October 20, 2017

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Small Claims FAQs
 

1. What is Small Claims Court?

Small Claims Court is a special court where disputes are resolved quickly and inexpensively. The rules are simple and informal. The person who sues is called the plaintiff. The person who is sued is called the defendant.

2. Where is Small Claims Court located?

In Stanislaus County, Small Claims cases can be filed in the Clerk's Office at 300 Starr Avenue, Turlock, CA. 

3. Who can sue in Small Claims Court?

Any mentally competent person who is 18 years old or older or an emancipated child.

If you are not mentally competent or under 18 years old (and not emancipated), a judge must appoint an adult called a Guardian Ad Litem to represent you in Small Claims Court.

4. How much money can I ask for?

Individuals cannot ask for more than $10,000 in a claim and businesses cannot ask for more than $5,000. Businesses that are not sole proprietors must file a suit in the Civil Division if they are asking for more than $5,000.

You can file as many claims as you want for up to $2,500 each but you can only file two claims a year that ask for more than $2,500.

You can only sue a guarantor for up to $4,000 ($2,500 if they do not charge for the guarantee). A "guarantor" is a person who promises to be responsible for what another person owes.

5. Do I have to pay to file?

Yes. The filing fee is $30 if the claim is less than or equal to $1,500 and $50 if the claim is greater than $1,500 but less than or equal to $5,000 for the first 12 claims that you file in a year. After that, it is $75 per claim. Claims greater than $5,000 but less than $10,000 are $75 and if more than 12 claims have been filed in the previous 12 months the fee is $100. These fees are the same for every county in the State.

6. Can I bring a lawyer? What if I need legal advice?

No, a lawyer may not represent you in small claims court, however, you may talk to a lawyer before or after court.

If you need legal advice you need to consult with an attorney. For a referral to an attorney, you can call the Stanislaus County Bar Association Lawyer's Reference Service, at (209) 571-5727 (there is a $50 fee for a one-half hour consultation).

If you are a Stanislaus County resident age 60 or older (or married to such a person) or if have a low income, the California Rural Legal Assistance attorneys may be able to help with certain problems other than Small Claims. To find out whether you qualify for their free services and whether it is the type of case they will handle, you need to call them at (209) 577-3811.

Alternatively, you can get legal information and forms assistance from the Small Claims Advisory Service or from the Court's Self-Help Center.

You can contact the Small Claims Advisor:
- by telephone at (209) 530-3178*
- by email at SmallClaims.Advisor@Stanct.org**
- in person at the Self-Help Center located in the main courthouse at 800 11th Street, 2nd Floor, Room 220 in downtown Modesto, CA. Office hours are Monday-Thursday from 8:00 a.m. - noon and 1:00 p.m. - 3:30 p.m..

*For the most effective assistance by telephone please provide your full name, a case number (if any), telephone number and briefly descibe the reason for your call. Calls will be returned on Wednesdays between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

**Responses to emails can be expected within 3-4 business days.

7. How long do I have to wait to go to court?

You may have to wait up to 60-70 days after you file your claim.

8. What kind of cases go to Small Claims Court?

There are different kinds of cases. The most common are: Car accidents, property damage, landlord/tenant rent deposit disputes and collection of money owed.

9. What will happen at my hearing?

The judge will listen to both sides of the story. To help tell your side, bring evidence such as: Witnesses, photos, bills, receipts, contracts and other relevant documents that support your side. The judge may make a decision at your hearing or he/she may take your case under consideration and mail the decision to you at a later date. Instead of a judge, you may have a Commissioner or temporary judge deciding your case. They are both just like judges. A temporary judge (called a "Judge Pro Tem" or a "Judge Pro Tempore") is a lawyer who hears and decides cases. If you do not want a temporary judge, you can ask the Court to have a judge hear your case. You may have to come back another day.

10. Can I appeal the judge's decision?

You cannot appeal if you were the one who filed the claim. However, if someone else files a claim against you and you lose, you can appeal.

