If you’ve been sued in small claims court, you are now the defendant in a live lawsuit. Here’s some information that may help you in the process.
“Small claims court” is a special court where claims for $10,000 or less are decided. Individuals, including “natural persons” and sole proprietors, may claim up to $10,000. Corporations, partnerships, public entities, and other businesses are limited to claims of $5,000. (See below for exceptions.*) The process is quick and cheap. The rules are simple and informal. You are the defendant—the person being sued. The person who is suing you is the plaintiff.
Do I need a lawyer?
You may talk to a lawyer before or after the case. But you may not have a lawyer represent you in court (unless this is an appeal from a small claims case).
How do I get ready for court?
You don’t have to file any papers before your trial, unless you think this is the wrong court for your case. But bring to your trial any witnesses, receipts, and evidence that support your case. And read Squabble’s Court Preparation Guide https://squabblehelp.com/general-guide/
What if I need an accommodation?
What if I don’t speak English well?
Ask the court clerk as soon as possible for a court-provided interpreter. You may use form INT-300, Request for Interpreter (Civil) or a local court form to request an interpreter. If a court interpreter is unavailable for your trial, it may be necessary to reschedule your trial. You cannot bring your own interpreter for the trial unless the interpreter has been approved by the court as a certified, registered, or provisionally qualified interpreter. (See Cal. Rules of Court, rule 2.893, and form INT-140.)
What happens at the trial?
The judge will listen to both sides. The judge may make a decision at your trial or mail the decision to you later.
What if I lose the case?
If you lose, you may appeal. You’ll have to pay a fee. (Plaintiffs cannot appeal their own claims.)
- If you were at the trial, file form SC-140, Notice of Appeal. You must file within 30 days after the clerk hands or mails you the judge’s decision (judgment) on form SC-200 or form SC-130, Notice of Entry of Judgment.
- If you were not at the trial, fill out and file form SC-135, Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment and Declaration, to ask the judge to cancel the judgment (decision). If the judge does not give you a new trial, you have 10 days to appeal the decision. File form SC-140.
For more information on appeals, see www.courts.ca.gov/smallclaims/appeals.
Do I have options?
Yes. If you are being sued you can:
- Settle your case before the trial. If you and the plaintiff agree on how to settle the case before the trial, the plaintiff must file form CIV-110, Request for Dismissal or a written and signed settlement agreement with the clerk. Ask the Small Claims Advisor for help.
- Prove this is the wrong court. Send a letter to the court before your trial explaining why you think this is the wrong court. Ask the court to dismiss the claim. You must serve (give) a copy of your letter (by mail or in person) to all parties. (Your letter to the court must say you have done so.)
- Go to the trial and try to win your case. Bring witnesses, receipts, and any evidence you need to prove your case. To have the court order a witness to go to the trial, fill out form SC-107, Small Claims Subpoena and Declaration, and have it served on the witness.
- Sue the person who is suing you. If you have a claim against the plaintiff, and the claim is appropriate for small claims court as described on this form, you may file Defendant’s Claim (form SC-120) and bring the claim in this action. If your claim is for more than allowed in small claims court, you may still file it in small claims court if you give up the amount over the small claims value amount, or you may file a claim for the full value of the claim in the appropriate court. If your claim is for more than allowed in small claims court and relates to the same contract, transaction, matter, or event that is the subject of the plaintiff’s claim, you may file your claim in the appropriate court and file a motion to transfer the plaintiff’s claim to that court to resolve both matters together. You can see a description of the amounts allowed in the paragraph above, titled “Small Claims Court.”
- Agree with the plaintiff’s claim and pay the money. Or, if you can’t pay the money now, go to your trial and say you want to make payments.
- Let the case “default.” If you don’t settle and do not go to the trial (default), the judge may give the plaintiff what he or she is asking for plus court costs. If this happens, the plaintiff can legally take your money, wages, and property to pay the judgment.
What if I need more time?
You can change the trial date if:
- You cannot go to court on the scheduled date (you will have to pay a fee to postpone the trial) or
- You did not get served (receive this order to go to court) at least 15 days before the trial (or 20 days if you live outside the county).
Ask the Small Claims Clerk about the rules and fees for postponing a trial. Or fill out form SC-150 (or write a letter) and mail it to the court and to all other people listed on your court papers before the deadline. Enclose a check for your court fees, unless a fee waiver was granted.
Your county’s Small Claims Advisor can help for free.
* Exceptions: Different limits apply in an action against a defendant who is a guarantor. (See Code Civ. Proc., § 116.220(c).) Limits do not apply in an action to recover COVID-19 rental debt. (See Code Civ. Proc., §§ 116.223 & 1179.02; form SC-500.)