THE SMALL CLAIMS COURT GUIDE
A step by step guide to help you resolve your dispute through small-claims court.
Confirm that you have a Claim
If you feel you have been wronged by another party, consult with an attorney to determine whether or not you have a claim, what rights you have, and how best to enforce the claim. Common claims often include an unresolved debt or breach of contract. Note that in order to file in small claims court, your total claim must be under a certain amount (i.e. $10,000 or less in Los Angeles County).
Resolution Requests & Demand Letters
Prior to filing a claim in small claims court, you should generally first seek to resolve the matter outside of court. This may include sending personal requests to the defendant and following up with legal demand letters if necessary. If the defendant is not cooperative or not responsive within a reasonable period of time, then proceeding with filing a claim may be your only remaining option.
Determine Where to File your Claim
To proceed with filing your claim, you will need to determine which court(s) have jurisdiction to hear your claim. Generally, you can file your claim in any small claims court within the county where:
- The defendant lives, or
- Events related to the dispute occurred, or
- The contract governing the dispute grants jurisdiction
Any one or more of the above are generally sufficient to grant a small claims court jurisdiction to hear your matter. Note that there are other grounds for a court to have jurisdiction if you need to explore additional options.
File Your Claim in Small Claims Court
Many counties have digital user-friendly claim forms you can file online. For example, you can file in Los Angeles County here. Generally, you will need to include:
- The name and address of the defendant
- The nature of the dispute resulting in the claim
- A calculation of the damages you are seeking
Be sure to properly identify the right defendant(s). If the nature of your claim is with a business, you may need to sue the corporation or LLC instead of the individual(s) with whom you dealt. Consult with an attorney if you need guidance.
Receive your Court Date
Once you have filed your claim, you should receive some confirmation from the court accepting your claim along with an assigned court date and time.
Serve the Defendant and File a Proof of Service
You're not done yet! Once you have received confirmation of your court-date, you will need to serve the defendant with a copy of the claim so that they have notice of the claim and when to appear in court. To serve the defendant, someone (other than you, the plaintiff), must deliver a copy of the claim to the defendant. Usually this must be done in-person unless the defendant properly waives service.
Note that this can be a challenging portion of the process if you do not know when and where to find the defendant. If that is the case, do some detective homework to figure out the best time and place to serve them.
Once the defendant has been served, whomever served the defendant will need to complete a proof of service declaring that they have served the defendant. The proof of service must be filed with the court.
There are many companies that will serve the defendant for you for a small fee, and can file the corresponding proof of service on your behalf. Serving and filing the proof of service must generally be done at least several weeks prior to your court date, so be sure to promptly commence this process as soon as you have your court date.
Organize Your Evidence
Now you've done all the leg-work to properly setup your day in court. Time to get your evidence ready and organized for the judge. Generally, you should succinctly compile all documents you have access to which support your claim, and organize them with identifying cover pages, highlights, or notes so that judge can easily follow the evidence to your victory. Supporting evidence may include:
- The relevant contract(s)
- Written communication between you and the defendant regarding the claim, which can include events leading up to the dispute, along with resolution requests and any demand letters
- Other documents related to the claim that support your case
Note that the more concisely you can present your evidence, the better. The judge may only briefly review the documents you provide, so if you hand over a huge stack of paper, the judge may not be able to identify the evidence they need to grant you the judgment. If you haven't consulted with an attorney yet, this is a good stage to work with an attorney to properly compile and organize your evidence.
Appear in Court
You generally need to personally appear for the court date and cannot have legal counsel appear on your behalf unless you are filing your claim on behalf of your corporation or LLC.
On your day in court, be sure to show up early with adequate time to navigate incidentals like finding parking, getting through a long line of security, and finding your court room. Once you have arrived, you can expect to wait in the court room with a large number of other claimants, and you may sit for several hours hearing other claims.
During this time, the court may offer an opportunity for you and the defendant to meet with a mediator to resolve your claim independently. If you choose not to, or if no resolution is reached, then when it's your turn the judge will review your evidence, and they may or may not ask you any questions. If the defendant does not appear at the court date, the Judge can still issue a default judgement against the defendant.
After reviewing your evidence, the Judge may announce or silently write down the ruling to be mailed to you privately.
Receive the Judgment
Within a few weeks of your hearing, both you and the defendant will receive notice of the judgment in the mail. If you won, the judgment will include what amounts the defendant must pay you. The ruling may be appealable and will specify the process and timelines for filing an appeal.
If you win and the matter is not appealed, the defendant will be ordered to pay you the judgment amount by a specified date. Hopefully, the defendant reaches out to you and coordinates payment. However, if the defendant does not voluntarily pay the full judgment, you can enforce the judgment using one or more of the legal mechanisms below.
There are a number of ways which you can use the legal system to enforce your judgment, including:
- Warrants - You can file for a warrant with the court which can entitle law enforcement to arrest the defendant or otherwise seize the amounts owed from their bank or cash register.
- Wage Garnishment - If the defendant has an employer, you can file an order to have their wages garnished until the judgment is paid.
If the defendant files for bankruptcy, your small claims court judgment will generally entitle you to be named as one of the creditors and take part in the proceeding to collect any amounts possible.
The total timeline from filing your claim to collecting judgment can vary widely. If all goes smoothly and the defendant pays the judgment on time, the matter may be resolved within a few months. If you need to enforce the judgment using the mechanisms above, the claim can drag on for many months or longer.
While small claims court is relatively cheap, simple and short, it will still require some amount of time, money, and effort, so be sure to consider whether the amount you are seeking to recover is worth filing the claim.