11. How do I file an appeal?

If you were at the hearing, you must file a form called "Notice of Appeal". You have 30 days to do this after the date the clerk mailed the Notice of Entry of Judgment. The current cost to file a Notice of Appeal is $75.00.

12. What happens if someone else appeals?

You will have a new hearing. You will have to bring your evidence and tell your side of the story again. If your evidence was retained by the Court it will be with the file. This time, you can bring a lawyer to represent you.

13. When is it too late to file a claim?

It is not easy to figure out if it is too late to file a claim. If you are not sure, file your case and let the judge decide. Here are some tips:

If you are suing because you got hurt, you can file a claim for up to two years after you were hurt.

If you are suing because a spoken agreement was broken, you have two years to file after the agreement was broken.

If you are suing because a written agreement was broken, you have four years to file after the agreement was broken.

If you are suing because your property was damaged, you have three years to file after your property was damaged.

If you are suing because of fraud, you have three years to file after you find out about the fraud. Fraud is when you lose money because someone lied to you or tricked you on purpose.

If you are suing a government or public agency, you have sixth months to file a claim with that agency. They have 45 days in which to make a decision. If no decision is made within 45 days then it is deemed denied. If they reject your claim, you have six months to file a claim with the Small Claims Court.

14. Do I have to go to court?

If you are suing someone, you must go to court. You cannot send anyone else (even a lawyer) to represent you in court, but there are exceptions.

For example: You may not have to go to court if: (1) You are serving on active duty in the armed forces, (2) you were assigned to your duty station after your claim arose and (3) your assignment is for more than six months.

For more information about exceptions, read Civil Code of Procedures Section 116.540. You must file an Authorization to Appear (Small Claims) form SC-109 if you are appearing on someone's behalf.

15. Who goes to court when a business is sued?

If you are the only owner of a business, you must go to court unless the claim can be proved by evidence of a business account in which case a regular employee with knowledge of that account may represent you.

If you have a partner, one of you must go.

If the business is a corporation, an employee, officer or director must go to court. That person cannot be hired just to represent the corporation.

16. Must I collect the money myself?

Yes. The Court will not collect the money for you. The Court will issue the orders and other documents required to force the debtor to pay. Keep in mind that not all judgments are collectable because the debtor may not have any income or property of value.

17. How long must I wait before I can start to force the debtor to pay?

Enforcement of the judgment is put off until the time for appeal expires (30 days after the entry of judgment). If an appeal hearing is held, the judgment can be enforced after the Superior Court's judgment is sent back to the Small Claims Court.

18. How much time do I have to collect my judgment?

Judgments are enforceable for 10 years and are renewable for another 10 years and then renewable after that. Once a judgment has been renewed, it cannot be renewed again until five years later.

19. If the defendant does not appeal the original judgment, must they tell me what property they own?

A debtor that fails to appeal or file a motion to vacate the judgment (and that does not voluntarily pay the judgment) must fill out a Judgment Debtor's Statement of Assets (form SC-133) and send it to you.

20. What do I do if I cannot find the debtor?

You may not need to know the debtor's location if, for example, you know the bank branch where the debtor has his or her accounts. On the other hand, you may need to do a debtor's examination at the courthouse. If you need to do a debtor's examination, you will need to fill out form SC-134, which must be personally served by a process server or sheriff/marshal.

21. How do I do a debtor's examination?

You need to use form SC-134 (Application and Order to Produce Statement of Assets and to Appear for Examination) and for SC-133 (Judgment Debtor's Statement of Assets). Then the Court will give you a hearing date where you can ask the debtor:

What type of property they own, where that property is located and whether or not the debtor has a job.

You should also serve the debtor with a subpoena for any documents you need to see using form SC-107 (Small Claims Subpoena and Declaration). The subpoena, notice of debtor's examination and judgment debtor's statement of assets must be personally served on the debtor by a registered process server or sheriff/marshal.

