Before You File
Do You Have a Good Case?
Can you present a good case in court? Do you have things to support you claim like:
- Receipts, or
- A witness
Did You Ask for the Money?
Before you can sue in Small Claims court, you have to ask the defendant for whatever you want the judge to award you in court. This is what is called a demand. If you would like help with writing your demand letter, visit this page. You can ask them in writing or by phone, but it is a good idea to do both. Keep copies of any letters or other communication in writing. It is best to send letters by mail and ask the post office for a return receipt. Keep the receipt as evidence.
If you are suing a governmental entity, such as a city, you must file a written claim with that entity and receive a rejection before you can file a lawsuit in court.
If you are suing for a disagreement of $5,000.00 or less in attorney fees, in most circumstances, you must have first tried to resolve the dispute through arbitration. For more information, read Attorney Fee Dispute After Arbitration (SC-101) .
Did you lose money?
Think carefully about how much money to ask for. This is called damages. You have to prove to the judge that you deserve the money you ask for. You can only get a judgment for what you can prove. Prove your claim by using:
- Canceled checks,
- Professional estimates of damage,
- Your statements, and
- Your witness testimony
How Much Can You Sue for?
As an individual you can use Small Claims court if your claim is for $10,000 or less. If you are an individual who owns a business (i.e. sole proprietor) and do business under a fictitious business name, you are considered to be an "individual" in Small Claims court. For example, if you are a plumber doing business as ABC Plumbing and want to sue a customer who has not paid you, you can file a claim for up to $10,000. If your business is a corporation, partnership or anything other than a sole proprietorship, your maximum claim amount is $5,000.
A "guarantor" is a person who promises to be responsible for what another person owes. You can only sue a guarantor for up to $6,500 ($2,500 if they do not charge for the guarantee). But, if you are a natural person filing against the Registrar of the Contractor’s State License Board you can sue a guarantor for up to $10,000. If you are an entity other than a natural person and the guarantor charges for its services, you may file a claim for up to $4,000.
As an individual you can sue for damages for bodily injuries resulting from an auto accident if your claim is for $10,000 or less, a $7,500 limit applies if a defendant is covered by an automobile insurance policy that includes a duty to defend.
You cannot divide a claim into 2 or more claims (called claim splitting) just to avoid the limit. If your claim is worth more than the limit, you can file your case in civil court. You can represent yourself or hire a lawyer in civil court. Or, lower the amount you ask for and give up (or waive) the rest. That way you can keep your claim in Small Claims court.
You cannot file more than 2 Small Claims court actions for more than $2,500 anywhere in California in a calendar year.
Is the Law on Your Side?
The Small Claims judge will follow the law. The judge interprets the law and tries to be reasonable and fair to both sides. If you think it might be difficult to prove your case, it might be better to go to mediation. Find more information below about mediation and other alternatives to filing a lawsuit in court.
Did you File your Claim in Time?
There is a set time limit to file most claims. This is called a statute of limitations. The rules for statutes of limitations are complicated. You may lose your case if the time has expired to file a lawsuit.
Can You Sue a Government Agency?
If you want to sue a government agency (such as the State of California, the County of Orange, or a city), you must first file a claim with the agency before you can file a Small Claims action. Strict time limits apply. Most agencies have claim forms and rules. Look online or contact the agency for more information.
You may not sue the Federal Government in Small Claims court.
Can You Collect the Judgment?
Does the defendant have enough money to pay the judgment? Collecting a judgment can be difficult if the defendant does not voluntarily pay the judgment.
Can You Find out the Name and Address of the Person or Business You Want to Sue?
You must know the full name and current address of the person or business that you are suing. If you do not have this information, you will not be able to serve your small claims lawsuit or collect your judgment. You can read more about this in the section "How to File a Claim".
Should You Consider Other Alternatives Before You File a Claim?
Trying to solve your problem without filing a Small Claims lawsuit can save you time and money. You may also be more successful in collecting your money. Read more below.
For the Plaintiff
Try to solve your problem in a friendly way before you file your Small Claims court case. Ask the other party to give you what you want. If you solve your problem without going to court, then you will save time, money and aggravation.
