Q: In San Diego, what is the maximum amount that can be awarded in Small Claims Court?

A:  The maximum amount an individual may be sued for in Small Claims Court is now $10,000.      As of January 1, 2012, SenateBill 221 increased the Small Claims Court jurisdictional limit from $7,500 to $10,000.

While there are two exceptions to this jurisdictional increase, it is likely that neither is helpful to a landlord or property owner being sued by a current or former tenant.  Under the first exception, when an individual sues for personal injuries incurred in an automobile accident and the defendant is insured, the maximum claim amount is limited to $7,500.  Second, the maximum claim amount is still $5,000 when the lawsuit is brought by a corporation, partnership or any entity other than a sole proprietorship.

Q: As a landlord, what issues are usually addressed in Small Claims Court?

A:  Typically, disputes involving money are most appropriate for Small Claims Court.  With the increase of the small claims jurisdictional limit, you may be sued or sue for up to $10,000.  A tenant might bring a lawsuit against his or her landlord to dispute a security deposit refund or to seek compensation for retaliatory eviction, failure to provide habitable premises, constructive eviction, invasion of privacy, or various housing code violations. 

Landlords and property owners may consider going to Small Claims Court to bring a claim against a former tenant for physical damages done to the property, unpaid rent or other charges incurred by the tenant (i.e. late fees, utilities charges, storage fees for abandoned personal property), or for other breach of contract disputes.

Q:  Can all the claims be resolved in one hearing?

A:  Yes, but only if those claims are clearly specified from the beginning of the lawsuit.  For example, if you wish to bring a lawsuit against your former tenant for back rent owed as well as physical damages to the premises, you must specify both claims in the original complaint.  This is because the other side must be sufficiently notified of all claims brought against it before trial.  If you wait until the day of trial to raise additional claims, the court is unlikely to allow those claims to be heard or, in limited circumstances, might decide to postpone the trial to allow you to amend your claim.

If your tenant files a lawsuit against you in Small Claims Court, you might be able to file a counterclaim (or “Defendant’s Claim”) against that tenant, particularly when your claim for damages arises out of the same or similar facts and issues.  Your counterclaim will be filed in the same lawsuit and the court will hear both claims at the same time. 

Q:  May I have a lawyer represent me in Small Claims Court?

A:  While you may not have a lawyer represent you on the day of trial, you may ask a lawyer for advice in the preparation of your small claims case.  Small Claims Court is designed to provide individuals with an expedited means for resolving legal disputes.   Like most lawsuits, you should go to court as prepared as possible and may have an attorney help you prepare your case.

Q:  How will the tenant be notified about the lawsuit?

A:  Once your claim is filed with the court, a copy of the claim must be served on all parties named in the case (known as “service of process”).  As the plaintiff, you may not serve the claim yourself.  You may, however, have someone over the age of 18 who is not a party to the case serve a copy of the claim on the defendant(s). 

It important to note, though, there are strict service of process rules.  Failure to follow these rules may result in the dismissal or delay of your case.  For example, the person who completed service of process must also complete and sign a “Proof of Service,” which must be filed with the court clerk before trial.  If the filing deadline is not met or service of process is otherwise defective, the trial may be postponed or the case dismissed.

Q: How do I serve a former tenant with my claim if he or she already moved out without providing a forwarding address?

A:  Under the service of process rules, the defendant may be served with your claim anywhere in the state.  Unfortunately, you may not simply mail your claim for service of process to be valid.  The court requires proof of personal service, or at least substituted service, for which you need the defendant’s current residence or business address.  This becomes a problem when your tenant has already moved out without providing a forwarding address.  While you may ask the court clerk to serve your claim by certified mail for a fee, the defendant must sign the receipt for certified mail for the service of process to be valid.  There is no guarantee he or she will do so.

To avoid this problem, you might consider asking prospective tenants to provide a current work address on rental applications, and periodically update this information through out the tenancy. 

Q:  I lost in Small Claims Court.  May I appeal the decision in my case?

In Small Claims Court, the right to appeal depends on whether you were the plaintiff or defendant in the case and whether you were the winning or losing party on the claims.  If you defended yourself in Small Claims Court and there is a judgment against you, the other side must wait 31 days before collecting on the judgment amount.  This means you have 30 days to appeal the judgment.  Once you file an appeal, the Superior Court will consider your case “de novo,” which means you have the opportunity to present your case as if it were a new trial.  Because your case will be heard in Superior Court, there are stricter procedural and evidentiary rules.  Unlike Small Claims Court, you are allowed to have an attorney represent you on your appeal in Superior Court.

Please note, though, if you were the plaintiff in your case and the court found in favor of the other side on your claims, you do not have the right to appeal the decision.  For example, if you bring a lawsuit against your tenant and you lose, you may not appeal the decision.  Similarly, if you bring a lawsuit against your tenant, who then files a “counterclaim” against you (new and different claims in the same case), the tenant may not appeal if he or she loses on those claims.  Before pursuing this course of action, it may be best to consult with an attorney to learn whether you have the right to appeal.

Attorney Melissa King works with Owens & Wright, Attorneys at Law, in their Landlords Small Claims Legal Center.  She assists San Diego landlords, property owners, and property managers in the preparation, defense, and appeal of small claims matters.  The Landlords Small Claims Legal Center is open Monday – Friday from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.  Phone: (619) 795-8549.  Website: www.lsclc.com.

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