Research Your Case

This section gives you information about some of the more common types of cases and the steps you should take as you prepare for your small claims case.

Click on the topic that relates to your dispute:


Car Repair Disputes

California has a Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) to keep repair shops from taking advantage of you. If you are unhappy with work done on your car, you can file a complaint with the BAR.

Before you file a complaint
Talk to the repair shop service manager.
Keep these tips in mind:

  • Be polite and stay calm.
  • Explain your problem.
  • Tell the service manager what you think is a fair settlement.
  • Tell the service manager if you are willing to negotiate.
  • If you cannot work it out, tell the service manager you are going to file a complaint with the BAR.


Filing a complaint with the Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR)

  1. File a complaint with BAR. Make sure to save all your receipts. BAR may ask for them.
  2. After you file your complaint, you will get a postcard telling you your case number and the name of your BAR representative.
  3. The representative will try to work things out with the repair shop for you. You will get phone calls and letters with information about your case.
  4. If you cannot work things out and the shop broke any laws, the BAR will get proof. Then they may give the shop a "Notice of Violation."
  5. You will be told when your case is closed.


Remember: BAR cannot represent you in court or collect money for you.

Collect Unpaid Wages

You can sue for unpaid wages if you were not paid for work you did. You may also be entitled to statutory damages under California Labor Code section 203. Check with the small claims legal advisor.

If you qualify to use the services of the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, file a claim with them before filing with the small claims court. You will find a lot of helpful information in several langauges on their website or you can call them at: 1-415-557-7878.

 

Suing a State or Local Government Agency

To sue a government agency, you need to prove that:

  1. You filed a claim with that agency; AND
  2. The agency rejected your claim. If you heard nothing, the claim is considered rejected after 45 days. 

In most cases, you only have 6 months to file your small claims court claim once the government agency rejects your claim. File a copy of your rejection letter with your small claims court claim.

Note: You cannot sue a federal government agency in small claims court!

To present your claim to the government agency
Get an official form from the agency:

  • If your claim is against your county government, get the forms from the county clerk.
  • If your claim is against the city government, get the forms from the city clerk.
  • If your claim is against the State of California, contact the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. Find more information about filing a claim against the State of California.
  • If your claim is against another government agency, get the forms from that agency.


Deadline to file your claim with the agency

  • If your property was damaged or you suffered an injury, you have 6 months to file.
  • If your claim is about a contract, you have 1 year to file after the contract was broken.

If you missed your deadline, you can ask for permission to file a late claim. Talk to your small claims advisor for help with this.

The agency will tell you if your claim is approved or denied. If you hear nothing it is considered denied after 45 days.


If your claim is denied
If the agency denies your claim or if you have received no response after 45 days, you can sue in small claims court.

If you receive a written rejection of your claim by the governmental agency, you have 6 months from the date the notice was personally delivered or deposited in the mail to file the claim. If you do not get a rejection letter, you have 2 years to file from the day the incident occurred.  But do not count on having 2 years to file your claim.  To be safe, file your claim within the 6 months from when you should have received the rejection later.  Talk to a lawyer or your court's small claims advisor if you are unsure of your deadline.

Once you file in small claims court, the process is the same as with any other case in small claims court.  The defendant will be the public agency you filed your claim against. Read Suing Someone for information and instructions to file your small claims case.

Security Deposits

A security deposit is any money a landlord takes from a tenant in case the property is damaged.  It is separate from the “last month’s rent” which a landlord may require in addition to the security deposit.

There are limits on the amount of the security deposit:

  • If security deposit is for a residential property without furniture, the security deposit may equal 2 times the rent.
  • If the residence is furnished, the landlord may charge up to 3 times the rent.
  • There is no restriction on the amount of the security deposit for the rental of a commercial property.


Security deposit cases are usually handled in small claims court. They cannot be dealt with in an unlawful detainer (eviction) case.

Return of security deposit
After a tenant moves out, a landlord has 21 days to:

  • Return the tenant's deposit in full; or
  • Mail or personally give you (the tenant):
    • A written letter explaining why he or she is keeping all or part of the deposit;
    • A list of how much each of the deductions is; 
    • Any remaining refund of your deposit; and
    • Copies of receipts for the charges/deductions, unless repairs cost less than $126 or you waived (gave up) his or her right to get the receipts.  If the repairs are not finished within the 21-day period for a good reason, the landlord can send you a good faith estimate of the cost of repairs. Then, within 14 days of the repairs being done, the landlord must send you the receipts.

A landlord can deduct from the tenant’s security deposit:

  • The cost of fixing any damages to the property caused by you (the tenant) or your guests. This does not inclde ordinary wear and tear.
  • The cost of cleaning the unit when you move out, but only to make the unit as clean as it was when you first moved in (less “reasonable wear and tear”).
  • Unpaid rent (including rent owed if you do not give the landlord the proper notice that you are moving out).

The landlord can withhold from the security deposit ONLY those amounts that are necessary and reasonable and NOT a result of “ordinary and reasonable wear and tear.”  For example, a landlord may not make you pay for painting, new carpets, or curtains unless there were serious damages that were beyond ordinary and reasonable wear and tear.  And the landlord cannot use your security deposit to repair problems that existed in the unit before you moved in.

