Small Claims · General Information

General Information

What Is Small Claims Court?
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Small claims court is a special court where disputes are resolved quickly and inexpensively. The rules are simple and informal. The person who sues is the plaintiff. The person who is sued is the defendant. In small claims court, you may ask a lawyer for advice before you go to court, but you cannot have a lawyer in court.

The maximum claim for an individual to file in the small claims court is $7,500.00.

The maximum claim for a corporation and other business entity to file in the small claims court is $5,000.00.

If the defendant is being sued on a guaranty, the maximum amount of the claim is reduced to $4000 if the guarantor charged for the guaranty or $2500 if there was no charge.

An individual, corporation or other business entity may only file two small claims actions in the state of California within a calendar year in which the amount of the claim exceeds $2,500.00.

Who Can File A Claim?
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You must be at least 18 years old to file a claim. If you are not yet 18, you may ask the court to appoint a guardian ad litem. This is a person who will act for you in the case. The guardian ad litem is usually a parent, relative or an adult friend.

A person who sues in small claims court must first make a demand if possible. This means that you have asked the defendant to pay, and the defendant has refused. If your claim is for possession of property, you must ask the defendant to give you the property.

Unless you fall within two technical exceptions, you must be the original owner of the claim. This means that if the claim is assigned, the buyer cannot sue in the small claims court. You must also appear at the small claims hearing yourself unless you filed the claim for a corporation or other entity that is not a natural person.

If a corporation files a claim, an employee, officer, or director must act on its behalf. If the claim is filed on behalf of an association or other entity that is not a natural person, a regularly employed person of the entity must act on its behalf. A person who appears on behalf of a corporation or other entity must not be employed or associated solely for the purpose of representing the corporation or other entity in the small claims court. You must file a declaration with the court to appear in any of these instances.

Where Can You File Your Claim?
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You must sue in the right court and judicial district. This rule is called venue. If you file your claim in the wrong court, the court will dismiss the claim unless all defendants personally appear at the hearing and agree that the claim may be heard.

The right district may be:

  • Where the defendant lives or where the business involved is located;
  • Where the damage or accident occurred;
  • Where the contract was signed or carried out;
  • If the defendant is a corporation, where the contract was signed;
  • For a retail installment account or sales contract or a motor vehicle finance sale:
    • Where the buyer (defendant) lives;
    • Where the buyer (defendant) lived when the contract was entered into;
    • Where the buyer (defendant) signed the contract;
    • Where the goods or vehicle are permanently kept.

Some Rules About The Defendant
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You must sue using the defendant's exact legal name. If the defendant is a business or corporation and you do not know the exact legal name, check with: the state or local licensing agency; the county clerk's office; or the Office of the Secretary of State. Ask the clerk for help if you do not know how to find this information. If you do not use the defendant's exact legal name, the court may be able to correct the name on your claim at the hearing or after the judgment.

Click here for additional information about what to do if you are suing and how to find the defendant's exact legal name.

If you want to sue a government agency, you must first file a claim with the agency before you can file a lawsuit in court. Generally, you must do this no later than six months after the act or event you are suing about.

How Does The Defendant Find Out About The Claim?
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You must make sure the defendant finds out about your lawsuit. This has to be done according to the rules or your case may be dismissed or delayed. The correct way of telling the defendant about the lawsuit is called service of process. This means giving the defendant a copy of the claim. You cannot do this yourself. There are four ways to serve the defendant:

  • Service by a law officer

    • You may ask the marshal or sheriff to serve the defendant.
    • A fee will be charged.

  • Process server

    • You may ask anyone who is not a party in your case and who is at least 18 years old to serve the defendant. The person is called a process server and must personally give a copy of your claim to the defendant. The person must also sign a proof of service form showing when the defendant was served.
    • Registered process servers will do this for you for a fee. You may also ask a friend or relative to do it.

  • Certified Mail

    • You may ask the clerk of the court to serve the defendant by certified mail. The clerk will charge a fee.
    • You should check back with the court prior to the hearing to see if the receipt for certified mail was returned to the court.
    • Service by certified mail must be done by the Clerk's Office, not by yourself.

  • Substituted Service

    • This method lets you serve another person instead of the defendant.
    • You must follow the procedures carefully.
    • You may also wish to use the marshal or sheriff or a registered process server.
    • A copy of your claim must be left at the defendant's business with the person in charge or, at the defendant's home with a competent person who is at least 18 years old. The person who receives the claim must be told about its contents. Another copy must be mailed, first class, postage prepaid, to the defendant at the address where the paper was left. The service is not complete until ten days after the copy is mailed.

No matter which method of service you choose, the defendant must be served by a certain date or the trial will be postponed. If the defendant lives in the county, service must be completed at least 15 days before the trial date. This period is 20 days if the defendant lives outside the county.

The person who serves the defendant must sign a court paper showing when the defendant was served. This paper is called a Proof of Service. It must be signed and returned to the court clerk as soon as the defendant has been served.

Small Claims Court Advisor Program
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The Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs’ Small Claims Court Advisor Program provides information and counseling to litigants and potential litigants concerning all aspects of the Small Claims Court process, including case preparation, collection, venue, appeals and more. Call (213) 974-9759 for 24-hour recorded information or to speak with an advisor between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Click here for more information about the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs’ Small Claims Court Advisor Program.

Statewide Links And Useful Resources
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Additional Small Claims information may be found at the California Courts Self-Help Center.