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What Is Small Claims Court?
Small claims court is a special court where disputes are resolved quickly and inexpensively. In small claims court the rules are simplified and the hearing is informal. The person who files the claim is called the plaintiff. The person who the claim is filed against is called the defendant. While you may ask an attorney for advice before you go to small claims court, an attorney cannot represent you in court.
The plaintiff has the right to appeal an unfavorable defendant's claim, but has no right to appeal the small claims judgment. The defendant has a right to appeal. If the defendant files an appeal, each party may be represented by an attorney at the hearing. More information on appeals is found under Post-judgment Proceedings.
A natural person (not a business or public entity) may file a claim for no more than or equal to $10,000.00, with a few exceptions.
If you have a claim for more than $10,000.00, you may file your action in the Civil Division of the Superior Court. You may, however, waive your right to any amount over $10,000.00 and file the matter in Small Claims.
Hours of Operation
8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, excluding Court holidays
8:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, excluding Court holidays
Fairfield: (707) 207-7335
Small Claims trials are heard as follows:
Hall of Justice
600 Union Avenue, Courtroom 303
Fairfield , CA 94533
Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m.
Solano Justice Center
321 Tuolumne Street (courtroom changes daily)
Vallejo, CA 94590
Wednesdays, Thursdays at 1:00 p.m.
Small Claims Advisor
The Small Claims Advisor Telephone number is (707) 344-1446
Hours of Operation: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 9 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Tuesday 1 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
|Filing Claim for $1,500 or less||$30.00|
|Filing Claim for more than $1,500 but less than or equal to $5,000||$50.00|
|Filing Claim for more than $5,000 but less than or equal to $10,000 (Claim by natural person only)||$75.00|
|Filing Claim by person who has filed more than 12 small claim in California within the previous 12 months||$100.00|
|Service by clerk for certified mail, to each defendant||$15.00|
|Transfer of case out of small claim court (Defendant's claim exceeding jurisdictional limit)(No receiving court filing or transfer fee)||No Fee|
|Request for postponement of hearing, if defendant has been served||$10.00|
|Notice of appeal of small claims case||$75.00|
|Other Motions other than motion to vacate||$60.00|
|Motion to vacate||$20.00|
|Fee for payment of judgment to court||$20.00|
|Motion for Claim of Exemption||$60.00|
|Application for order of examination of judgment debtor||$60.00|
|Writ of Execution||$25.00|
|Abstract of Judgment||$25.00|
|Amendment raising amount of claim from $1,500 or less to more than $1,500 but not exceeding $5,000||$20.00|
|Amendment raising amount of claim from more than $1,500 but not exceeding $5,000 to more than $5,000 but not exceeding $10,000 (claim by natural persons only)||$25.00|
|Amendment raising amount of claim from $1,500 or less to more than $5,000 but not exceeding $10,000 (claim by natural persons only)||$45.00|
|Request for postponement of hearing, if defendant has been served, or before service on defendant if a prior postponement was granted||$10.00|
Who Can File A Claim?
You must be at least 18 years old to file a claim. If you are not yet 18, you may ask the court to appoint a guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem is usually a parent, relative or an adult friend.
Only the actual party to the claim may file. If you assign your claim to someone, they cannot file a small claims action on that claim. You must represent yourself at the small claims hearing. Attorneys or others are not permitted to represent a party in small claims court.
If you are a business required to file a fictitious business name statement, you must include your statement number and date of expiration on the claim form. You cannot file a case in small claims court without a valid fictitious business name statement.
A corporation or other entity that is not a natural person must be represented by a regular employee or representative. The employee cannot be hired solely to represent the corporation or other entity in small claims court. The employee or representative is required to file a declaration with the court stating the basis of their authority to represent an entity.
Where Can You File Your Claim?
You must file your claim in the proper judicial district. If you file your claim in the wrong judicial district, the Court will dismiss your claim unless all parties personally appear at the hearing and agree to have the case heard. The hearing judge must also approve the agreement.
The right judicial district may be any of the following:
- Where the defendant lives or the defendant corporation or other entity has its principal place of business.
- Where the person or personal property was injured or damaged.
- Where the defendant signed the contract or where the contract was breached.
- Where the buyer resided at the time of entering into a retail installment account, or contract on a motor vehicle finance sale.
