Small Claims: When Litigating Without a Lawyer Makes Sense
Many people and businesses have disputes or suffer damages in the thousands of dollars, which they need to resolve or seek compensation for. The dispute or claim might involve the sale of used furniture or other personal property, where the buyer doesn’t pay what is owed. , or damage to a car in a parking lot by someone not paying attention with their shopping cart.
With court costs and attorney’s fees, litigating these “small claims” can be very expensive, many times prohibitively so. Law firms often turn away smaller claims, not because the claim isn’t valid, but because the cost of litigating it for a client may well cost more than the damages a client can recover.
So what options are there for people and entities when the amount in dispute or damages are “too small” to hire a lawyer, but “too large” to walk away from?
One option is to file a small claims action pursuant to the “Small Claims Act”, Code of Civil Procedure §§ 116.110 to 116.950. Generally, the Small Claims Act allows an entity to file a claim with a demand of up to $5,000, and an individual to file a claim with a demand of up to $10,000.
Filing fees are low: $30 for claims up to $1,500, $50 for claims between $1,500 and $5,000, and $75 for claims between $5,000 and $10,000. In the higher courts filing fees alone are many hundreds of dollars. The Court will serve your claim by mail on each named defendant for $15 per service.
In addition to the limitations on the amount of the claim a person or entity may pursue in small claims actions, you have to represent yourself. No lawyers are allowed for either party in the case. Also, you cannot sue more than twice in a calendar year for over $2,500.
Small claims cases are presented to a judge. There is no jury. You will be responsible for preparing and presenting your case, including documents and witness testimony, but you will be saving money by not having to pay an attorney. The Superior Court and California Department of Consumer Affairs each have detailed websites with instructions on how to file and try your small claims action. Also, many courts have information and staff onsite who can give you guidance on filing and preparing your case.
Small Claims Save Time
Small claims are normally tried within weeks or a few months of filing, compared to the higher courts where a trial may be set years after the case is filed. Small claims trials can be set during the week and, where the court is larger, on at least one night or Saturday a month. The court you file your small claims in must be located in the county where an individual defendant lives or an entity defendant has its business or office.
If a plaintiff loses a small claims action, there is no appeal. However, if the defendant loses, he/she/it has the right to appeal the judgment. The appeal is heard in the Superior Court “de novo”, meaning the whole matter is tried over again as if the prior hearing never happened. Also, on appeal, the parties have the right to be represented by a lawyer.
Summary of Benefits of Small Claims Actions
-Low filing fees
-Service of the complaint by the court
-No attorney’s fees
-Early trial date
Limitations of Small Claims Actions
-$5,000 claim limit for entities
-$10,000 claim limit for individuals
-Limit of two claims of $2,500 or more per year
-A “de novo” appeal can be filed by a losing “defendant”
Small claims actions give individuals and businesses a practical alternative to the choices of expensive litigation or walking away from a claim.
Paul C. Bauducco is the Chair of our Business Litigation Practice Group.