What do I need to do before I file a small claims case? (California)

Updated: Apr 29

In this article, we will walk through the 4 steps in preparing to file your case:

  • Initial Research

  • Jurisdiction

  • More research

  • File your lawsuit

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Step 1: Do Some Research

You have decided that you are interested in filing a lawsuit. But don’t run down to the courthouse just yet. First, you need to do some legal research and some personal research to answer these four questions:

  • What kind of case do I have? That is, what is my "cause of action"?

  • What are the "elements" of this cause of action? Elements are the basic parts of the cause of action. You need evidence to prove each one.

  • Do I have enough evidence to prove these elements?

  • What is the dollar value of my claim? To understand what you may ask the court to award you in damages and costs.

Step 2: Figure Out Which Court Has Jurisdiction

After you answer those first four questions, you will be able to figure out which court would have the ability (I.e., “jurisdiction”) to hear your case. If you are suing someone on behalf of yourself, rather than on behalf of a company or an organization, and your damages (i.e., the amount that you are suing for) add up to $10,000 or less in California, you can go to Small Claims Court. If, on the other hand, you are suing someone on behalf of a company or organization, then you cannot ask the court for more than $5,000 in damages.

Think carefully about why you want to sue. What do you want? You must know exactly what you want. If you want money, you need to know how much before you go to Small Claims Court. You also need to be prepared to explain why that is the correct amount. Besides awarding up to $10,000 in damages and costs, judges in Small Claims Court can also order the defendant to return property such as a car or to stop hosting loud parties.

Small Claims Court has the ability to help you resolve your dispute quickly and inexpensively so that you can get justice, but only in cases in which it has the jurisdiction to give you what you are asking for.

If you want something that Small Claims Court judges cannot give you, the judge can not rule in your favor on your case, even if you are right.

Here are some common types of cases that California Small Claims courts can handle. In all cases, the monetary value of the damages you intend to seek must be no more than $10,000:

  • If you lent money, you can sue someone who doesn’t pay you back.

  • If you are a contractor or small business owner, you can sue someone who does not pay you after you provided a service or a product.

  • If you are a customer, you can sue someone who agreed to provide a service or a product but then did not provide it.

  • If you are a tenant, you can sue a landlord who does not return your security deposit even though you followed the terms of your lease.

  • If you are a landlord, you can sue a tenant who does not pay rent.

Step 3: Do Some More Research

Two more questions you need to answer before you spend the money to launch your lawsuit.

  • Can you find the person you plan to sue?

  • Can that person pay if you win?

If you cannot find the person you plan to sue, the whole thing would be a waste of your time and money. Make sure that you know where the person lives and works. This is a crucial step that cannot be swept aside. If all you have in terms of figuring out where a person lives is an email from him that mentions a take-out restaurant near his home, you may have a problem when it is time to serve proper notice of the lawsuit.

How much do you know about the person’s financial situation? Sure, you may know where to find him, but do you know if he can pay you if you win your case? Are you willing to take the chance that he cannot pay?

Step 4: File Your Lawsuit

If you have answered all the previous questions to your own satisfaction, you are ready to start your lawsuit. Below are links to specific articles to help you deal with Forms to Complete, How to File; and How to Serve the Legal Papers on the Defendant.

  • Forms: All counties in California use the same form to file a case in small claims court. Click here to learn about the forms you will need for your case and how to fill them out.

  • How to File. Click here for information on how to file a case in California small claims court in your county.

  • Notice to Defendant. You cannot serve your papers (i.e., formally deliver them, in accordance with the law’s requirements) on the defendant yourself. Click here for information on how to make sure the defendant receives proper notice of the lawsuit.

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