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Going to Small Claims Court

Dear Mary, I have a client who owes me $3,000. I’ve sent a letter demanding the money, which they’ve ignored. I’ve done everything I can think of to get the money back, but I can’t afford to hire an attorney for such a “small” amount of money. What can I do?

Have you thought about filing a claim against them in small claims court? Small claims is a special system where disputes can be resolved promptly and for very little cost.

There are limitations to what you can accomplish in small claims. Businesses can only seek $5,000. You can file only two claims per calendar year for more than $2,500.

If your business is owed more than $5,000, you can hire an attorney and sue in Superior Court, or you could reduce your claim to fit the limit. For example, if you are owed $6,000, you may consider asking for $5,000 in small claims instead of bringing a more expensive and time-consuming action in superior court.

When you file your claim, the court clerk generally will set a hearing date within 40 days. In Napa, the small claims filing fee is $30 for claims under $1,500, or $50 for claims between $1,500 and $5,000.

The next step is to notify the other side. You can have the court send notice by certified mail for $10; you can have the Napa County Sheriff attempt service for $30; you can hire a private process server; or you can have a neutral party who is over 18 and not a party to the action serve the defendant (“party to the action” usually includes witnesses).

If you win your small claims case, you may be entitled to receive costs on top of a judgment. “Costs” reimburse you for filing fees and the cost of serving the other side.

Keep in mind that there are other costs involved in going to small claims. You have to prepare for your court hearing and will probably have to take time off of work for the hearing.

You may not hire an attorney to represent your business at the hearing. However, you may consult with an attorney beforehand to prepare, afterward to collect a judgment, and an attorney can represent a party in small claims appeals.

If your business is a partnership, only one of the partners must appear. If you have a corporation, an officer, director or employee authorized by the board of directors must appear at the hearing, as long as that person is not also an attorney.

If you’re expecting the hearing to be like your favorite legal television show, you may be disappointed. There’s no jury, you don’t get to make objections, and you won’t have to use legal “mumbo jumbo.” Bring an original and two photocopies of every piece of evidence that will help you — especially a copy of the contract in question.

Napa small claims cases are usually heard on Fridays at 8:30 a.m.

Your case will be heard quickly. As the plaintiff, you will be allowed to state your side, and then the defendant will be able to state their side. The judge, commissioner, or attorney on the bench will ask both sides questions.

You can save yourself some time and money if you can agree to settle the dispute without going to court. Consider offering a payment plan to the other side, or settling for less than you are owed. If the other side agrees, make sure you get a signed, written agreement with them.

Mary Luros is a business law attorney with Hudson & Luros, LLP, in Napa, and can be reached at or 418-5118. The information provided here is not intended as legal advice, nor does it form an attorney-client relationship with the author. The author makes no representations as to the reliability or accuracy of the above information. In a perfect world we wouldn’t need disclaimers — or attorneys.

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