Area of Law:
Small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction that are designed to hear civil cases between private litigants. Their purpose is to prevent clogging up the formal court system with relatively petty matters through a less formal forum. Small claims courts also limit the judgments that are awarded. This limit is generally set at $5,000 – though it may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The rules of civil procedure and evidence are typically simplified in small claims proceedings to allow non-lawyers to litigate their matters without the help of a costly attorney. Formal and costly procedures such as depositions are not allowed in small claims, and generally speaking, neither is a trial by jury.
Filing Small Claims in Los Angeles County
Any individual over 18 years of age can file in Los Angeles County Small Claims Court for damages of up to $7,500. If you are under 18, then a parent may file on your behalf. However, if you are a corporation or a business, then the damages that you may seek are capped at $5,000.
In order to file the case, you will first need to file the Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court (SC-100). In this form, you must include why you think you have chosen the correct filing location. If you file at the wrong court location, then the judge may transfer the case to the proper location, or dismiss it without prejudice so you have to re-file and pay the fee again. The general rule is that you file in the jurisdiction where the defendant lives. However, there are exceptions, such as if the incident that is being litigated occurred within another location.
There is a court fee of $30 if the amount of the claim is $1,500 or less. If the amount of the claim is over $1,500, up to $5,000, then the fee is $50. Any amount over $5,000 to the small claims limit of $7,500 requires a fee of $75. If you have filed more than twelve claims in the previous twelve months, then no matter how much you are seeking in damages, the fee is $100.
After you file, you must give each defendant you listed a copy of the Plaintiff’s Claim and the Order to go to Small Claims Court. Although, you cannot make the service yourself, an adult must serve the papers, and if the defendant lives outside the county, then you must serve the papers at least 20 days before the hearing date. If the defendant lives within the county, then you must serve the papers at least 15 days before the hearing date.
This service may be done one of a few ways. The first is certified mail via the court clerk, which costs $10. The second option is to have a process server, who is at least 18 years old and someone other than yourself, personally deliver the papers. If you use this method, a Proof of Service (SC-104) must be completed and filed with the Small Claims Court at least five days before the hearing date. The third option is to have a process server make substituted service by leaving a copy of the Plaintiff’s Claim and the Order to go to Small Claims Court either at the defendant’s home with someone who is 18 years or older, or at the defendant’s business with the person in charge during normal office hours. Copies must also be mailed via first class mail to the defendant at the location where the papers were left. If substituted service is used, then a Proof of Mailing (SC-104A) must be completed and filed with the court at least five days before the court date.
For more information about the Los Angeles small claims process, visit the Los Angeles Superior Court’s website.