Dealing With the Small Claims Court in California? What You Need to Know
As a landlord, situations can arise that require legal involvement. Whether it’s filing an eviction suit, a tenant injury on a rental property, or a security deposit disagreement, sometimes property owners need to navigate the small claims court system. When the time comes, it’s important to have a good understanding of the California court system so you can protect yourself throughout the process.
Understanding the laws
The first step to successfully navigating a legal disagreement is to have a comprehensive understanding of all California laws regarding rental properties, such as rules regarding security deposits and returns.
For example, itemizing and returning security deposits must be done within 21 days after the property has been surrendered to the owner in the state of California. You must provide tenants with notice of all intended deductions via an itemized list that clearly outlines how the deposit will be applied toward costs such as repairs, rent arrears, and cleaning.
Suing through the small claims court
A tenant can sue for a maximum amount of $10,000 via the California small claims court, with no more than two claims over $2,500 filed annually. It is common for tenants to sue through the small claims court due to the affordability of filing. Tenants are also not required to engage lawyers and there is no jury involved, which speeds up the process significantly. Filing a claim with the California small claims court typically costs anywhere between $30 and $75 with hearings scheduled within 70 days of the filing.
Settling outside of court
If a tenant decides to file a small claims case, you may receive a demand letter first. Upon receiving a demand letter, you should immediately assess your actions as a landlord to determine if you have acted outside of the law and rectify any errors to try to make things right. Additionally, ensure that all correspondence between parties is reasonable and respectful, as you will want to be able to demonstrate that you’ve acted reasonably as a landlord should the matter go to court.
It’s usually in your best interest to keep disputes out of the legal system, if possible. Try to reach a compromise with the tenant directly so you can avoid deal with the legal system. Suggest that both parties attend mediation, and an agreement reached during mediation can be signed off as a resolution to the disagreement.
Preparing for a hearing
If you have to attend a hearing in small claims court, gather the following documentation:
- a copy of the signed lease or rental agreement
- copies of all relevant correspondence with the tenant
- copies of all relevant invoices and receipts
- witnesses, if possible
For any evidence you intend to use, you’ll need to prepare at least three copies: one for you, one for the judge, and one for the other party).
Small claims court hearings are usually relatively informal. However, you should put forth a best effort to be viewed favorably, so practice your defense beforehand. Watch a few similar cases online to know what to expect and visit the court’s website for additional resources. The hearing will consist of both parties taking turns explaining and defending their point of view, providing evidence or introducing witnesses to support claims. The whole process typically takes less than an hour. Then, the judge will deliver a verdict immediately or will notify both parties of the verdict within a few business days.