Security deposit disputes
If your landlord does not return the entire amount of your security deposit within the 21 days required by law, and you dispute the deductions from the deposit:

If you and the landlord cannot reach an agreement on the amount of the security deposit returned, you can file a lawsuit against the landlord for return of the security deposit.  You can sue for:

  • The amount of the deposit, PLUS
  • Two times the amount of the security deposit in damages. The judge may give you these additional damages if the landlord retained the deposit in bad faith.

You can sue the landlord in small claims as long as the total amount sued for is $10,000 or less.

Click if you are the tenant and want to file a small claims case against your landlord for return of your security deposit.

 

Problems With Home Improvement Contractors

In general, contractors that fix your home must have a license from the State of California. To find out if your contractor is licensed, call the Contractors State License Board  at 1-800-321-2752.

A contractor must be licensed

  • You can only sue a contractor that does not have a license if he or she does any work for you.
  • You can sue an unlicensed contractor for any money you paid him or her to do work for you.
  • If you are sued by an unlicensed contractor, you may use the fact that the contractor was not licensed as a full defense. And you can recover the full amount you paid to an unlicensed contractor.


Figuring out how much money to sue for
In small claims court, an person can sue for up to $10,000 for damages that someone else caused him or her.

  • If an unlicensed contractor did work that requires a license to do and causes damage, you may file a claim for the damage the contractor caused and also ask for 3 times the amount of the damages.

    • Keep in mind that if the damage the contractor caused forces you to tear all the work down and start over again, you may be able to sue for all the money you paid the contractor plus the cost of tearing out the bad work and starting over. And 3 times the amount of the damages too.

If the total amount you can sue for is over $10,000, you have to decide whether to give up the rest of the money and just sue for $10,000 or file your case in the civil division of the superior court, as either a limited civil case (for $25,000 or less)  or an unlimited civil case (for over $25,000).

If you win and your licensed contractor cannot pay
A contractor has to pay a $12,500 bond to be able to get a license. If there is a violation of the licensing law, you can sue the company that holds the bond. Name that company as a defendant. Read the licensing law at Business and Professions Code, chapter 9 (starting at section 7000)  .

Contact the Contractors State License Board online or by telephone at 1-800-321-2752 to get the name of the bonding company.

Note: The bonding company is a guarantor. You can only sue a guarantor for up to $6,500 ($4,000 if you are not a natural person; $2,500 if they do not charge for the guarantee). But you can sue a guarantor for up to $10,000 if you are a natural person and the guarantor is the Registrar of Contractors (the executive officer of the Contractors' State License Board).

Suing for a Bad Check

If someone writes you a bad check, you can sue for the original amount of the check, plus 3 times the amount of the check up to an additional $1,500.

How to sue for a bad check:

  1. Send a bad check demand letter to the person who wrote the check by certified mail with return receipt requested. In your letter, demand to be paid the following amounts within 30 days by cash or money order: the amount of the check, the cost of certified mail, and the service fee charged by your bank (up to $25 and up to $35 for each subsequent bad check).

  2. Wait 30 days. If you are not paid in 30 days (the full amount of the check plus the cost of certified mail and your bank fees), then file a claim in small claims court for the amount of the check and your bank fees, plus the statutory damages of 3 times the amount of the check, up to an additional $1,500. Read the law in Civil Code section 1719.

  3. File a claim in small claims court.

 

For your small claims trial:

  • Take a copy of the demand letter you sent.

  • Take proof from the post office that you sent the letter by certified mail and got back a return receipt.

  • Take any other papers you need to prove your case. For example, bank statements, notes about your conversations, or any other letters to or from the person who wrote the bad check.

Suing for a "Stop Payment" Check

If someone stops payment on a check without a good faith dispute, you can sue for the amount of the check plus 3 times the amount of the check, with a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $1,500.

How to sue for a stop payment check:

  1. Send a demand letter to the person who wrote the check by certified mail with return receipt requested.
  2. Wait 30 days. If you are not paid in30 days (the full amount of the check, plus the cost of certified mail, plus your bank fees), then file a claim in small claims court for the amount of the check and your bank fees, plus the statutory damages of 3 times the amount of the check, up to an additional $1,500. Read the law in Civil Code section 1719.

  3. File a claim in small claims.

For your small claims trial:

  • Take a copy of the demand letter you sent and the proof from the post office that you sent the letter by certified mail.

  • Take any notices from the bank about the stopped payment.

  • If you have it, take a copy of the stopped check.

  • Take copies of any bank statements or proof of charges you suffered because of the stopped check, and any letters to or from the person who stopped payment on the check.

Car Accidents With Out-of-State Drivers

  1. File your case like any other
    But make sure to ask for a hearing that is at least 70 days away. Also, under the defendant's name and address write:
    • Serve: Dept. of Motor Vehicles
       Legal Affairs Division
       Legal Office, Third Floor
       2415 First Avenue
       Sacramento, California 95818

  2. The clerk will give you copies of the claim
      1. Send 1 copy to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) by registered mail with a $2 check. You can also hire a process server to serve the DMV.  Send the copy to:
         Department of Motor Vehicles
         Legal Affairs Division
         Legal Office, Third Floor
         2415 First Avenue
         Sacramento, California 95818
      2. Serve the out-of-state driver with the other copy after you get an "acknowledgment of receipt" form from the DMV. Call the sheriff's department where the driver lives or hire a process server in that state to serve the driver.

    • Then file the acknowledgment of receipt from the DMV and the Proof of Service (Small Claims) (Form SC-104) with the small claims court.

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