Here's What You've Been Asking For
We realize that most of you do not make it a habit to sue in Small Claims Court. Taking 2-3 hours away from work (or play) to spend in Small Claims court is not quite as pleasing as a day at the Beach with your family. However, Leading up to your hearing date, many of you don't know what to expect. You may have some anxiety if you have never appeared in Small Claims Court. You've seen Judge Judy, but wonder if that is really what to expect. The article below will walk you through each step. Our hope is that you are more comfortable and feel more prepared in the days leading up to your hearing. Remember, most of our clients tell us that the whole experience was much easier that they had anticipated.
Just a reminder to those who do not know, we have added a Blog to our site. Please take a look!
Naturally, if you still have more questions, don't hesitate to call or email our office.
|Your Day in Court, A Complete Walk Through|Be there early! Look presentable
You've waited for this day for weeks or months. Therefore, do not be late! Plan to be there at least 15 minutes early. Plan for heavy traffic (especially if you have a morning hearing) and time to find parking. Bring extra money for parking and incidentals. Almost every court now will require you to go through a Security Screening machine. This extra security measure causes many courts to have long lines out the front door. Recently, I waited 45 minutes to get into the West Covina Courthouse in the morning.
In addition, please look presentable. A Judge may have a difficult time taking you seriously if you are wearing ripped jeans and a faded, dirty, paint spotted 1984 Lakers T-shirt. Remember, no shorts, flip-flops or Tank-Tops.
What Evidence to bring?
Remember, you can never bring too much evidence with you. However, be sure to organize the evidence in a "workable" manner. It's awfully nerve wracking shuffling through papers in front of the Judge. Oh Yes, what to bring? Here's a list of a few popular Small Claims cases that we often process:
For Automobile accidents: Photographs, repair estimates and/or paid invoice for repairs, Police Reports, any proof of communication (e-mails, texts, letters) that you have had with the other driver, owner or Insurance company.
For Security Deposit Refunds: Copy of Lease, photographs of condition of unit, copy of check paid for Security Deposit, Paid invoices of any work done on unit, copy of CCP code dealing with proper notice and time parameters of returning security deposit.
For Breach of Contract: Copy of contract, copy of invoices/statements for work completed, photographs of work completed, e-mail correspondence, text messages, letters, memorandums, sworn statements, copy of formal complaints made i.e. Better Business Bureau, Department of Automotive Repair, Contractors Board, Bar Association.
Add the following to your list. A simple itemization of how you arrived at the amount you are suing for. This can be simply written out on a piece of lined paper. One column showing the item and the other the amount. Add it up to match the amount suing for on the claim.
I did not include witnesses above. If you are bringing a "friendly" witness with you to court, be sure to inform him/her of the above dress standards. You also may want this witness to go through all of the evidence you are bringing to court. If you have subpoenaed a witness for your case, try to make contact with him/her before the cases start to be heard. You're smart to greet this person and thank him/her for making the appearance.
What Paperwork should you bring that smallclaimsdepartment.com has supplied you with?
- Copy of Plaintiff's Claim and Order to go to Small Claims Court (SC-100).
- Copy of filed Proof of Service. Just in case the original did not make its way to the court file.
- Copy of your paid invoice. May need to show Judge so that our cost is added to your judgment.
- Filled out Authorization To Appear form (SC-109). If you are appearing on behalf of a Corporation, Partnership, LLC, LLP, this form simply tells the Judge who you are, your title and what company you are appearing for.
Arriving to Court and Getting Settled
At this point, you've parked, gone through Security and are sitting outside the courtroom waiting for the Bailiff to open the courtroom doors. This is also a good time to get those last minute calls and/or texts and final gulp of Starbucks out of the way. Be sure to turn your cell phone off once you enter the courtroom. If you see the Defendant, be pleasant. A simple "good morning", is not going to concede your case. Yelling to the Defendant "You're going down!!" will typically not help your case. Sit back, relax and go over your evidence one more time.
Entering the Courtroom, Pre-Trial Procedures
The courtroom doors are normally opened at exactly the time your hearing is scheduled. If you do not speak English and have a translator, there will be a designated area for you. If you are in a wheelchair the Court Clerk will usher you to another designated area. Another 10-15 minutes later the Bailiff or Court Clerk will start to take "role". If you already have not seen the Defendant present or don't know what he/she looks like, this is the opportunity to see if the Defendant has appeared.
If your name is not called, you need to go see the Court Clerk. There could be a variety of reasons your name was not called. However, a typical reason is that the court does not show that a Proof of Service has been filed. If this happens to you, simply show the Clerk your conformed (stamped) copy of the Proof of Service that you have received from our office (or whomever you utilized to Serve).
After role call, the Bailiff or Court Clerk will brief the litigants on the procedure of the court.
