Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Court Process

Introduction

These web pages are designed to make your journey through the Small Claims process a little less intimidating. You will find helpful information here as well as links to other helpful Web sites.

In Small Claims court, disputes are settled in a fair, quick, and inexpensive manner. You may ask a lawyer for advice before you go to court; however, you may not have a lawyer represent you in court. The rules are fairly simple and the hearing is informal. You may even ask for mediation the day of your trial.

Consider Mediation

An alternative to formal litigation in the court is the use of a mediator to resolve Small Claims disputes. Mediators are appointed by the Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission - external link. Their purpose is to assist parties in finding a mutually agreeable solution, and then assist them in writing the terms of the agreement as an enforceable contract. All parties must mutually agree to mediation, and the formal rules of court do not apply to the mediation process. Parties may contact the Mediator's Office to make arrangements for mediation before the court hears their case. Alternatively, the court will give parties an opportunity to meet with a mediator at the time of trial.

  • Instead of a judge, you decide the outcome of your case
  • You can discuss many issues that may not be admitted in court

The party filing the claim is the plaintiff.
The person being sued is the defendant.

If you are the defendant and are filing a Claim of Defendant, you will remain the defendant and the plaintiff will remain the plaintiff.

The Small Claims court clerks can answer many kinds of questions and provide the forms you need; however, they are prohibited by law from giving legal advice. The Small Claims Advisory Clinic provides legal advice free of charge to both the plaintiff and the defendant.

If you choose Small Claims court to resolve a dispute and you are the plaintiff, you give up the right to have another court review the Small Claims judge's decision. In other words, the plaintiff has no right of appeal. So if you should lose, that is probably the end of the case. However, the person or entity you sue (defendant) may appeal the judge's ruling. When such an appeal is filed, the entire case will be heard again.

Location and Telephone Number

The Carol Miller Justice Center is located at 301 Bicentennial Circle. Small Claims offices are located on the 2nd floor. The courtrooms are located on the 3rd floor. The telephone number is 916-875-7514. There is a $2.00 parking fee for 2 hours and $8.00 maximum charge per day.

Filing Your Claim and the Open Court System

Small Claims court uses a computerized system called the Open Court System. This means no paper files. Everything you file regarding your case from beginning to end will be scanned into a computer. To file, you may come to our site and file your claim in person. You will be filing the claim on the Open Court System. The computer will ask you a series of questions which will allow it to fill out the form for you. It is that simple. You will receive your documents within minutes.

Information Needed to File a Small Claim

  • Are you the plaintiff or defendant?
  • Do you know where you must file your claim? See Choosing the Correct Court.
  • Have you had an arbitration of an attorney-client fee dispute?
  • Know the dollar amount of your claim.
  • You must first ask the defendant(s) for the money or property to satisfy your claim.
  • Know the reason why you are suing the other party.
  • If you are a minor, you will need a guardian and they need to fill out and file the Guardian Ad Litem form.
  • If you are a business, a corporation, association, a partnership, or sole proprietorship, what is your fictitious business number and its expiration date?
  • Know whether the defendant is an individual, an individual doing business as, a corporation, a partnership or a government agency.
  • If the defendant is a minor, you must find out the name of the defendant's guardian.
  • If the defendant is a business or government agency, you should know who the agent for service of process is (the legal representative of the organization to be notified of the suit.)
  • Are any of the defendants in the military service as defined in Section 101 of the Soldiers and Sailors' Relief Act of 1940?

If you would rather file from home and you have a computer and an e-mail address, you can file through Electronic filing. There is no waiting in line. If you would like further information, please call 916-875-4187, Monday through Friday, between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

If the only way you can file is through the mail, you may access the Judicial Council's Web site - external link for forms.

If you live in Sacramento County and would like to obtain forms through the mail, you must submit a request for forms, along with a large self-addressed, stamped manila envelope. Please send your request to the following address:

Sacramento County Small Claims Court
301 Bicentennial Circle
Sacramento, CA 95826-2701

If you live out of Sacramento County, you may obtain forms by mail.

Monetary Limits

The Small Claims court has a monetary limit, called a jurisdictional limit, on the amount of money damages that can be claimed. Usually, the most "a natural person" can ask for is $10,000; however, you are limited to filing no more than two claims anywhere in the State of California for over $2,500 in one calendar year. You may file an unlimited amount of claims for $2,500 or less.

Service

The party who has filed the case must cause the legal documents to be served upon the other party. If this service is not done correctly, the court will require the plaintiff to re-serve the papers correctly before the case can be heard in front of a judge.

The following instructions will assist you in proceeding with your claim. Failure to comply with these instructions may result in a delay or in your claim being dismissed.

Personal Service

This must be completed at least 15 days prior to the court date if the defendant is in Sacramento County or at least 20 days prior if the defendant is outside of Sacramento County.

Substituted Service

Sometimes it is not possible to locate the actual party named on the legal document. In this case, it is legal and proper to leave the claim with another adult at the defendant's home, or with someone who is in charge at the defendant's usual place of business. These documents must be in an envelope bearing the name of the defendant, and the server must state that the papers are for a legal case. In this situation, the documents must be served at least 25 days prior to the court date if the defendant is in Sacramento County or at least 30 days prior to the court date if the defendant is outside Sacramento County. At this point, the person who served the documents must also mail the second copy of the claim to the defendant at the exact same address where the first copy was left. This is to be done with the first class mail, postage pre-paid. No other form of mail is permitted.

