CONSIDER SMALL CLAIMS COURT

I know this may come as a shocker, but lawyers are expensive.  This simple fact can make it difficult to hire a lawyer to chase down your friend who owes you $3,500 and refuses to pay up.  It’s pretty simple math, really.  At $300 an hour or more, a lawyer can ring up a sizeable bill in fairly short order, particularly if your friend – uh, former friend – won’t cough up the money without being served with a lawsuit.  Pursuing your claim with the assistance of an attorney, even in the simplest case, will cost at least five to ten thousand dollars, and far more than that if it is vigorously litigated.  So what to do?

Enter one of the best things our court system has to offer: Small Claims Court.

What are the rules and procedures which apply to small claims?  If you’re having trouble falling asleep some night, you can read the operative sections of the California Code of Civil Procedure (sections 116.110 to 116.950).  It makes for scintillating reading.  But I’ll save you the trouble, and provide you with some basic information and a few useful links.

Small Claims Court is uniquely designed to deal with cases which have a relatively small value.  The general jurisdictional limit for a small claims action “brought by a natural person” is, generally speaking, $10,000. Code Civ. Pro. § 116.221.  Bear in mind that the limit is reduced to $7,500 for a claim for bodily injuries resulting from an automobile accident if a defendant is covered by an insurance policy that includes a duty to defend.  Code Civ. Pro. § 116.224.  For corporations and other business entities the general limit is $5,000 (there are some exceptions).  Code Civ. Pro. § 116.220.

So if you contact my law office (www.SonomaLawOffice.com; Xavier@SonomaLawOffice.com) figuring I should be able to help you out with one of the types of cases I handle (employment cases, business disputes, real estate, construction, probate and will contests, personal injury matters, and writs and appeals), if the value is low enough I very well might recommend that you pursue your case in the small claims court.

The California State Bar Association provides a very good pamphlet which summarizes the small claims process, and discusses some of the advantages and disadvantages of proceeding in small claims court.  Here’s the link: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Public/Pamphlets/SmallClaims.aspx.  The PDF version is here: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=h1oDSR8kUmA%3d&tabid=1394.  Please note, however, that when I last checked, the pamphlet had not been updated to reflect the new $10,000 jurisdictional limit discussed above.

Another excellent source of assistance is sometimes provided by the courts.  The Sonoma County Superior Court, for example, provides services of a small claims advisor through the Empire College School of Law in Santa Rosa.  Here’s the link: http://www.empcol.edu/small-claims-advice.  The court’s website also sets forth a number of useful tips to keep in mind before filing and when appearing in court: http://sonoma.courts.ca.gov/divisions/civil.  Scroll about half-way down the page to find the tips, which for your convenience I’ve also pasted below:

The following may help you better understand the functions and limitations of the Advisor Service:

  1. The Advisor can only assist you in matters which could involve Small Claims Court and related areas.
  2. The Advisor will offer you information, opinions and advice based upon education, experience, & the facts presented.
  3. The Advisor may provide information regarding referrals to other agencies.
  4. The Advisor may suggest a lawyer referral service when issues are complex or more detailed attention is desired.
  5. The Advisor may refer you to the Law Library or other source to research your own inquiries further.
  6. The Advisor cannot represent anyone and is not an advocate.
  7. The Advisor does not prepare documents.
  8. Communications with the Advisor are confidential.
  9. Advisors have the immunity conferred by Section 818.9 of the Government Code with respect to the advice given.
  10. Please remember, often there is no clear-cut, exact answer

Some things to consider before filing or defending a suit:

  1. Have I tried to negotiate and possibly settle the dispute?
  2. Have I made a demand for payment or performance?
  3. Is the suit brought within the proper time limits?
  4. Do I have a case, do I have a defense?
  5. Who do I sue, where do I sue?
  6. Can I get the defendant(s) served properly before trial?
  7. Can I collect if I win?
  8. Is the legal theory on which my case or defense is based sound?
  9. Certain rights are waived in Small Claims Court such as plaintiffs right to appeal, pre-trial discovery, etc. Also, other procedural & evidentiary rules do not apply or are applied differently in Small Claims Court.
  10. Small Claims Judges, although they may, are under no obligation to explain their decisions.

Some tips for Court:

  1. Be prepared.
  2. Learn a little law.
  3. Get your story straight.
  4. Present proof, not just a good story.
  5. Don’t make the Judge guess.
  6. Be brief, stick to the point, only offer relevant testimony and evidence.
  7. Don’t argue with the other party, direct your comments to the Judge.

I’m always happy to take a few minutes to get someone started, so don’t hesitate to call me to discuss how the small claims process works!

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