Table of contents

What is small claims court, and why don’t I need a lawyer?

Small claims court is a court that doesn’t allow lawyers. You can get up to $10,000 in California and thousands of dollars in every state. Anyone can represent themselves and win. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the court still requires evidence. You will have to prove your case, even if you know you’re right. That can take more evidence than you think. Judges are skeptical people, and they’re hesitant to make the government force anyone to do something.

Get more evidence than you may need. Read our introduction to small claims here. The entire process should cost less than $200. You can get fee waivers if you’re low-income.

Start by communicating informally

You want to make things right with as little work as possible. So, start with the simplest and easiest step: talk to your landlord. If you’ve been having trouble with the apartment manager, think about going over their head. You may have more luck.

If talking things out doesn’t work, start writing your demand letter.

Send a demand letter if they don’t agree to follow the law

Sending a good demand letter resolves the vast majority of cases without court.

A demand letter will provide official notice to your landlord that you will sue them if they don’t do what they’re legally required to do. You can read our full guide here.

Before you send it to them, make sure you have a case. Research the laws that may apply. You’ll want to reference them so that your demand letter lets them know that you know the law. Some people rely on other’s ignorance. You can read about common questions tenants have here.

Your demand letter must be formal and grammatically correct. Although it should be strongly worded, you can only threaten to sue them. Saying that you could or might do anything else could get you in trouble for extortion. You can’t even say that you will tell everyone else how bad of a landlord they are.

Once you’ve written your demand letter, you’ll have to send it to the right person. You should send it to the apartment manager, but you should also send it to whoever they work for. Even if you don’t know who that person is, you will eventually have to give notice of the lawsuit to their boss. Now is a good time to figure out who that person might be. If you don’t, you will still have to do it later.

If they’re willing to negotiate, consider settling for less than you might be owed.

It is often not worthwhile to wait weeks or months for the trial. If the difference between what they offer and what you want is small, try and get them to close the gap. Ask them to meet you in the middle, or point out an item on a receipt that they sent that looks too high. Don’t be afraid to ask for proof. Otherwise, let them know they’ll have to meet your full offer or that you’ll see them in court.

For a more complete guide to negotiating a settlement, click here.

File suit in small claims court by filling out SC-100.

You can easily file online in small claims court by using Dispute.

If you want to file on your own, you can learn how to file in-person, online, and through mail by clicking this link.

Serve them.

Get a friend to serve them or hire a professional server. You cannot serve them yourself. A professional server costs around $85 in California. You can read our full guide on how to serve someone in California here.

After you do serve them, they may decide that they’re finally ready to settle.

Go to court.

Even though court is often stressful, nothing will help your case (other than evidence) more than being polite and respectful. Judges have seen people in worse circumstances behave admirably, so they’ll likely have little sympathy for people who can’t handle themselves even when they’re ultimately in the right.