Limits for Small Claims in California

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Small claims trials are not formal proceedings, but court rules require parties to bring necessary witnesses and documentation to resolve the claim.
Small claims trials are not formal proceedings, but court rules require parties to bring necessary witnesses and documentation to resolve the claim. (Image: Legal Law Justice image by Stacey Alexander from Fotolia.com)

Small claims courts in California are courts with limited jurisdiction. Small claims courts allow California residents to file cases inexpensively and have their disputes resolved expeditiously. California courts do not allow parties to be represented by attorneys during their hearings in court. However, they may obtain legal assistance prior to filing their cases.

Claim Limits

As of February 2011, plaintiffs, including sole proprietors, may sue in a California small claims court if their claims do not exceed $7,500. However, the limit is $5,000 for businesses and public entities. Claims against the Registrar of the Contractors State License Board cannot exceed $4,000. Before filing a claim in a small claims court, the plaintiff must first attempt to resolve the dispute without going to court. If the defendant refuses to pay or refuses to comply with the plaintiff’s demand for property, then filing in small claims court is the appropriate next step.

Self-Representation

Third parties may not institute claims on a plaintiff’s behalf, unless the plaintiff is a minor. In this case, guardian ad litems can represent minors. Additionally, an adult plaintiff must appear in court without appointing a third party to attend the hearing. However, the small claims courts allow an exception for corporations or businesses filing a suit or defending a suit on the corporation’s behalf if that person is an employee of the corporation and not hired solely to represent the corporation.

Defendants

Plaintiffs must sue defendants using their exact legal names or business names. Residents may find information about a business by checking with the California Office of the Secretary of State or calling a local licensing agency. Plaintiffs filing suits against state government agencies must first file a legal claim through the appropriate agency before filing a lawsuit.

Service of Process

To provide the defendant with notice about the pending lawsuit, the plaintiff must personally serve the defendant through a process server, sheriff, marshall or non-party to the lawsuit. The small claims courts’ clerks may send the summons and complaint through certified mail after the plaintiff pays the filing fees. Certified mail delivery without going through the court clerk’s office is not legally valid, unless the claim involves a non-resident and is for a traffic accident. Small claims courts have substituted service rules for leaving the summons and complaint at the defendant’s home or business with an adult at the defendant’s personal residence or employee at the defendant’s business place.

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