Locations for Filing:
Hall of Justice
*ALL SMALL CLAIMS FILES ARE HOUSED AT 600 UNION
|Solano Old Courthouse|
580 Texas Street
Fairfield, CA 94533
Rules about the Defendant
You must be careful to properly designate the defendant using his/her exact legal name. If the defendant is a corporation, check with the California Secretary of State for the exact name and the agent authorized to receive service of process for the corporation. For other types of businesses, check the city business license or the county fictitious business name statement. If you do not designate the defendant's exact legal name, you may not be able to enforce the judgment. If the claim is against a government agency, you must first file a formal claim with the agency and have your claim denied before you file a claim in court. Generally, you have six months after the incident or dispute to file a complaint with the agency.
Serving the Defendant the Claim
You must ensure the defendant receives a copy of the claim you filed. This is called "service of process." Service of process has strict rules that must be followed exactly or your case will be delayed or dismissed. The plaintiff cannot complete service of process himself/herself.
If you arrange for personal service or certified mail, an in-county defendant must be served at least fifteen (15) days prior to the hearing. If the defendant is out of Solano County, service must be completed at least twenty (20) days prior to the hearing. If service is by "substituted service," an additional ten (10) days is required for proper service of process.
The person who serves the defendant must complete a "proof of service" form verifying the defendant was properly served with a copy of the claim. A signed mail receipt is sufficient if service was completed by certified mail. The proof of service form must be returned to the court clerk at least five days prior to the hearing.
Anyone over the age of 18, who is not a party to the case, may serve a copy of the claim. There are three methods to serve process on the defendant.
1. Personal Service
A copy of the claim is delivered personally to the defendant by someone over the age of 18 whom is not a party to the case.
The Solano County Sheriff will serve process for a fee.
2. Certified Mail
The clerk of the court where you file your claim will send a copy of the claim to the defendant by certified mail.
- The clerk must do the mailing
- There is a fee for the service.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If the defendant does not sign the receipt for certified mail, the service of process is invalid.
3. Substitute Service
This is a two step process where someone other than the defendant personally receives a copy of the claim.
- The first copy must be delivered to someone over the age of 18 at the defendant's residence or place of business with the person in charge or at the defendant's usual place of mailing other than an U.S. Postal Service Box.
- A second copy must be mailed to the defendant at the same place where the first copy was delivered. The mailing must be completed at least 25 days before the hearing. If the defendant is located out of Solano County, the mailing must be at least 30 days before the hearing. The mailing must be by regular, not certified mail.
The prevailing party must wait 30 days from the date of the mailing of the entry of judgment before beginning enforcement proceedings. During this 30-day period, the opposing party has a right to appeal. If the opposing party was not present at the small claims hearing, he or she has no right to appeal, but may file a motion to vacate.
Only the defendant, or the plaintiff on a defendant's claim, has a right to appeal. The appeal must be filed within 30 days from the date of the mailing of entry of judgment. An appeal is a new hearing that includes the claims of all parties to the case. To file an appeal, request a Notice of Appeal from the Small Claims Division. Fill out the form and pay the correct fee. The appeal will be scheduled and all parties will be notified by mail of the appeal hearing date.
A small claims appeal is called a Trial De Novo. A de novo hearing means the appeal court will hear the case without regard to what happened at the first hearing. An attorney may represent any party at the appeal hearing. Judgment on appeal is final.
Motion to Vacate
If you did not appear at the first hearing and judgment was entered against you, you may file a Motion to Vacate. If you were served with the notice of the claim, the motion to vacate must be filed within 30 days of the mailing of entry of judgment. If you did not receive any notice of the claim, you must file the motion to vacate within 180 days of discovery that judgment was entered against you. There is a fee to file a motion to vacate.
At the motion to vacate hearing, you must explain to the court why you were not at the first hearing. You cannot argue the facts of the underlying case unless your motion is granted and all parties are present and agree to have the case heard at that time. If the motion to vacate is granted and all parties are not present, the case will be continued.
If the motion to vacate is denied, you have 10 days to appeal the denial. This appeal is not an appeal of the underlying case, it is only an appeal of the denial of the motion to vacate. A plaintiff bringing a motion to vacate has no right to appeal if the motion is denied.
Enforcement of Judgment
The key to enforcing a judgment is knowing where the judgment debtor's money is. Typical cash flow sources are bank accounts, employment, rental income, and business receipts. If you have no information regarding the debtor's assets, you may file an Application and Order for Appearance and Examination. The Order of Examination is a hearing where you ask the debtor questions about his or her assets. You may ask where the debtor banks and where he or she works, among other questions. There is a fee to file an Order of Examination.