22. Can I collect against the wages of the debtor's spouse or domestic partner if that person was not a defendant in my case?

Yes. Your local court should allow you to file a noticed motion under Code of Civil Procedure Section 706.109 using Small Claims form SC-105 (Request for Court Order and Answer).

23. Will this judgment show up on the debtor's credit report?

Yes, the credit reporting bureaus go to each courthouse and get information for their records.

24. What do I do if the debtor asks the court to let them pay the judgment in installments?

The debtor will make the request using form SC-220 (Request to Make Payments). The Court Clerk will mail a copy of the request to you. You have 10 days to tell the Court that:

You will accept the proposed payment schedule, you will accept payments in a different amount or you do not want to accept installment payments.

If you do not respond within 10 days, the Court will assume that you accept the proposed payment schedule and will grant the debtor's request. If you do not accept the proposed payment schedule, the Court will probably hold a hearing to discuss the request and your opposition.

Note for creditors: This option affects the interest as it stops all interest from accruing until paid off.

25. Can the debtor pay the judgment to court without telling me?

Yes, a debtor in a Small Claims case can pay the judgment directly to the Court. Often this is done so that the debtor can immediately get proof of payment from the Court in order to clear their credit record. To pay the judgment to the Court, the debtor must pay:

The principal amount of the judgment;
Costs after judgment, interest accrued on the judgment and
The Court's processing fee (usually $20.00).

The debtor uses form SC-145 (Request to Pay Judgment to Court) to make the request to pay the judgment directly to the Court. The Court (not the debtor) then tells you that payment has been made to the Court. It is very important that the Court has your current mailing address at all times. If the Court is not able to contact you within three years to tell you that it is holding payment of your judgment, the money becomes the property of the Court.

26. If the debtor pays the court without telling me, how do I get my money?

The Court will notify you that the judgment has been paid and tell you to:

Complete the Judgment Creditor's Request for Funds (a portion of form SC-145 (Request to Pay Judgment to Court); and

Claim the money by either mailing or delivering to the Court Clerk your completed request. The Court will process your request and you should receive the money in approximately six weeks.

27. What can the Small Claims Advisor do for me?

The Small Claims Advisor is available to provide assistance. The law requires each county to provide assistance in Small Claims cases free of charge.

If you are headed for court - either as a plaintiff or defendant - the Small Claims Advisor can help you prepare for your case. The advisor can explain Small Claims court forms and procedures, offer suggestions on how to present your cases effectively and describe what you can do after you win (or lose) your case.

The Advisor can answer your questions about Small Claims and:

Explain the small claims rules and procedures
Explain how to complete small claims forms and how to prepare for court
Explain how to collect your money if you have won
Explain what you can do if you cannot afford to pay
Refer you to an attorney or other agencies who may be able to help you

PLEASE NOTE: The Advisor cannot act as your attorney and their services are not intended to replace those of your own attorney. Also, the Advisor will not be able to tell you whether you "have a case", whether you will win or what your chances are of winning. They can, however, assist you in preparing your best case. The Advisor's main purpose is to explain how to prepare for and correctly use the Small Claims Court, how to complete the forms and to inform you about the Small Claims and general California law and common consumer problems.

28. How do I contact the Small Claims Advisor?

You can contact the Small Claims Advisor:

- by voicemail at (209)530-3178*
- by email at SmallClaims.Advisor@Stanct.org**
- in person at the Self-Help Center located in the main courthouse 800 11th Street, 2nd Floor, Room 220 in downtown Modesto, CA Monday-Thursday from 8:00 a.m. - noon and 1:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.
Closed Fridays

*For the most effective assistance by telephone please provide your full name, a case number (if any), telephone number and briefly descibe the reason for your call. Calls will be returned on Wednesdays between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

**Responses to emails can be expected within 3-4 business days.

Last updated: December 31, 2015 9:36 AM