The Clerk or Bailiff will then tell all litigants (in which both parties are present) to go out in the hallway for approximately 15 minutes and exchange evidence. This does not mean that you are obligated to give copies of this evidence to the opposing party. It simply means that you are required to show the other party what evidence that you are prepared to show the Judge. Again, be courteus and respectful to the opposing party. If the opposition is rude and accusatory, simply get up and go back into the courtroom.
You should also know that most courts make an attempt to have the parties either mediate or come to a settlement before the hearings start. You will be told that if your case is settled before the hearings start, your case will be processed before all others.
Just before the Clerk or Bailiff sends you out in the hallway, you will be told that a Mediator is present. If both parties agree to participate in the Mediation Program you will be shuffled into a room to see if both parties, with the help of the Mediator, can come to an amicable agreement (without having to argue before the Judge). You are not obligated to come to an agreement. If a deal is not made, your case will be heard before the Judge. As stated, if you do agree on a "deal", the details of the settlement will be brought to the Judge for his/her signature.
The Typical Order of Cases Heard
I've been in many courts before many Judges. However, there is a pattern as to the order of cases heard. Some Judges may change up the order. Therefore, the following is a typical order:
- The Judge will first hear the cases where a settlement has been made; with or without the help of the Mediator. The Judge will typically read aloud the settlement and the parties will confirm the deal.
- The next set of cases heard are those in which only one party is present. When the Defendant only is present, the Judge will quickly dismiss the case. When the Plaintiff only is present, the Judge will typically ask the Plaintiff for evidence that substantiates the amount prayed for. The Judge will confirm quickly that Service was made legally by glancing at the Proof of Service. Default Judgment is awarded to the Plaintiff.
- The last are the contested cases where both parties have appeared.
Finally, Your Turn in Front of the Judge!If this is your first hearing ever, you're lucky if your case is not called up first. It's really helpful to watch a few cases before yours. You can get a feel for the process and the style of the Judge. As mentioned before, Judges differ greatly! Some Judges will want to know every detail and will pour over all of your evidence. Others will make very quick (and sometimes "rash") decisions. The time of your Trial will range from 2 minutes to a high of 30 minutes.
A Few Final Thoughts
Our clients ask us daily what exactly to say to the Judge. While there is not a definitive template, this process too has a general order. Here goes:
- The Judge will call the name of the case i.e. Stephen Jones versus Smith and Associates. Both parties approach a long table that sits in front of the Judge. One side is labeled Plaintiff and the other, Defendant. Since Small Claims hearings are short, all parties will typically stand. If you have brought witnesses (both Friendly and Subpoenaed) they too will approach. The Judge or Clerk will tell the witnesses where to stand.
- Next, if you are representing a Company, the Judge will ask you your name and title.
- Typically the Judge will ask the Plaintiff to give a synopsis of the claim. I can't stress enough to be clear, concise, confident (even a bit assertive) and avoid talking too much. I promise you that the Judge will appreciate this style. Try your best to keep your language free from emotional outbursts. Be professional, even if you feel like putting the Defendant in a headlock.
- The Judge will then ask the Defendant to respond to what the Plaintiff stated. Do not even think about interrupting the Defendant; no matter how much you believe he/she is lying or exaggerating. I've noticed that often the Judge will look at the other parties facial expression while the other side is speaking (especially if the Judge has an inkling that the Defendant is laying it on too thick). If you simply continue to stand up straight and vaguely shake your head (even in total disbelief), the Judge will appreciate that you kept it to yourself. You may want to take notes to identify issues that you really want to respond to.
- Often, the Judge may allow the Plaintiff to respond/contest what the Defendant has just said. Go by memory or look at your notes to respond.
- From this point on the Judge will take charge of the direction of the trial. He/She: may ask to hear your witnesses, may want to see some specific pieces of evidence, may want to ask pointed questions to one of the litigants, may even want to glance through the rules of California Civil Procedure. Whatever the Judge decides, continue to stand up straight and keep quiet.
- A good Judge will ask the litigants if they want to add anything else to their testimony. Again, stay unemotional, and if you're going to add anything else, make sure it is a point that you already have not made.
- The Judge will either decide and inform you of the his/her decision right then or will mail the decision to the litigants. In the last few years I have noticed that most Judges decide to inform the litigants that the decision will come in the mail. The Clerks are normally very prompt in mailing you the decision. Most of our clients receive notice within 2-3 business days.
- O.K. you made it. Walk out of the courtroom proud that you did not roll over and let somebody take advantage of you.
- If you win your case, be sure to remember that the Defendant has 30 days (from day of Judgment) to File an Appeal. Only the Defendant can file an Appeal.
- Within this 30-day period, feel free to call or send letters to the Defendant. However, you cannot do any "heavy lifting"(Wage Garnishments, Bank Levies, etc.) collection methods until the 30 days have expired.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to call or email me or my staff.