  • Marshall, Sheriff, or Constable in the county where the defendant lives or does business. If you choose this method, you must then contact the Sheriff's Department for further instructions. It is your responsibility to insure that the completed proof of service be returned to the Small Claims court prior to the scheduled court date.
  • Private process server (a listing of process servers may be found in the yellow pages under process serving. If you choose this method, you must make arrangements with the process server of your choice. It is your responsibility to insure that the completed proof of service be returned to the Small Claims court prior to the scheduled court date.
  • By anyone at least 18 years of age who is not a party to the action. They must fill out a proof of service form and it is your responsibility to insure that the completed proof of service be returned to the Small Claims court prior to the scheduled court date.
  • You must pay the court to do service by certified mail. You may not send the certified mail yourself.

Web Sites to Help You File a Claim

The California Courts Self-Help Center - external link has information on how to file your claim and how to enforce the judgment.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs - external link also has a Web site with useful information to help you file your claim. This site also contains information about how to collect the judgment.

Hearings Before Temporary Judges

The Small Claims court uses temporary judges to hear the cases. A temporary judge is an attorney who has been licensed to practice law in California for a minimum of five years and who volunteers to assist the court by hearing certain cases. They meet the same minimum qualifications as a judge or commissioner. The temporary judge is required to take a training program before hearing cases.

You do not have to agree to have your case heard by a temporary judge. If you wait until your court date to request a judge or commissioner of the Superior Court, your case will be continued to a date when one is available and this may delay your case.

If you do know at the time of filing your claim you are not willing to have a temporary judge hear your case, let the clerk know so they can schedule your court date on a day and time when a judge or commissioner is available.

If you are the defendant and you know prior to your court date that you are willing to have a temporary judge hear your case, contact the clerk's office in writing to have the case heard by a judge or commissioner.

What to Expect in Court

  • Children are not allowed in the courtroom, so you should not bring them with you. There is a supervised children's waiting room on the first floor of the courthouse and you may leave children who are at least 2-1/2 and toilet-trained there while you are in court. There is no charge for this service. Younger children may use this facility as well, but you will need to have a friend or relative stay with the infant.
  • Come to court organized and prepared.
  • Arrive promptly at your assigned court time; if you arrive later, your case may be heard without you.
  • Bring enough photocopies of all your evidence for each party and the judge.
  • Any original copies submitted to the judge the day of trial may not be returned to you. Any documents you leave with the court are destroyed. They are not kept in a file or scanned into the computer.
  • Bring all your witnesses.
  • An informational video will be shown at the beginning of the calendar.
  • Mediation will be explained and offered to those parties interested.
  • Roll will be taken and the cases will be divided between two courtrooms.
  • If both parties are present, meaning both the plaintiff and the defendant, you will be asked to go into the hallway to exchange and review any documents that will be submitted to the judge as evidence. This must be done prior to the case being heard.
  • Have all your documents ready and in chronological order when your case is called.
  • There will be several cases assigned to the same time as yours so you may have to wait to hear your case heard.
  • You may be asked to sign a stipulation allowing a temporary judge to hear your case. If you do not wish to have a temporary judge hear your case, your case may be continued to a date when there is a commissioner or judge of the Superior Court to hear your case. You may decline a temporary judge when you file your claim and avoid a continuance to another date.
  • When your case is called, you will stand at a podium in front of the temporary judge. You will be asked to present your evidence and give your testimony. Always address the judge and not the other party.
  • Usually, the plaintiff will give his/her testimony first and then the defendant.
  • The judicial officer will probably ask questions to further his/her understanding of the case.
  • If you are the only party to appear at the trial and you are the plaintiff, you still must prove your case. Do not expect to automatically win your case if the other party does not appear.
  • The proceeding will not be recorded by a court reporter or by any other type of recording.
  • If you are not fluent in the English language, you must bring an interpreter with you. Small Claims courts do not provide interpreters.
  • The court does provide assistance for hearing impaired persons. Requests for this type of service must be made at least three days before your court date. Sign language interpreters, real time interpreters, and assistive listening devices are also available. You may want to tell the clerk what type of assistance you need when you receive notice of the trial or hearing date.
  • The judicial officer will usually not tell you the decision in court. The decision (judgment) will be mailed to you.

If You are the Defendant

If you have been named as a defendant in a Small Claims action and have received an order to appear at a Small Claims hearing, this means that you are being sued. If you do not know why you are being sued, contact the plaintiff immediately for an explanation.

Never ignore an order to appear in court even if you think the case is wrong, unfair, or has no basis. If you do not appear in court at the proper time and date, the court may still hear and decide the case without you and you may lose the suit by default.

If you believe the plaintiff has caused you injury or owes you money for any reason, you can file a claim against the plaintiff in the same Small Claims court action. If your case is related to the subject of the plaintiff's case, it may be helpful and convenient to resolve it at the same hearing by filing a Defendant's Claim and Order to Plaintiff.

If the judgment has been entered against you and the appeal time has lapsed, your money or property and maybe a portion of your earnings can then be taken legally by the judgment creditor to pay the judgment against you. A Small Claims judgment is public record. Small Claims court does not report to any credit reporting agency; however, these agencies come to the court often and place the judgment on the losing party's credit record even after the judgment is paid.