Small claims courts are specialized courts where disputes can be resolved quickly and inexpensively. The “small” in “small claims” comes from the amount in damages one can claim. Typically, an individual may sue another individual or business for up to $10,000, while a business may sue another individual or business for up to $5,000.
The “claims” in “small claims” refers to the kinds of cases you can bring. You have to be suing for money. If you are only suing to stop someone from doing something or to compel them to do something, and that request is not also tied to a request for money damages, then you’ll have to file that kind of claim in a regular court.
Meanwhile, almost all of the trappings of “going to court” that you might think of from television shows and movies are missing from small claims court. The rules governing procedure and evidence are greatly simplified; there are no juries, cases are filed and finished within a matter of weeks (rather than years), and all of the oral arguments are done by the litigants themselves (i.e., lawyers cannot make the arguments for you). The court conducts itself in a more relaxed manner, meaning litigants are seldom wearing their Sunday best, and extensions for extra time are more routinely given. We’ll cover all of this and more in future chapters, so stay tuned.
Now, there are a few of myths that should be put to rest right from the get-go. First, just because lawyers cannot appear in small claims court, that does not mean you cannot consult with a lawyer to help prepare or defend a case. In fact, consulting with an attorney might be a very good idea, because what might seem like a straightforward contract issue to you could actually entail a couple of torts and a claim for fraud as well, and an experienced litigator should be able to help you spot those issues. Not all lawyers will help with small claims cases, but several do, including one of the best civil litigation boutiques in California.
Second, while it’s true small claims courts are popularly referred to as “the people’s court,” courtesy of the long-running television program of the same name, they are not run by sassy judges with a penchant for quick one-liners, nor are their dozens of spectators laughing, cheering, and booing in the galley. Rather, the judge is either a sitting judge or commissioner of the Superior Court, or (more likely) an experienced lawyer with at least ten years of experience that is appearing as a judge pro tem (which is just lawyer-speak for “volunteer”). Meanwhile, the only people sitting in the galley are other folks who are waiting for their cases to be called, and they’re usually too busy preparing their own cases to be paying attention to what you are doing.
Third, despite what Judge Judy will lead you to believe, small claims hearings are pretty short. Remember all those folks we just mentioned sitting in the galley? All of their cases need to be heard as well. Odds are, your hearing will barely last 5-10 minutes. We’ll discuss preparing for your hearing in a later chapter, so be on the lookout for that.
Fourth, not just any person or business can saunter into small claims court with a case. In order to file a lawsuit, you must be either an individual person over the age of 18 or a business (any kind of business will do: sole proprietor, LLC, LLP, corporation, etc.). More importantly, you must be a “real party in interest,” which is a fancy way of saying you/your business are the one who was harmed by the actions of another person/business.
Furthermore, you can’t just sue any person or business. They have to either reside in this state or do business in this state. If they don’t reside or do business here, the only other way to bring them into small claims court is if the dispute arose from activity or property in California.
For example, if you’re waiting in line at Disneyland to park your car, and a Nevada resident rear-ends your vehicle, you can sue that individual in small claims court. But if you’re a California resident spending the weekend in Las Vegas, and you are rear-ended by a Nevada resident who was blinded by the lights of Caesar’s Palace on the Strip, you’re out of luck – you can’t return home and sue that person in California.
Finally, let’s talk about suing the government. Contrary to popular belief, you can sue a public agency, a County, etc., but first you’ll need to go through whatever formal dispute resolution process that particular government body employs before you can file the lawsuit. As with most things involving the government, this can be very complicated.
That covers the basics. In our next chapter, we’ll explore how small claims works from the perspective of the person or business filing the lawsuit. Until then, always keep the little things in mind, and we’ll be back with the next installment of Small Claims, Big Impact before you know it.
** The contents of this blog post are informational only, and do not constitute legal advice. Additionally, because we are California lawyers, it focuses primarily on California.