Even if there is a judgment against the defendant, the defendant may try everything in his/her power to avoid paying you. A possible way to avoid this is to consider reducing the amount that the defendant owes you to make it tempting to the defendant to pay you immediately.
Alternatively, if you cannot reach an agreement on your own, you may want to opt for a court supervised mediation (see below).
For the Defendant
If you owe money to the plaintiff, then you may offer to pay what you think you owe to end the issue. If the case goes to court and there is a judgment against you, then you may have to pay what the plaintiff asks for, what it costs to file and collect the claim, and interest (10% per year).
If you know that you owe money but you cannot pay it all in one payment, then offer to pay the amount owed in a payment plan, paying a portion of the amount owed each month or every week.
Alternatively, if you cannot reach an agreement on your own, another option may be through court supervised mediation (see below).
MEDIATION THROUGH COURT SPONSORED MEDIATOR:
Use the Small Claims Mediation Program to solve your problems without going to court. Both parties must agree to mediation.
- Mediation is voluntary. It gives you a chance to sit down with the other party and a mediator to talk about the problem. Mediators are trained to not take sides. Mediators DO NOT decide your case. They just make it easier for everyone to agree.
- Sometimes mediation is FREE.
- It is easier to collect your money when you settle in mediation because both sides agree to the terms of payment ahead of time.
- You can mediate before filing a Small Claims case.
DEPARTMENT OF CONSUMER AFFAIRS:
The California Department of Consumer Affairs website contains a wealth of information and resources to guide you in the settlement or filing of a consumer complaint. Examples are: a contractor not completing the remodel of your bathroom, your car was not repaired properly, or a service contract on electronic equipment was not honored. A few areas of interest are:
- Consumer Resource and Referral Guide which includes an outline of how to resolve consumer issue.
- Consumer Help
- Consumer Information Center
- Department of Consumer Affairs Complaints in which to file a complaint.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY/POLICE FOR VICTIMS OF CRIMES AND ECONOMIC FRAUD:
If you are the victim of consumer or economic fraud or a crime, you may be eligible for restitution (financial compensation for your damages). The Orange County District Attorney has information on victim services, bad check program, and economic crimes. If you think you are the victim of a crime, you should call the police as soon as possible. If the crime has already been reported, be sure that the police and District Attorney’s Office are aware of your financial losses so that they may seek restitution on your behalf. For more information read What Should I Do If I Am A Crime Victim?
CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, DIVISION OF LABOR STANDARDS ENFORCEMENT:
This website offers help with wage disputes, discrimination complaints, enforcement of California’s labor laws and more.
BUREAU OF AUTOMOTIVE REPAIR:
The Bureau of Automotive Repair can assist you with a dispute with an automotive repair shop.
CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF INSURANCE:
The California Department of Insurance helps consumers if you have a dispute with your insurance company or have been a victim of insurance fraud. They can provide information on the laws that regulate the insurance industry.
CONTRACTORS STATE LICENSE BOARD:
The Contractors State License Board may be able to help you with complaints against licensed and unlicensed contractors. They assist in the resolution of construction related complaints.
DEPARTMENT OF MOTOR VEHICLES:
The Department of Motor Vehicles Investigation Unit may be able to assist you with counterfeit/fraudulent/forged DMV documents, odometer fraud, a dealer did not transfer registration to buyer within 60 days, a dealer who overcharged for DMV fees, unlicensed dealers, dismantlers, registration service, certain fraudulent misrepresentations, violations of the Motor Vehicle Sales Finance Act, and violations of the Moscone Vehicle Leasing Act.
DISPUTING ATTORNEY FEES:
The Orange County Bar Association’s Mandatory Fee Arbitration Program assists with the resolution of fee disputes between clients and attorneys. You have the opportunity for a neutral arbitrator to decide the appropriate amount of attorney’s fees through an informal, low cost proceeding. If you believe you have a fee dispute with an Orange County attorney, you may contact the Orange County Bar Association Client Services Department at (949) 440-6700 ext. 153.
How to Get More Information
You will find a variety of resources on the Small Claims Overview page, including the Small Claims Advisor, Superior Court of Orange County Small Claims Division and Self-Help Center staff phone numbers and locations.