Bringing a Dispute to Small Claims Court

Bringing a Dispute to Small Claims Court

Plaintiff
Defendant
After the Hearing – Plaintiff and Defendant

PLAINTIFF

The following steps are a general guide to bringing a dispute to the Small Claims Court:

1. Contact the other party to discuss the issues and try to resolve the problem.

2. Offer to resolve the problem by mediation or other informal dispute resolution methods.

3. Familiarize yourself with small claims court procedures. Possibly talk to a small claims advisor. Attend a court session ahead of time to familiarize yourself.

4. Read "The Small Claims Court: A Guide to its Practical Use", which can be found at: http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/small_claims/index.html

5. Determine the Statute of Limitations:
A statute of limitations, a time period in which you must file a claim, depends on what kind of case your claim involves. You can think of it as the expiration date on your claim. While the rules affecting the statute of limitations are complicated and may be extended in your case, the following are some examples of common types of claims:

Personal injury
Two years from the date of injury. If the injury was not discovered right away, then it is 1 year from the date of discovery. If the injured party is a minor, it is 2 years from the minor’s 18th birthday.

Oral contract
Two years from the date the other party broke the contract.

Written contract
Four years from the date the other party broke the contract.

Fraud or mistake
Three years from the date of discovery.

Damage to personal property
Three years from the date the damage was done.

6. Determine the exact amount in dispute, and how it's calculated.

7. Identify a court where venue is proper – meaning the right court and the right location. The proper place, or venue, is determined by several considerations. The most important factor, and the most proper place, is where the defendant person resides or where the defendant entity has a principal place of business. However, the right location may be any of the following:

* Where the accident or damages occurred
* Where the contract was made, signed, performed, or broken by the defendant. Or, where the defendant lived or did business when the defendant made the contract
* Where the contract was signed or carried out
* If the defendant is a corporation, where the contract was broken

8. File a "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" (Form SC-100), and pay the filing fee.

a. Naming the defendant: It is important to name the defendant or defendants correctly in preparing your claim as it is possible you may need to use the court process to enforce a judgment in your favor. A judgment against an improperly named defendant(s) is extremely difficult or even impossible to enforce. If you're not sure which of several possible defendants is responsible for your claim, name each person you believe is liable. The court will decide whether the people you named are proper defendants and legally responsible.

Business Defendant: When suing a business, naming the defendant(s) can be tricky. There are, in general, two types of businesses, (1) Non-Limited Liability Business and, (2) Limited Liability Business.

Non-Limited Liability Businesses are generally sole proprietors or general partnerships. The law considers the individual(s) who own these businesses to be the same as the actual business. As such, a judgment against the business results in the ability to collect from the individual(s) who own the business. Such businesses often use fictitious business names which they file with the Clerk of the relevant California county. When suing a non-limited liability business, you will want to name the individual(s) who own the business with the acronym D.B.A. (Doing Business As) and the name of the business. For example, John Doe D.B.A. JD Wigets Supply. In the example above, John Doe is the owner of JD Wigets Supply. If John Doe filed a fictitious business name statement in Sonoma County, the fact that he owns JD Wigets Supply can be found by searching fictitious business names in Sonoma County. If you only know the name of the business, this process will assist in finding the individuals to sue. If you only know the name of the individual, this process will assist in finding the name of the business.

Limited Liability Businesses are generally Corporations, Limited Liability Companies (LLC's), and Limited Partnerships. These businesses are different from non-limited liability businesses, in that limited liability businesses are considered to be a “person” for certain legal purposes. In general, plaintiffs who obtain judgments against these limited liability businesses will only be able to collect their judgment from the business assets and not necessarily the individuals who own these businesses. Limited Liability Businesses may also file for fictitious business names and may do business using a name other than their legal name. For example, JD Wigets Corporation (legal name) may do business as JD Wigets. You would not want to file suit againt JD Wigets without including the last part of its legal name, JD Wigets Corporation.

So it may be useful to follow the same instruction above for non-limited liability entities above, relating to checking for fictitious business names, for limited liability entities.

Further, when suing a limited liability entity, there are certain requirements for who you serve. You will want to obtain a "Business Entity Detail" from the California Secretary of State. You will able to search by type of business using the California Secretary of State website and find the Business Entity Detail for the business you are suing. This document will include the legal name of the business, which is the name you will use as "Defendant." It will also include the name of the "Agent For Service of Process," which is the person, or other businesses, the Defendant has authorized to receive service of your lawsuit.

For more information regarding naming business defendants, please contact the Small Claims Advisory.

b. Filing your claim: You can file your claim (make three copies) in person or by mail (include a self-addressed stamped envelope with adequate postage for all 3 copies) at:
Sonoma County Hall Of Justice
600 Administration Drive Room 107J
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Phone: (707) 521-6500
Office Hours: Mon-Fri 8:00 AM to 3:30 PM

c. Filing fee: Include the proper filing fee when you file your claim. The fee is based on the amount of your claim and the number of claims you have filed in the past 12 months:

If you have filed 12 or fewer claims in the current calendar year:

Amount of Your Claim Filing Fee
$0 to $1,500 $30
$1,500.01 to $5,000 $50
$5,000.01 to $10,000 $75

Click here to see the entire Sonoma County Superior Court fee schedule. Scroll down the form to find the "Small Claims Fees."


