How to file your small claims case in court

Almost any dispute can be taken to small claims court, provided the amount of money requested falls within the maximum allowed by California law.

by Jessica Zimmer
updated September 03, 2020 · 4 min read

How to file your small claims case in court

With almost 4,000 small claims filed each day in the Los Angeles area alone, small claims court is a well-used legal tool in California. Designed with the average citizen in mind, the court lets everyday people resolve their disputes quickly, easily and, best of all, inexpensively.

The most common types of small claims suits are:

  • Property damage
  • Creach of contract and business disputes
  • Defective product or unsatisfactory service
  • Landlord-tenant disputes, fraud, accidents and personal injury, and unpaid debts

If you have one of these problems, you’re having a hard time resolving, small claims court might be your perfect avenue.

Understanding Small Claims Court in California

Small claims court handles cases that involve disputes over money or property, usually below a set financial limit. In California, an individual can collect up to $7,500 in small claims court, while corporations and limited liability companies are still limited to $5,000. Keep in mind that the cost of hiring an attorney and spending time in civil court can quickly exceed such limits. Alternatively, filing a small claims case can offer a more accessible solution for resolving disputes at far lower cost.

The process is simple. Small claims cases are heard in a separate division of county civil courts. Both sides, the plaintiff and the defendant, present their case to a judge or court-appointed official. This judge in turn weighs the evidence and makes a decision. The whole process in court can be over in a matter of minutes.

Attorneys in many states, including California, are banned from these court proceedings.

Statutes of Limitation

In many states, the time limit on filing, otherwise known as the statute of limitations, will depend on the type of claim. For example, in California, you have four years to make a claim on a written contract, and three years to file for property damage. The statute of limitations on oral contracts and personal injury is a little shorter. If you don’t sue within two years, you can’t.

How to File a Small Claim in California

First of all, put everything in writing. You should include the who, the what, the where, the when and the why of your case and get ready to go to court.

Step One: Filing the Paperwork

Go to your county clerk’s office and let them know you’d like to file a small claim. The clerk’s office will give you paperwork to fill out with basic information for your case: your name (the plaintiff), the name of the person or business you’re suing (the defendant) and the amount you’re asking for. Make sure you have the correct name and address of the defendant. If any contact information is incorrect, your case may be dismissed. Be sure to keep copies of your paperwork for your records.

Next, you’ll need to pay court fees. Fees for filing a small claim vary by county in California, but it is typically around $80.

Step Two: Serving the Papers

Once you have filed your claim with the court, you need to notify the defendant that they are being sued. This is called “service of process.” There are rules governing who can serve the defendant. Your options are certified mail, using the sheriff, or hiring a private process server. After your claim is filed and served on the defendant, the court begins processing your claim. Only after your opponent is successfully served will the court set a pre-trial hearing or trial date.

Step Three: Going to Court

Many courts require that both parties attend a pre-trial hearing. At the pre-trial hearing, you can only bring documents, not witnesses, to prove your case. At a pre-trial hearing, you and your opponent can choose to have your case heard by a mediator, instead of going to trial.

If you go to trial, both you and your opponent will have a chance to speak before the judge or court-appointed official. Only at this point can you call witnesses. However, calling witnesses requires additional service fees and serving them with a subpoena well in advance.

Step Four: The Final Judgment

The judge enters a final judgment after both sides have presented their arguments. The plaintiff typically has to prove that he or she is entitled to the amount of money or property requested.

The defendant can appeal the judgment if he or she chooses. Unlike the small claims suit, the appeal must be tried in a more formal manner that strictly follows all the rules of evidence and procedure. You usually need a lawyer to represent you in an appeal.

Step Five: Collecting Your Judgment

The court will enter a judgment stating how much the losing party has to pay. While many people don’t realize it, the court simply makes the judgment; it does not collect payment for you.

Ideally, the judgment debtor (person who owes money) will pay immediately. If your opponent refuses to pay, you have additional legal tools available to you. Wage garnishment allows you to collect a portion of the debtor’s paycheck, and property liens prevent debtors from selling their property without paying you.

While court judgments have become increasingly easy to collect in recent years, few people with legitimate grievances actually pursue remedies through the courts. In small claims court, there are no attorneys, no jury, and any mentally competent person who is 18 years or older can sue. There are very specific court document and filing requirements, however, and that’s where many people hesitate to use the system to their advantage.

Landlord/tenant rent deposit disputes, property damage, car accidents and recovery of money owed are the most common reasons people file small claims suits. Apart from a few restrictions, almost any dispute can be taken to small claims court, provided the amount of money requested falls within the maximum allowed by state law.

