Q Legal: Navigating our superior court system – Part 1

The vast majority of civil and criminal legal cases are handled by the Superior Court system in California. Each county in the state has a Superior Court, and most counties offer court services in several different locations within the county.

The Court has divisions or departments for civil, criminal, family, probate and juvenile cases.

Cases are heard by judges who are elected to a six year term by the voters in each county. Judges may also be appointed by the governor of the state if there is a vacancy, such as retirement or death of an incumbent. Some types of cases may also be heard by commissioners, who are appointed by the judges. Both judges and commissioners must be attorneys admitted to practice law in California for at least 10 years.

Since nearly all of us are likely to use the services of our Superior Courts at some time or other during our lives, I would like to devote several articles in the coming months to help you understand the basics of the court system. We will start with the Small Claims Division of the Court.

Many of us, at one time or another have had disputes with manufacturers, contractors, neighbors, or even friends that we were not able to resolve outside of the legal system. Often, these disputes may seem too trivial to hire an attorney, but still may involve a considerable amount of money.

Perhaps your landlord won’t return your security deposit, or the contractor you hired to replace the tile in your bathroom only made things worse. What can you do to get your money back without retaining an attorney? File a claim in Small Claims Court, usually in the county and location where the dispute took place.

In Small Claims Court, disputes are resolved quickly (usually within 3 months) and inexpensively. The rules are simplified and the hearings are informal. The person who files the claim is called the plaintiff. The person being filed against is called the defendant.

In Small Claims Court there are no juries, and no one is allowed to make objections. Lawyers may not represent either party in court; however, the plaintiff and defendant may seek legal advice before or after court, and it might be wise to do so to see if there is a valid claim, how to present the claim and argument, or how to defend yourself against the claim. But, most people go through the entire process without ever consulting a lawyer.

There is a filing fee of up to $100.00, based on the amount of your claim and number of claims you have filed during the past year; and there are limits to the amount of damages that you can seek in Small Claims Court. Whether you are a citizen or non-citizen of the United States, you cannot seek more than $7,500.00, sometimes even less if you are suing a guarantor – a person who has guaranteed payment of someone else’s debt to you. If you are filing a claim on behalf of a corporation, government agency or other entity, the maximum claim amount is generally $5,000.00.

If you have a claim for more than the dollar limit allowed, you may file your action in the Civil Division of the Superior Court. Or, you may waive your right to any amount over the limit and file the matter in Small Claims. You cannot, however, file more than two small claims cases anywhere in California for more than $2,500.00 during a calendar year.

If you are the plaintiff and lose your case, you will have no right to appeal the Small Claims judgment. If the defendant counter-claims against you in the same matter and you lose (as the plaintiff), you may appeal that ruling. The defendant has a right to appeal if they lose. If the defendant files an appeal, or the plaintiff files an appeal to the defendant’s counterclaim, each party may be represented by a lawyer at the appeal hearing.

Steps to File A Small Claims Case:

The Court has a Small Claims Advisor who can help you determine that you are filing your claim in the right place, and can provide you with the Claim of Plaintiff form that you must fill out.

Complete a Claim of Plaintiff form with the following information:

It is very important to put in correct names and addresses, and if you are suing a business or corporation, you must get the name and address of the corporate officer who can legally be notified. Information about corporations doing business in California can be found on the website of the Secretary of State.

Clearly and concisely state the facts of the dispute. You must disclose how much money you are claiming, the reason(s) you are claiming the money, and the date and place where the dispute started.

Pay the filing fee. If you cannot afford the filing fee or other costs, you may qualify for the fee to be waived. Ask the Clerk for the appropriate form.

Notify the defendant. You must arrange to have a copy of the Claim of Plaintiff served on the person that you are suing at least 15 days prior to the hearing if the defendant lives in the same county, and at least 20 days before the hearing if they do not. There are several ways for you to serve the defendant; check with the Small Claims Advisor for the best way for your case.

Once the hearing is over, the judge may issue an immediate ruling, or it may take a few weeks. If you win your case, you will then have the legal authority to collect your money. However, the court will not collect the money for you. You should talk with the Small Claims Advisor for the different options on collecting from the defendant.

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles pertaining to legal issues in the LGBT communityPrevious articles can be viewed at heritagelegal.com. This information is intended for general information purposes only, and is not intended to provide legal advice. Christopher Heritage is an attorney in Palm Springs, and San Diego, CA, who focuses on LGBT estate planning, domestic partnerships, same-sex marriage, probate, trust administration, and bankruptcy. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be contacted at 760.325.2020, or by email: chris@heritagelegal.com; Greg Barton, of Gregory D. Barton, CPA & Associates, Inc., has offices in Palm Springs, and Palmdale, California. He can be reached at 760.969.6499, or by email: greg@gregbartoncpa.com