9. Arrange for service of process.
Your claim form (Form SC-100), when it is completed by you and issued by the small claims clerk, informs the defendant of the amount of your claim, the basis for the claim, and the date, time, and place of the hearing.

After you have filed your claim and obtained a hearing date, you then need to arrange for someone to give each defendant a true copy of the same claim form (Form SC-100) that was issued in your case. Delivering a copy of the claim form to the defendant is called service of process. It must be done before your case can be heard, and it must be done by someone other than you (i.e. sheriff, process server, certified mail, substituted service).

Be sure to allow enough time for service of process. Someone must give each defendant a true copy of the plaintiff's claim form (Form SC-100) at least 15 days before the hearing date if the defendant lives in the county in which the claim is filed, or at least 20 days before the hearing date if the defendant lives outside the county in which the claim is filed.

Since you cannot serve these papers yourself, you must arrange for someone else to do it. You also must allow enough time after the service of process is completed to be able to deposit a completed and signed Proof of Service (Small Claims) (Form SC-104) with the small claims court at least five days before the hearing on your claim.

10. Prepare for the court hearing. Organize your thoughts. Collect evidence. Talk to witnesses. If you have witnesses that you think may not appear voluntarily at your hearing or there are papers that you require to present your case, then ask the court to issue a subpoena which will require the witness to go to court/require papers be brought to trial. You will need to file a Small Claims Subpoena and Declaration (Form SC-107).

11. Keep communication open. Try to resolve the dispute with the other party before the hearing.

12. Attend the hearing and present your case.

13. Receive judgment.

14. Collect judgment or pay Judgment Creditor.

DEFENDANT
If you are the defendant, you are being sued by the plaintiff, and should consider the following:

1. Determine whether you may be legally obligated to pay the claim, and, if so, why. Consult a small claims adviser or an attorney to determine how much, if anything, you owe.

2. Contact the plaintiff to discuss the issues and try to resolve the dispute.

3. Suggest or agree to try mediation or some other informal dispute resolution method.

4. Familiarize yourself with small claims court procedures. Talk to a small claims adviser. Attend a court session ahead of time to familiarize yourself.

5. Read "The Small Claims Court: A Guide to its Practical Use", which can be found at: http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/small_claims/index.html

6. If you have a claim against the plaintiff, consider asking the court to resolve it at same hearing. (Complete and file a Defendant's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court (Form SC-120).)

7. Prepare for the court hearing. Organize your thoughts. Collect evidence. Consult witnesses. If you have witnesses that you think may not appear voluntarily at your hearing or there are papers that you require to present your case, then ask the court to issue a subpoena which will require the witness to go to court/require papers be brought to trial, require the witness to go to court or require papers be brought to trial, or both. You will need to file a Small Claims Subpoena and Declaration (Form SC-107).

8. Keep communication open. Try to resolve the dispute before the hearing.

9. If you and the other party haven't met and discussed the claim, ask the court to postpone the hearing to let you and the other party meet and resolve the dispute informally if you can.

10. If you owe something, try to pay it, or work out a payment plan before the hearing.

11. Try to avoid having a court judgment entered against you, since it probably will appear on your credit record for a long time, even after you've paid it.

12. Attend the hearing and present your defense.

13. Receive judgment.

14. If you are a defendant and you did not prevail, you may appeal. If you are the party that instigated the action, and the defendant cross-complained (counterclaimed) against you and you did not prevail in the matter, you may appeal.

15. Collect judgment or pay Judgment Creditor.

AFTER THE HEARING - PLAINTIFF AND DEFENDANT
1. Read the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) that you have received from the small claims court. It tells you and the other party how the judge ruled. If you discover an error in the judgment, you may file a Request to Correct or Vacate Judgment (Form SC-108). Either a plaintiff or a defendant may file such a request.

2. If either of the parties was unable to attend the hearing for good cause, the party who did not appear may file a Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment (Form SC-135) to request a new hearing in the small claims court.

3. Judgment debtor – If the other party asserted a claim against you, and you appeared at the hearing, and the judge decided against you, and there is good reason for you to believe that the judge made a mistake, you may file a Notice of Appeal (Form SC-140) to obtain a new hearing before a different judge.

4. Judgment debtor – You may comply with the judgment (for instance, by payment to the judgment creditor or the court). If you can only make weekly or monthly payments, the court may issue an installment payment order if you request it by filing a Request to Pay Judgment in Installments (Form SC-220).

5. Judgment debtor – There are three options available to a judgment debtor: (1) pay the judgment, (2) appeal the judgment, or depending on the circumstances, (3) file a motion to vacate. An appeal or motion to vacate must be filed within 30 days after the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) was mailed or handed to you. You should complete the Judgment Debtor's Statement of Assets (Form SC-133) and provide it to the judgment creditor.

6. Judgment debtor – After paying the judgment creditor in full, ask the judgment creditor to file an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form EJ-100) with the small claims court.

If the judgment creditor refuses to file a Satisfaction of Judgment, you may file a Declaration and Order for Presumed Satisfaction of Judgment and Notice of Entry of Order (Form SC-5) with the court. This will achieve the desired result of official recognition of the judgment being satisfied.

7. Judgment creditor – File an Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment (Form EJ-100) with the court when the judgment debt is paid, or take steps to collect the judgment.