How to File a Lawsuit in Los Angeles Small Claims Court
If catching an occasional re-run of Judge Judy is as close as you’ve come to a court of law, you might not know that you don’t need to appear on TV in order to resolve a dispute in front of a judge.
Small claims court is designed to be an accessible and low-cost way to pursue legal disputes without the need to hire an attorney. In fact, attorneys are generally not permitted to appear in small claims court — instead, the plaintiff and defendant represent themselves.
What is small claims court?
Small claims court is a specialized civil court where individuals can resolve minor legal disputes more quickly and for less money than would be the case in a more traditional court with attorneys. In small claims court, parties can easily represent themselves because the rules are less complicated and the level of formality is significantly less. In fact, attorneys are generally not permitted to appear in small claims court. But it can be advantageous to consult a qualified attorney for advice prior to filing your lawsuit.
Small claims examples
Examples of cases that small claims court hears include:
- A person’s failure to repay a loan.
- A company’s refusal to repair or replace a defective item.
- Property damaged by someone’s negligence or an intentional act.
- A landlord’s failure or refusal to return a tenant’s security deposit.
Small claims court limits in Los Angeles
Small claims court only handles civil disputes where the plaintiff (the party filing the lawsuit) is seeking $10,000 or less in damages from the defendant (the party being sued).
Plaintiffs—which can be individuals or businesses owned by individuals—are eligible to file two cases per year with the $10,000 maximum. While the two cases per year requirement also applies to other businesses and corporations, the maximum filing amount drops to $5,000 per case. For any subsequent cases filed in small claims court, the maximum amount sought must be $2,500 or less per case.
Statutes of limitations
As is the case with other types of lawsuits, cases must be filed within certain time frames.
Generally, the statutes of limitations for small claims court are as follows:
- Written contracts—four years from the date of the contract breach.
- Verbal contracts—two years from the date of the contract breach.
- Personal injury claims—two years from the date of injury.
- Property damage claims—three years from the date the damage occurred.
- Fraud claims—three years from the date the fraud was identified.
It is important to note that statutes of limitations can be extended (tolled) or limited based on a number of factors. If you have a small claims action, it is best to file it without undue delay.
How to file in small claims court
The first step is to fill out an SC-100 Plaintiff’s Claim form, obtainable from the court, and then file it with the small claims court clerk.
The claim form should be filed with the court closest to where the damage or harm occurred, where the defendant lives or works, or where the contract was entered into. This is to ensure the case is heard by a court that has jurisdiction – legal authority – over the matter in question.
Once the case is filed, the court will schedule a hearing within 20 to 70 days. A court date may be changed under certain circumstances and for a nominal fee.
Filing fees vary, depending on the amount of the claim. For fewer than 12 claims in one year, the fee schedule* is:
- $30 for claims up to $1,500.
- $50 for claims between $1,5001 and $5,000.
- $75 for claims between $5,001 and $10,000.
Filing more than 12 claims in one year results in a filing fee of $100 for each additional case.
* Filing fee amounts were verified at the time of publication, but are subject to change. Check with the small claims court of jurisdiction for up-to-date filing fee details.
Serving the defendant
The defendant must be provided with a copy of the plaintiff’s claim. This can be done through the services of a licensed process server, by a trusted person who is not a party to the suit, or via certified mail from the court. Fees for this service vary. Once the defendant is served, the person who served him/her must file a SC-104 Proof of Service form with the court as evidence the paperwork was properly provided to the defendant.
The plaintiff must supply evidence to prove his or her claim such as bills, photographs, contracts, and witnesses. Non-English speakers may bring their own interpreter or hire one through the court.
Collecting the judgment
If the plaintiff is successful, the court will issue a judgment against the defendant. The defendant has 30 days to comply with the court order and pay the plaintiff, or to file an appeal or other motions disputing the judgment.
If the defendant does not comply with the judgment and pay the plaintiff, there are several avenues available to collect on the judgment, depending upon the specific circumstances of the case. The plaintiff is also eligible to add collection costs and interest of 10% per year to the judgment amount. If the judgment is not collected within ten years from the date filed, it can judgment can be renewed for an additional ten years.