There are several steps to a small claims case. For a flowchart that shows you every step, click on the image.
Before you can file your small claims case, you must ask the other side to pay you (unless there is a good reason why you cannot). You can ask in person, by phone, or in writing.
It is often a good idea to ask for payment in writing. To do that, you can use a demand letter. A demand letter is a short, clear letter asking for payment. Keep a copy for yourself and take it to court to show the judge. Your demand letter does not need to be sent by registered or certified mail.
For help writing a demand letter, click on the link below that best describes your case. You will be directed to a program or a sample letter on the California Courts website.
- Demand letter to a person or business that owes you money
- Demand letter to your landlord asking for return of your security deposit
- Use this program ONLY if you do not receive your security deposit (or an itemized invoice for any amount withheld for damages) within 21 days after you move out.
- If you received part of your security deposit and feel that your landlord should have returned more money, DO NOT use this program. Instead, use the demand letter to a person or business that owes you money.
- Sample demand letter when someone writes you a bad check
- Sample demand letter if someone stops payment on a check
You must figure out which county is the right county for you to file your case. Legally, this is called "venue." If you file in the wrong county, the court may dismiss your case and you will have to re-file in the right county. If you file in the wrong county and the time to file your case (the statute of limitations) has run out, you may lose your right to bring a claim altogether.
You can generally always file your claim in the court where the defendant lives or does business.
If the proper venue for your small claims case is San Mateo County, file your case at:
Small Claims Clerk's Office
Hall of Justice, Room A
400 County Center
Redwood City, CA 94063
You may also have other options for where to file your case. Look at your type of case in the chart below to see if you have other options. Keep in mind that the law is complicated and even if you think your case fits into one of these exceptions, it may not. Talk to the small claims advisor to make sure you know which court to file your case in.
|Type of case||County where you can sue|
|Broken contract or agreement||
|Consumer purchase (you are a seller and the person who bought something from you owes you money)||
|You bought something or paid for a service, primarily for personal, family or household use||
You can also file in any of these locations if you bought something from a seller as a result of an unsolicited telephone call or e-mail from the seller to you, including situations where you, as the buyer, responded to the seller's call by phone or e-mail.
|You are suing your credit card company||
You can also file in any of these locations if you entered into a contract with a credit company as a result of an unsolicited telephone call from the company to you, including situations where you, as the buyer, responded to the company's call by phone or e-mail.
San Mateo County has many cities and areas in the county, so any of the following locations could serve as the basis for filing a claim in San Mateo County:
When you fill out and file your claim, you must have the EXACT name of the person or company you are suing (the defendant). If you do not use the correct name, you may not be able to collect any money if you win. You need to put the defendant's name on the papers that you file with the court.
Follow these guidelines:
|Who are you suing?||Write down:||Example|
|Suing a person||Write the person's first name and last (middle initial if known). If they have used or go by different names, use "aka" ("also known as") for the other names.||John A. Doe
(If John goes by Jack at work, write: John A. Doe aka Jack Doe)
|Suing spouses||Write both their full names||James A. Jones and Sally R. Jones|
|Suing a business owned by 1 person||Write the owner's name and the business name. Name the owner as an individual to have a better chance of collecting if you win.||Sue Smith, individually, and dba Continental Candles
("dba" stands for "doing business as")
|Suing a partnership||Name the partnership and the partners individually||Jim Smith and John Jones, individually, and Smith & Jones, a partnership|
|Suing a corporation, or a limited liability company||Write the exact legal name of the corporation, and be sure to include the name of their registered agent for service of process.||Sally Dresses, Inc.; c/o CT Corporation, agent for service.|
|Suing a business owned by a corporation||Write the name of the corporation and the business||Lotus Corporation dba The Flower Company|
|Suing because of a car accident||Write the name of the driver and the owners of the car, if not the same people.
If there were multiple cars involved, it is important to name each driver and owner
|Lucy Smith, owner, and Betty Smith, driver.|
If you made a mistake naming your defendant and already filed your claim, you may still be able to fix it. Click to find out how to change your claim.
To prepare, read:
- Information for the Plaintiff (SC-100-INFO)
- Addendum to Information for Plaintiff (San Mateo local form)
IMPORTANT: Keep in mind that, as the plaintiff, you cannot appeal a small claims decision based on your own claim. So if you lose, there is nothing you can do. If you want to be able to appeal, you should file in the Civil Division.
Then, fill out:
- Plaintiff's Claim and ORDER to go to Small Claims Court (SC-100)
- If there is more than 2 plaintiffs or 1 defendant, also fill out Other Plaintiffs or Defendants (Attachment to Plaintiff's Claim and ORDER to Go to Small Claims Court (SC-100A).
- If you need more space to describe your claim and what happened, or you need witness statements, you can use a Declaration (MC-030).
If you are a business, you may also have to fill out Fictitious Business Name (SC-103) declaration.
After you finish your court forms, you must give your forms to the clerk of the court to file your small claims case. To do this:
- Make at least 2 copies of the Plaintiff's Claim and ORDER to go to Small Claims Court (SC-100) and any attachments.
- Turn the original and copies into the Clerk's Office located at 400 County Center, Room A in Redwood City.
- Pay the filing fee.
The court clerk will return the copies of the Plaintiff's Claim and ORDER to go to Small Claims Court (SC-100) stamped "Endorsed-Filed" and with a court date written on the front. That is your court trial.
- If, after you file, you realize you made a mistake naming your defendant or you asked for the wrong amount, you may still be able to fix it. Click to find out how to change your claim.
"Service" is the legal way to give notice to someone in a court action. It is when someone-NOT you or anyone else listed in this case-gives a copy of your court papers to the person, business, or public entity, you are suing. Service lets the other side know:
- What you are asking for;
- When and where the hearing will be; and
- What they can do.
There are 2 court forms that can help you understand service in your small claims case and make sure you follow the right steps. Read:
Your small claims trial will be heard in Redwood City, at the Hall of Justice, located at the County Center Complex in Redwood City.
- Click to see the Hearing Schedules and location for San Mateo County.
It is very important you prepare for your trial ahead of time. It is also a good idea, if you can, to observe some other small claims trials before you have yours, to know what to expect.
Click on Go to Court to find out more about how to prepare for your trial, gather your evidence and witnesses, and understand what will happen.