So, you have a tenant who owes you rent, unpaid utility bills, or other similar expenses from the COVID Period – March 1, 2020 through September 30, 2021? Well, you are now able to file a small claims case.  

Where to Start

Make sure you have….

  • Made a good faith effort to investigate and apply for any available government rental assistance and/or cooperated with the tenant’s efforts to obtain rental assistance. Keep records of any attempts and the outcome -especially if the tenant is declined. You will need to provide this to the court. 
  •  A copy of the tenant’s lease/rental agreement, addendums, and any other legal documents. It can’t hurt to bring the tenant’s entire file in case they try to bring up unrelated issues like repairs during this time that they may claim you never made. Being able to provide a receipt for a plumber will go a long way to convincing the court that you have responded to the tenant’s requests. 
  • Copies of all the notices you served your tenant regarding this issue along with printed photos of any notices you posted on the tenant’s door
  • Copies of bad checks and receipts for any repairs that had to be made
  • Printed copies of any emails or text messages between you and your tenant
  • A log of the date, time, and a recap of any conversations you had with your tenant that related to rent payments
  • Put all “evidence” in a binder using pocket dividers or whatever filing system works for you to organize all the things you plan to present in court. Use a second binder (if necessary) to hold all the court documents we’ll be discussing in a moment. Keep them in dated order so you can find what you need quickly.

Mediation and Arbitration

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Now that you have all of your documents ready to go, you have a few options. If you happen to have a tenant who is willing to work with you, you might consider mediation or arbitration. Mediation is a non-binding process with a mediator who does not judge the case but facilitates discussion and hopefully a resolution. Arbitration is a binding process that replaces the trial process. It’s something most courts offer and might offer a speedier solution – if both parties are willing.

It is also helpful to be familiar with what legal rules the judge or arbitrator will be using to decide your case. So, familiarity with AB 3088 and AB 832 will help you be prepared for any questions that come your way. Be sure you present the facts that are important to the way the judge will decide your case. The judge will decide based on the law, not on emotion (how rude the tenant treated you, for example). Don’t waste time on things that will not help your case and may make you sound unprofessional or petty. 

What’s Next?

  1. Check out the California Courts website at www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp-smallclaims.htm.  The website offers  new step by step format to help guide you through the process and also a live chat to help with questions.  
  2. Complete and file a “Plaintiff’s Claim and Order to go to Small Claims Court” – which is Court Form SC-100.  You can find this form at www.courts.ca.gov/documents/sc100.pdf.  Be sure you make 1 copy for the court, one for you, and 1 copy for each person you are suing.
  3. Take your forms to the court clerk – Find the courthouse for your county and give the original and all copies to the clerk. Clerk will give you a case number, court date, and stamp the forms. The clerk will keep the original and return the copies to you. 
  4. Pay filing fees – which should range between $30 and $100.  If you can’t afford the fee, you can ask for a waiver. 
  5. The papers must be legally served to each defendant. You cannot do this yourself. 

It’s Court Day

  • Bring three copies of everything. One for you (organized as discussed above) one for the defendant(s) and one for the judge. 
  • Dress professionally
  • Arrive early in case the court is ahead of schedule. It also gives you time to review your documents and make sure everything is fresh in your mind. 
  • Be respectful to everyone and speak clearly. Address the Judge as “Your Honor.” During court sessions, only speak to the judge when spoken to, (no one else) and finally, do not interrupt.

What Happens Then?

The biggest surprise to me the first time I went to small claims was that you may not have that grand finale moment where the judge announces the verdict. Instead, the judge may announce that this case has concluded and you will leave the courtroom. The court will notify both parties by mail (usually within seven days) of the verdict. This judgement is good for 10 years. You must wait 30 days after the judgement has been entered before proceeding with collections. For more specifics, read through “What to Do After the Court Decides Your Small Claims Case” Court Form SC-200-INFO which you can find at this web address  https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/sc200info.pdf

Before you Begin, One Last Question

How much effort are you willing to put into this? If you have the time and energy to pursue this all the way through, then go for it!  The tenant owes you the money and should be made to pay what they owe. On the other hand, if you aren’t willing or able to work through this arduous process with no guarantee at the end that you will collect, it is worth considering trying to strike a deal with the tenant. Perhaps offer them a discount if they agree to pay up so you can both put it behind you. It might be a bitter pill – but perhaps a bird in the hand is the best option. 

Happy New Year!

Melody Scott is the Membership and Operations Manager in our Van Nuys office. She and her husband have managed family-owned residential properties for over 25 years in different parts of California.  She also works with a homeowner’s association and oversees a property manager caring for a property too far away to manage herself. Melody has been very active in her local community and is a  member Tournament of Roses Association.