the same time.
The fee for filing in small claims court depends on the amount of the claim:
- If your claim is from $0 to $1500 then your filing fee is $30
- If your claim is from $1500.01 to $5,000 then your filing fee is $50
- If your claim is from $5000.01 to $7,500 then your filing fee is $75
- If you have filed more than 12 claims in the past 12 months, the filing fee is $100 for any claim amount
After the clerk of court files your claim, the other party must receive a copy of your court papers. This procedure is called service and it lets the defendant or plaintiff know:
- What you're asking for
- When and where the hearing will be
- What you can do
You must have someone else who is at least 18 years old give each defendant or plaintiff, if it's a defendant's claim, a court-stamped copy of the claim. There are three different ways to serve someone:
- Personal service
- Substituted service
- Service by certified mail by the court clerk
Visit the Serve Your Claim section of the California Courts Self-Help Center to learn more about each type of service and when the claim must be served.
Visit the Fill Out Your Forms section of the California Courts Self-Help Center to get the right forms.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What is "service" and how is it done?
- Can an attorney assist me with filling out my claim forms?
- Do I have to appear in court and what happens if I can't make it?