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  5. Small Claims Court

How to file your small claims case in court

Each district court in the State of Washington contains a “Small Claims” division for the settlement of civil disputes in which damages claimed total less than $10,000. Small Claims Court was established to provide a low-cost, user-friendly alternative to litigation.

The following information was taken from the Small Claims Court Guide produced by the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts. This guide is designed to answer only basic questions regarding the use of small claims court. Employees of the Attorney General’s Office are forbidden from interpreting the law or providing information that could be interpreted as legal advice to any individual that is not representing a state government agency, board, or commission.

For more detailed information regarding jurisdiction, court rules, or filing procedures please review Chapters 3.66, 4.16, 4.28, and 12.40 of the Revised Code of Washington. If you should have any additional questions, please contact your county district court small claims division.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who Can Sue And Be Sued?
Any individual, business, partnership or corporation (with a few exceptions) may bring a small claims action only to recover money; a “natural person,” meaning a human being, may file a claim up to $10,000; the limit is $5,000 in all other cases. In general, the claim must be filed in the district court of the county in which the defendant(s) reside. Exceptions and specific rules can be found at RCW 3.66.040. The State of Washington may not be sued in Small Claims Court. Unless a judge grants permission, Attorneys and paralegals are excluded from appearing or participating with the plaintiff or defendant in a small claims suit.

How Much Does It Cost?
You must pay the court clerk a filing fee at the time the suit is filed. The filing fee will be either $35 or $50 depending on whether the county in which you file the lawsuit supports a dispute resolution center. You may have some additional fees payable to the sheriff or process server to have the Notice of Small Claims served on the defendant. As an alternative, you may serve notice on the defendant by registered or certified, return receipt mailing. If you win your case, you are entitled to recover your costs of filing and service fees.

How Do I Get Started?
Contact your local district court; contact information may be located in your local phone book or at www.courts.wa.gov. First you will prepare a Notice of Small Claim form that is provided by the clerk. You are required to sign the Notice in the presence of the clerk, unless otherwise instructed by the court. On the Notice form a hearing date, trial date, or response date will be entered by the clerk. It is the plaintiff’s responsibility to accurately identify the defendant, provide a proper address and, if possible, provide a phone number.

How Long Do I Have To File My Case?
Time limits range from one (1) to ten (10) years. See Chapter 4.16 RCW to determine which time limit applies to your type of case.

Serving the Notice
The clerk will assist you with forms and general information about the process. The clerk is not allowed to give legal advice. Service of the claim form can be accomplished by any of the following:

  1. The Sheriff’s Office;
  2. A process server;
  3. Any person of legal age (18) who is not connected with the case either as a witness or as a party; or
  4. By mailing the copies to the defendant by registered or certified mail with a return receipt requested.

The Notice of Small Claim must be served on the defendant not less than ten (10) days before the first hearing. A return of service, or mail return receipt bearing the defendant’s signature, must be filed at or before the time of the first hearing. You cannot personally serve the claim. See RCW Chapters 4.28 and 12.40, and CRLJ 5 for more detailed information.

What If We Settle?
In most cases, neither party is one hundred percent right or wrong. You are encouraged to try to settle your case before trial. If you settle the dispute before the hearing, you must inform the court so the hearing can be canceled and your case dismissed. If the other party agrees to pay at a later date, you may ask the court for a continuance. If the other party pays before the postponed date, ask the court to cancel the hearing. If you do not receive your money by the time of the continued hearing, proceed with the case in court. If you drop the suit, your filing fee and service costs are not returned.

How Do I Collect My Money?

Once the judgment is issued, the clerk will enter it into the civil docket of the court and will provide a certified copy of the judgment to the prevailing party for no additional cost. A money judgment in your favor does not necessarily mean that the money will be paid. The Small Claims Court does not collect the judgment for you. If the debtor does not pay right away, the court may order a payment plan. If the losing party fails to pay, the judgment shall be increased by amounts intended to cover the cost of enforcing the judgment.

If no appeal is taken and the judgment is not paid within 30 days, or in the time set in a mediation agreement or payment plan, the prevailing party may seek to enforce the judgment through the collections process, which could include garnishing the defendant’s wages or bank accounts; or seeking to obtain personal property of the debtor.

Remember, the clerks cannot give you legal advice so you may need the assistance of an attorney or collection agency, whose fees may be paid by the debtor.

Can You Appeal A Case If You Lose?