If you file an Order of Examination, you may want to have a Subpoena Duces Tecum issued at the same time. A Subpoena Duces Tecum is used to order the debtor to bring certain documents to the examination hearing. Documents that are generally subpoenaed include pay stubs, bank statements, accounts receivable and any other documents that tend to show where assets are.
Both the Order of Examination and Subpoena Duces Tecum must be personally served by a Sheriff or Registered Process Server.
Specific Enforcement Procedures
If the judgment debtor works for someone else, his or her wages may be garnished to pay off the judgment. To begin the process, you must complete a Writ of Execution form. There is a fee to have the Writ of Execution issued. Once the Writ of Execution has been issued, take it to the Sheriff's Office and request an Application for Earnings Withholding Order. Fill out the forms completely with the employer's name and address and the judgment debtor's full name.
The Sheriff will charge a fee to serve the wage garnishment. The Sheriff's Office can tell you how soon the garnishment should begin after it is served and how much of the judgment debtor's wages may be garnished per pay period.
Rental Income Garnishment
If the judgment debtor owns rental property, you may garnish the rents paid by the current tenants. The procedure is the same as for the wage garnishment except you instruct the Sheriff to do a rent garnishment instead of a wage garnishment. The Sheriff will charge a fee to serve the rent garnishment.
If you know the bank and branch the judgment debtor has a deposit account, you may levy on the funds in the account. To begin this procedure you must obtain a Writ of Execution from the clerk. Take the Writ to the Sheriff and request a bank levy. Once the Sheriff serves the levy, the bank account is frozen and the account holder is notified. There is a fee for the Writ and a Sheriff's fee.
Till Tap/Keeper's Levy***
If the judgment debtor owns a business that has a cash register, you may arrange for the Sheriff to go to the business and do either a Till Tap or a Keeper's Levy. A Till Tap sends the Sheriff into the business to take all cash and checks out of the cash register. A Keeper's Levy stations the Sheriff at the business for 8 to 12 hours to collect money as it is paid to the business. To begin this procedure you must obtain a Writ of Execution from the clerk. Take the Writ to the Sheriff and request a Till Tap/Keeper's Levy. There is a fee for the Writ and a Sheriff's fee.
NOTE: The judgment debtor may close his or her business for the day and the Sheriff will be unable to collect any money.
***Certain money is exempt from levy, such as child support payments. If the judgment debtor files an exemption to the levy you will be notified and will have an opportunity to oppose any claim of exemption.
Judgment Lien on Real Property
If the judgment debtor owns real property, you may record a lien on the debtor that attaches the property. Go to the clerk and ask for an Abstract of Judgment form. There is a fee to have the Abstract of Judgment issued. Record the Abstract of Judgment at the County Recorder's Office, 701 Texas Street, Fairfield, California.
The Abstract places a lien on the equity the judgment debtor has in real property located in Solano County. Before the judgment debtor's real property can be sold, the lien must be satisfied.
NOTE: You may record an Abstract of Judgment in any county in which the judgment debtor owns property.
Costs After Judgment
A judgment creditor is entitled to recover certain costs incurred in enforcing a judgment. The judgment creditor is also entitled to claim 10% interest on the principal amount of the judgment. Costs must be added to the judgment within two years of incurring them. Interest may be added at any time.
Accumulated costs and interest are added to the judgment by filing a Memorandum of Costs with the clerk. Ask the clerk for a Memorandum of Costs form for small claims. Complete the form and mail one copy to the judgment debtor, and file the original with the clerk. The Memorandum of Costs must be mailed by someone other than the creditor.
Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment
After the judgment debtor pays the judgment, the judgment creditor is required to immediately sign the short Acknowledgment of Satisfaction of Judgment portion of the Notice of Entry of Judgment form and file it with the small claims court.
If the judgment creditor has recorded an Abstract of Judgment in any county where the judgment debtor owns real property, a different acknowledgment form must be used. Also, the judgment creditor must sign the form in front of a notary public and record it with the county recorder in any county where he or she has recorded an Abstract of Judgment.
The Superior Court of California provides a Small Claims Legal Advisor at no cost. The advisor is available to assist with small claims issues and procedures from filing through enforcement.
Advisory phone hours are as following:
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 9:00 a.m to 1:00 p.m. and Tuesday 1 p.m - 5 p.m.
The Legal Advisor is available for phone consultation, only. The advisor may be reached at (707) 344-1446
If you would like to go to the California Department of Consumer Affairs-Small Claims Court website click here.
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