If someone refuses to pay you money owed, it’s time to file a lawsuit with small claims court.
Small claims court is a special court where disputes are resolved quickly and inexpensively.
There’s a good reason why over 4,000 lawsuits filed with small claims court in Los Angeles every day.
Small claims court keeps things simple.
This is particularly helpful for people struggling to collect money they’re owed. With that said, filing a lawsuit with small claims court still requires you to do some research, prepare your case, and follow a specific process.
Here’s how to sue someone who owes you money in small claims court …
How to Sue Someone Who Owes You Money
If someone owes you money and they refuse to pay, you can file a lawsuit with small claims court. But before you do that, you should try to work things out. If you are suing a company, make sure the right people are aware of the debt. Sometimes company communications are slow or disjointed.
You can try mediation or some other alternative to going to court. Or you can write a “demand letter” that states what is owed and that says you plan to go to court to collect the debt. Sometimes this is enough for the debtor to respond, knowing you are serious about the issue and plan legal action.
Decide if you really want to go to court. Even if you win, the court cannot collect the money for you. If someone like an acquaintance or neighbor is behaving badly, the court cannot force good behavior. And can the person being sued afford to pay you? You want to make sure you won’t be wasting your time and find yourself worse off after suing.
There is a monetary limitation in small claims court.
The maximum amount an individual can sue is $10,000. For businesses, the limit becomes $5,000.
You should make a visit to a small claims court and see how it works. Sit in on a hearing. Then, you will know what to expect. Contact the court’s small claims advisor to get advice.
If you decide to go to court, follow the steps below.
Identify the Defendant
Naming the defendant may seem like a simple thing but it can be a very complicated issue. You have to find out exactly who it is that you are suing so you can name that party correctly on your claim. But you have to think this through.
For example, if you get into a car accident caused by another driver, you may need to sue more persons than that driver. Even if that driver were negligent, the car may be owned by someone else and that someone else may be the name on the insurance policy.
If you sue just the driver and not the owner, it may be hard for you to collect. But if you sue both driver and owner, the insurance company will probably pay for your damages.
If work is performed on your house and there is defective plumbing or wiring, you could sue the plumber or electrician. But if they worked for a general contractor, they could blame him for the wrong instructions. Suing only the trade worker will not get you the money if the court decides it was the contractor’s fault. Suing both worker and contractor is a better strategy. Then, it doesn’t matter who the court finds responsible, either or both. You can get a judgment in your favor.
The same is true if you get hurt by a defective product. You should do some research here. You might have to sue not only the store where you bought the product, but the parent company, the store chain, and the product manufacturer.
As mentioned above, before going to court, you have to ask the other side for payment. You can ask in person or by phone or mail. You will need to tell the court how you did this and fill out a court form to that effect. If you use a demand letter, bring a copy of that to court to show the judge.
Find the right court to file your claim
Since each county in California has a small claims court, you have to figure out which one to use. If you file in the wrong court, your case may be dismissed and you will have to file again in the correct court. There is a statute of limitations on filing, so any wasted effort can cause you to miss that deadline.
In general, you can file your claim in the court where the defendant lives or does business but there are some exceptions to this rule so you should check with the small claims court legal advisor before proceeding.
Complete the Required Small Claims Forms
There are specific forms you need to fill out to prepare a claim. The legal advisor can help with this process, too. The forms include the Plaintiff’s Claim (Form SC-100) and possibly other plaintiff or defendant forms if there were more than one of each.
File Your Claim
After filling out the court forms, you give them to the clerk of the court to file your small claims case. You will also have to pay a fee to file unless you ask for and receive a fee waiver from the court.
Bring your forms to the small claims clerk and get your court date. You can ask the clerk for a night hearing and ask for possible evenings and times. If you don’t speak English very well, you can ask the clerk to have an interpreter at your hearing – or you can bring one yourself. If you have a disability, you can ask for some accommodation.
Mark your calendar for the court appearance and make sure you show up with your papers. Missing the appointment will probably prompt the judge to dismiss your case.
“You’ve Been Served”
Someone other than you or anyone listed in your case will serve your claim to the defendant. This “Service” tells the defendant what you are asking for, when and where the trial will be held, and what they can do.
Your claim has to be served before the court deadline, served in the proper legal way, and served to the right person. There has to be a proof of service filed with the court.
There are instructions and guides on the California government website to help you with serving your claim and the other steps mentioned here.
Go to Court
You should plan what you are going to say in court. You will be explaining to the judge why you are filing a claim and what it is that you want the judge to order. Try to anticipate what the other side will say and be prepared to respond.
Take your papers that support your claim and make at least two copies of them. These papers are considered evidence and should support the main points you are making.
You should also have the Proof of Service showing how and when the other side was served. And if you have witnesses, they should be present as well. If the witnesses you want cannot or will not attend, you can fill out a Small Claims Subpoena to order them to go.
Present Your Case In Court
Try to get to court at least 30 minutes early. When your case is called, go to the front of the room and when asked, tell your story and do it quickly. These cases usually last about 10 to 15 minutes.
Explain what happened and if the judge asks you any questions, answer them directly. Do not interrupt either the judge or the other side.
After the trial is over, get a checklist of what to do after your trial.