Either party may appeal a judgment when the judge has decided against them. However, no appeal is permitted if the amount originally claimed was less than $250. Also, if a party who brought a claim or counterclaim wants to appeal a judgment, the amount originally claimed must have exceeded $1,000. If a party loses a default judgment, an appeal may be taken under the district court rules for setting aside default judgments. A party who appeals a judgment is required to follow the procedures set out in chapter 12.36 RCW. The party who wants to appeal must take the following steps within 30 days of the entry of judgment: 1. File a written Notice of Appeal with the district court. 2. Serve a copy of that Notice on the other parties. 3. Pay the district court a $20 transcript fee. 4. Deposit at the district court the $230 superior court filing fee either in cash, money order or cashier’s check payable to the Clerk of the Superior Court, and pay a $40 appeal preparation processing fee to the district court. 5. Post a cash or surety bond in a sum equal to twice the amount of the judgment and costs or twice the amount in controversy, whichever is greater, at the district court. When the appeal and bond are transferred to superior court, the appellant (person appealing the decision) may request that the superior court suspend enforcement of the judgment in the district court until after the appeal is heard. Within 14 days of filing the Notice of Appeal, the district court clerk will transmit the court record to the superior court clerk. All further proceedings will be in the superior court.

  1. Home
  2. Serve The People
  3. Safeguarding Consumers
  4. Consumer Issues A-Z
  5. Small Claims Court

How to file your small claims case in court

Each district court in the State of Washington contains a “Small Claims” division for the settlement of civil disputes in which damages claimed total less than $10,000. Small Claims Court was established to provide a low-cost, user-friendly alternative to litigation.

The following information was taken from the Small Claims Court Guide produced by the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts. This guide is designed to answer only basic questions regarding the use of small claims court. Employees of the Attorney General’s Office are forbidden from interpreting the law or providing information that could be interpreted as legal advice to any individual that is not representing a state government agency, board, or commission.

For more detailed information regarding jurisdiction, court rules, or filing procedures please review Chapters 3.66, 4.16, 4.28, and 12.40 of the Revised Code of Washington. If you should have any additional questions, please contact your county district court small claims division.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who Can Sue And Be Sued?
Any individual, business, partnership or corporation (with a few exceptions) may bring a small claims action only to recover money; a “natural person,” meaning a human being, may file a claim up to $10,000; the limit is $5,000 in all other cases. In general, the claim must be filed in the district court of the county in which the defendant(s) reside. Exceptions and specific rules can be found at RCW 3.66.040. The State of Washington may not be sued in Small Claims Court. Unless a judge grants permission, Attorneys and paralegals are excluded from appearing or participating with the plaintiff or defendant in a small claims suit.

How Much Does It Cost?
You must pay the court clerk a filing fee at the time the suit is filed. The filing fee will be either $35 or $50 depending on whether the county in which you file the lawsuit supports a dispute resolution center. You may have some additional fees payable to the sheriff or process server to have the Notice of Small Claims served on the defendant. As an alternative, you may serve notice on the defendant by registered or certified, return receipt mailing. If you win your case, you are entitled to recover your costs of filing and service fees.

How Do I Get Started?
Contact your local district court; contact information may be located in your local phone book or at www.courts.wa.gov. First you will prepare a Notice of Small Claim form that is provided by the clerk. You are required to sign the Notice in the presence of the clerk, unless otherwise instructed by the court. On the Notice form a hearing date, trial date, or response date will be entered by the clerk. It is the plaintiff’s responsibility to accurately identify the defendant, provide a proper address and, if possible, provide a phone number.

How Long Do I Have To File My Case?
Time limits range from one (1) to ten (10) years. See Chapter 4.16 RCW to determine which time limit applies to your type of case.

Serving the Notice
The clerk will assist you with forms and general information about the process. The clerk is not allowed to give legal advice. Service of the claim form can be accomplished by any of the following:

  1. The Sheriff’s Office;
  2. A process server;
  3. Any person of legal age (18) who is not connected with the case either as a witness or as a party; or
  4. By mailing the copies to the defendant by registered or certified mail with a return receipt requested.

The Notice of Small Claim must be served on the defendant not less than ten (10) days before the first hearing. A return of service, or mail return receipt bearing the defendant’s signature, must be filed at or before the time of the first hearing. You cannot personally serve the claim. See RCW Chapters 4.28 and 12.40, and CRLJ 5 for more detailed information.

What If We Settle?
In most cases, neither party is one hundred percent right or wrong. You are encouraged to try to settle your case before trial. If you settle the dispute before the hearing, you must inform the court so the hearing can be canceled and your case dismissed. If the other party agrees to pay at a later date, you may ask the court for a continuance. If the other party pays before the postponed date, ask the court to cancel the hearing. If you do not receive your money by the time of the continued hearing, proceed with the case in court. If you drop the suit, your filing fee and service costs are not returned.

How Do I Collect My Money?

