What costs can I get back if I win my small claims case?
Updated: Apr 28
The person or entity that wins a court case is the “prevailing party”. They have the right to recover, from the losing party, money spent related to the civil case. That does not mean the judge will reimburse the prevailing party for all the money spent. Recoverable costs fall into three general buckets: 1) court filing fees, 2) process server fees and 3) out-of-pocket costs to recover a debt. Let’s dig deeper into each of these areas.
Court filing fees
The prevailing party can recover the cost of filing the case. Think of it as money spent to get what they were already owed.
California small claims court filing fees are as follows:
$30 if $1,500 or less in controversy.
$50 if $1,500 < $5,000 in controversy.
$75 if $5,000 < $10,000 in controversy.
If you’ve filed more than 12 small claims actions in California within the past year, your filing fee is $100.
There is one important exception to this general rule. If you had an increased filing fee ($100) as a result of filing more than 12 actions that year, you can only recover what the filing fee would have been had you not filed over 12 claims (i.e. $30, $50, or $75).
Process Server Fees
These are the fees spent providing official notice to the other side in a lawsuit. It’s common practice for judges to add the process-serving fee to a prevailing party’s damages award. However, the prevailing party should be proactive and request the process server fee in their presentation to the court.
When requesting service fees be specific about the type of service fee. Common service fees are as follows:
Court Clerk Service
A court clerk can complete service for a party by mailing a copy of the complaint to the defendant via any type of mail with a return receipt. The cost of this is $15 per defendant.
The Sheriff’s office offers civil service for parties. Service of a summons and complaint is $40 in the following major counties in Southern California: Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino. As of Jan. 2009, San Diego County Sheriff’s Office no longer serves plaintiffs’ small claims complaints and summons.
It’s important to note that if a party qualifies for a fee waiver, the sheriff’s office will do his or her service free of charge. The party must submit with his or her request a copy of the conforming FW-003 granting the waiver of fees.
Private Process Server
Private companies offer services for a cost. They are generally more expensive than the Sheriff’s office, but complete service faster. Sample costs are as follows:
$80-$170 depending on the remoteness of the area where service is needed (consider downtown LA versus the Palm Desert).
One site charges a flat fee for service anywhere in California at $85.
Some companies offer priority same-day service, starting at $200.
Friend or Family Member
The only rules for civil service are that the party doing the service must be at least 18 years old, and not a party to the case. This means a party could ask a friend or family member to complete the service free of charge. A friend or family member cannot charge a fee unless they are a process server registered with the state of California. Since they are not professionals, you’ll want to make sure you explain the proof of service document to them, and they follow all the detailed steps included on the county court websites.
If a party plans on asking the court to include his or her service of process fees, they should make sure they are reasonable. A court will not include service of process fees if they are unreasonable to ask of the defendant. Of course, there isn’t a bright-line rule for what is and isn’t reasonable—but if going into court with a high service of process fee, be prepared to defend its reasonableness. Did the defendant intentionally dodge service, making it more expensive to work with a process server? Maybe the defendant lives in a small remote area which requires significant drive time.
Out of pocket fees from a debtor
When a party does not comply with making payments ordered by a court, there are mechanisms to recover the judgment. The following enforcement costs can be recoverable:
Court clerk fees for issuing a writ of execution (EJ-130) or abstract of judgment (EJ-001) = $25
County recorder fees for recording and indexing an abstract of judgment = $25
Costs associated with a debtor’s examination (hearing and service of process fees), which are not set by statute.
In order to recover costs after judgment has been entered, a party must file an MC-012 ( Memorandum of Costs After Judgment, Acknowledgement of Credit, and Declaration of Accrued Interest) within two years of the judgment.
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