The small claims court is a casual forum provided by ones' local court system specifically for the resolution of disputes of a small monetary value.

For the purpose of this writeup, I will be explaining how this works and what is done procedurally within the state of California; within our state, the small claims court is part of the California superior court, does not use a jury, and attorneys are not allowed in the courtroom unless they are the direct subject of such a suit. The monetary limit is US$5000.00; after that, it becomes civil limited.

A more...erm, dramatic example of small claims can be found by watching shows such as Judge Judy. I think the technical name for this is arbitration in a public forum, but I could be wrong.

A little note before I continue - for the purpose of this WU, we will work with a claim for money. The writeup's source will pretty much be my experience in filing a suit for a small amount of money against a former employer, owing to the fact that his tardiness in issuing my final final check resulted in my bank returning an electronic debit issued by Netflix due to non-sufficient funds. As such, included herein for reference reasons is sort of a play-by-play recount of the case, from start to finish, and these accounts will be (placed in parentheses and italicized). For privacy reasons, the defendant shall not be named.

So that being said, and with little further ado, here are the (unpleasant) details.

0) Attempt to settle before court

First, the assumption is that you have a legitimate case against somebody. Before you go to court, it is your responsibility to attempt to settle with the party you are complaining about.

As an example, let's say that the landlord of an apartment you moved out of might be trying to claim part of your deposit for carpet replacement. Now, if for instance you poured chlorine bleach on the carpet yourself, it's a fair cop, but if the landlord came in and did just that, then it's the landlord's responsibility. Unless it's impractical, you now need to send a letter via certified mail, return receipt requested, to the party in question stating this, and it tends to help remind them of the law regarding this.

If the party you mailed responds in kind, it's done - and more often than not, this is where it ends, fortunately.

(In my case, a letter was sent - certified mail, return receipt requested - informing the defendant of my intentions in early July; the defendant not only didn't settle, they simply ignored my letter requesting the settlement.)

1) Enter your complaint with the court

Unfortunately, there are instances where the above scenario doesn't result in the resolution of the complaint. Thusly, the next step is to proceed to a courthouse - but, it must be the proper venue. What this means tends to vary, but a good rule of thumb for this circumstance is that it is local to the defendant. You, the plaintiff. will fill out a two-page form briefly explaining the details of your complaint, pay a fee, and are then given your case number, a court date and instructions - or, depending on the court, you will have a pool of three or four dates to select from.

(My case was filed at small claims in California's Orange County North Justice Center in Fullerton, CA on 06Aug2004, for a cost of a $22 filing fee. This was proper venue because the primary place of business - Anaheim, CA - was within the jurisdiction. No, it wasn't Disneyland that I sued, but they certainly are - or were - a Mickey Mouse operation.)

2) Serve the defendant

In California, you are not allowed to self-serve the defendant, so you must get somebody to do the dirty work for you that has no direct interest in a gain from your case, be it material or monetary (except for process service fees). You may be able to get a family member to do this, or you might hire a process server for the job. Here in Orange County (and, in fact, all of California), you can also get the sheriff to serve the process for a small fee ($30, I believe, at the time of this writeup). This must be done within a given time frame, allowing the defendant to prepare for the case, a proof of service must be filed, and an additional copy of the document must be sent to the defendant via mail.

(In my case, my mother, who had no interest in this case other than that I won, served for me for the incredibly low price of free, on 09Aug2004. God bless her.)

You are preparing for your day in court, aren't you?

Now, at this point in the game and until the court date, you can settle with the defendant - but upon doing so, you must file a motion to dismiss, to remove your case from the docket. A "motion to dismiss" form is the proper way to go about this.

(There was one verbal attempt to settle for half the fees, relayed by the now former office manager. I said no.)

As a corollary to this, the defendant does reserve the right to request that this case be dismissed due to either improper service or improper venue. This is why it is so important to do this correctly, if you want to even think of winning.

3) Go to court

Assuming that your defendant hasn't settled or succeeded in a motion to dismiss (or, likewise, assuming you have opted not to accept a settlement offer), you proceed to court.

In California, when the court is opened and brought to order, the rules of the courtroom are stated and a roll call commences. One common rule is that a judge, at their option, will require or make optional arbitration in cases where both the plaintiff and defendant show. In my case, arbitration was mandatory, but since the defendant in my case didn't show, it was a moot point.

But let's say that, under the circumstances, somebody doesn't show up. If the plaintiff fails to show, the case is simply dismissed without prejudice. If the defendant fails to show, they simply lose the chance to defend themselves to the judge; at this point the plaintiff makes their statement and provides their evidence, and the judge makes a ruling based on that, typically including expenses - court costs, cost of service, and if necessary, costs of collection - in the award to the plaintiff in the form of a default judgement, which is then due immediately, and starts to gain interest - in California, interest is 10% per annum, compounded daily.

(Note here I didn't say "collectable". There's an appeal period for the defendant. Read on.)

Occasionally, the judge will dismiss the case due to lack of merit, or for wrongful venue. In either event, the plaintiff is not allowed to appeal the judge's decison.

(Here, I had attempted to sue for $500 - it was a good round number, and was also an attempt at treble damages and time spent. The judge, in the end, informed me that I was only entitled to the fees - not treble damages, let alone time spent, and entered the judgement for $69 plus expenses - constituting two overdraft fees from my bank at $22 each, and $25 from Certegy, the firm that Netflix uses to do ACH withdrawals. I wasn't all that happy about it, but was grateful that I could at least recover the lossage of funds.)

4) Wait for the appeal period

After the court makes a decision on the case, the judgement is officially entered the next day, and the defendant is given thirty days from the date of entry to file an appeal. There may be a very good reason the defendant didn't make it to court, or was unable to fulfill their obligation otherwise. In short, just because somebody is sued, they don't simply lose their rights.

But, if they don't appeal and fail to show good reason for not filing an appeal, the judgement is set in stone - and you can now begin enforced collections.

5) Collect on the judgement

There are many ways to collect on a judgement - and not a single one of them is the direct responsibility of the court. The court's job, at this point - which constitutes making a decision based on the law of the land - is done. So you get to collect the money, or otherwise execute enforcement of collections.

Suffice it to say, though, the topic of enforced collections is for another write up. But, for those who are looking for the ending to this....

(A levy was executed against the defendant's bank accounts at a particular branch of Bank of America in west Los Angeles County somewhere by the Los Angeles County Sheriff; this was served on 28Oct2004. Funds as I understand it were withdrawn on 29Oct2004, and delivered back to the sheriff two weeks later. Total came out to $128.16, inclusive of the $69 judgement, $22 court fee, $30 levy fee, and the $7 for writ of execution, plus interest accumulated, less a $10 disbursal fee. B of A further charged the defendant $75 for the privelege of being levied.)

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