Once the judgment is issued, the clerk will enter it into the civil docket of the court and will provide a certified copy of the judgment to the prevailing party for no additional cost. A money judgment in your favor does not necessarily mean that the money will be paid. The Small Claims Court does not collect the judgment for you. If the debtor does not pay right away, the court may order a payment plan. If the losing party fails to pay, the judgment shall be increased by amounts intended to cover the cost of enforcing the judgment.

If no appeal is taken and the judgment is not paid within 30 days, or in the time set in a mediation agreement or payment plan, the prevailing party may seek to enforce the judgment through the collections process, which could include garnishing the defendant’s wages or bank accounts; or seeking to obtain personal property of the debtor.

Remember, the clerks cannot give you legal advice so you may need the assistance of an attorney or collection agency, whose fees may be paid by the debtor.

Can You Appeal A Case If You Lose?

Either party may appeal a judgment when the judge has decided against them. However, no appeal is permitted if the amount originally claimed was less than $250. Also, if a party who brought a claim or counterclaim wants to appeal a judgment, the amount originally claimed must have exceeded $1,000. If a party loses a default judgment, an appeal may be taken under the district court rules for setting aside default judgments. A party who appeals a judgment is required to follow the procedures set out in chapter 12.36 RCW. The party who wants to appeal must take the following steps within 30 days of the entry of judgment: 1. File a written Notice of Appeal with the district court. 2. Serve a copy of that Notice on the other parties. 3. Pay the district court a $20 transcript fee. 4. Deposit at the district court the $230 superior court filing fee either in cash, money order or cashier’s check payable to the Clerk of the Superior Court, and pay a $40 appeal preparation processing fee to the district court. 5. Post a cash or surety bond in a sum equal to twice the amount of the judgment and costs or twice the amount in controversy, whichever is greater, at the district court. When the appeal and bond are transferred to superior court, the appellant (person appealing the decision) may request that the superior court suspend enforcement of the judgment in the district court until after the appeal is heard. Within 14 days of filing the Notice of Appeal, the district court clerk will transmit the court record to the superior court clerk. All further proceedings will be in the superior court.

For answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about small claims proceedings, please click here.

Online Resources

There are many online resources to assist parties in completing small claims forms. Here are some of the websites that can help.

  • For Judicial Council forms that can be filled in online, click here.
  • For local small claims forms, click here.
  • For access to the California Landlord Tenant Guide, click here.

Procedures

Below are step-by-step, easy to follow instructions on the procedures, from the initial filing of a small claim through the appeal process if a party is dissatisfied with the judicial officer’s ruling in the case. Due to the length of time it takes to initiate a new lawsuit, documents received in the clerk’s office after 3:30 p.m. will be time stamped with the current date and processed the following court business day. The date of filing will be the time stamped date.

Staff at Legal Self Help Center (LSHC) provide small claims advisor services to the public. They are equipped to assist parties in filing and responding to claims, provide information on procedures in these actions and help parties to adequately prepare for their court appearances.

The Legal Self Help Center offers in-person and remote services according to the following schedule:

  • In person drop-in services: 8:30 am to 12 noon, Monday through Thursday
  • Email services: 8:30 am to 3:00 pm, Monday through Friday
  • Phone hours: 8:30 am to 12 noon, Monday through Friday, and 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm Tuesday and Thursday
  • Zoom drop-In clinics: 8:30 am to 12 noon, Monday and Friday
    Zoom Link
    Meeting ID: 964 0539 3722
    Passcode: 350144

The video Resolving Your Small Claims Case in the California Courts provides information regarding the options for resolving disputes involving $10,000 or less. If someone owes you – or claims you owe them – $10,000 or less, watching this video may help.

Small Claims Court is a special type of civil proceeding which is commonly referred to as the “People’s Court” because attorneys are not allowed to represent either side. The rules are relatively simple and the hearings are less formal. Parties in small claims actions can resolve their disputes relatively quickly and inexpensively. The person who files the claim is called the plaintiff and the person being sued is called the defendant.

Plaintiffs filing in Small Claims Court cannot seek judgments of more than $10,000 for individuals and $5,000 for businesses. An individual who owns a business (e.g. sole proprietor) and does business under a fictitious business name is considered to be an “individual” in Small Claims Court. For example, a plumber doing business as ABC Plumbing who wants to sue a customer who has not paid for services may file a claim for up to $10,000 with certain exceptions. If a business is a corporation, partnership or any other type of entity than a sole proprietorship, the maximum claim amount in Small Claims Court cannot exceed $5,000.

California law states that plaintiffs may file as many claims as they like for up to $2,500 each calendar year. However, plaintiffs can only file two claims in a calendar year that seek more than $2,500 per claim.