Small Claims: A Tenant’s Guide

Landlord-tenant legal disputes can arise from a variety of situations. Among the most common is disagreement over a deduction from the security deposit. Sometimes that deduction is improper or poorly documented. How can the tenant claw that money back? Small claims. It is the venue where a tenant has a fighting chance.

Nobody wants to take a dispute to court but if adjudication is necessary then small claims is the way to go. The $10,000 limit covers most claims against the landlord; and the process is accessible because court costs are low and neither the plaintiff nor the defendant can be represented by an attorney. The playing field is leveled.

Security Deposit Example

Recovering a rental deposit is one of the most common reasons a tenant turns to small claims court. In fact it is example #1 on the LA Superior Court’s small claims webpage. Other matters like rent overcharges and improper utility billing can also be addressed in small claims. And they should be. Don’t let the landlord get away with unlawful conduct!

Maybe the landlord has deducted from the deposit for spurious reasons or the required documentation of deductions seems suspicious; or maybe the landlord simply is not responding to a request for the return of the deposit. Small claims court provides a venue where the tenant can recover her deposit and it accords an important advantage to the tenant: the landlord cannot be represented by counsel.

The LA Superior Court provides a wealth of detail online from the filing of forms to the collection of damages at the small claims portal. The court also provides a detailed online guide, Small Claims Court A Guide to Its Practical Use. Watch an explainer video. Have a look at the state’s useful explainer of the small claims process too. Here we present an overview of the process along with legal resources for tenants.

The Preliminary Step: Attempt to Resolve it Amicably

Small claims requires that the potential plaintiff first ask for payment. The court provides a useful guide on this. Because many issues can be resolved before any gets to court, communication is a common-sense step to take. The conversation with the landlord should refer to the relevant statutes and ordinances and detailed notes should be taken.

Why take notes? This is also an evidence-gathering opportunity. Retain written correspondence — and any conversation should be in writing! — because an unresponsive landlord is very helpful to the tenant’s claim. For example, the tenant has fulfilled her obligation (paying rent) but the landlord did not perform (lack of maintenance or didn’t return the deposit).

There is also mediation before an issue gets to the courthouse. City of Beverly Hills contracts with a professional mediation service. To learn more, contact the rent stabilization office at (310) 285–1031. (If you use mediation get in touch with Renters Alliance about your experience. Better yet, bring us along to audit your session.)

Step 1: Prepare the Case

Understand the relevant state law and local ordinance. Here the deposit again is an example. The deposit is refundable and it can only be withheld to cover a landlord’s costs. And the law requires the landlord to document how much is withheld and why it is withheld. The tenant can question the basis for each deduction and ask for an itemization of costs (if one was not provided) plus documentation of the need for any expenditure(s). To be one’s best advocate means knowing the law!

The Department of Consumer Affairs Tenants Guide is a good place to start when it comes to the complex provisions of state tenant law. Find the relevant passage and consult the footnotes for the applicable state statutes, which may be buried in the Code of Civil Procedure, the Civil Code, and the Government Code. Those codes can be accessed via the Legislative Information portal).

Other relevant laws may be part of the local rent stabilization ordinance. Consult the city’s Rights and Responsibilities Handbook to locate the relevant Municipal Code sections. The Rent Stabilization Program website links to the actual ordinance (in two parts: Chapter 6 for most tenants and Chapter 5 for tenancies that started at $600 or lower).

Lots more California-based legal resources are listed at the Library of Congress. Finally, mind the timeline for filing a claim. A statute of limitations may apply. For most tenant claims it will be three years.

Gather the evidence. Getting prepared for trial includes marshaling all of the available evidence and presenting to the court a coherent narrative of events. The timeline here is important as it will document for the court all instances of contact with the landlord. The more coherently the claim can be presented and supported the better the chance of prevailing in court. This is what attorneys do, of course, but in small claims it is up to the plaintiff herself. The court provides a useful checklist.

For example, if a deposit is not returned the evidence can include written correspondence about the deposit and fully documented conditions at move-in and move-out (such as the checklist we recommend). The plaintiff’s objective is to establish for the court that the premises are in the same condition as when rented (exclusive of “ordinary wear and tear”) and that the deposit should be returned.

Make a timeline that note the precise dates of contact with the landlord and recaps of the conversations. Include the date of the walk-through (if any) and the post-move-out conversation about the deposit. Because the law is very specific about how much time the landlord has to return it (21 calendar days), a lagging response from the landlord will suggest that the tenant did her duty but the landlord did not perform.

Step #2: File the Case with the Court

File the claim at the courthouse using form SC–100 or file electronically. The filing fee is modest ($30 or $50 usually) and there are fee waiver provisions too. A tenant who prevails will recover that fee (and maybe penalties). The filing starts the clock: there will be a hearing date scheduled (20 to 70 days after filing). More information here.

Step #3: Serve the Landlord

After filing the case with the court it is time to serve the landlord the court papers. This must happen 15 or more days before the hearing if the defendant is in-county (20 days out-of-county). A private process server can render ‘personal service.’ It can be professional process server or any adult. Alternately the papers can be left at the defendant’s home or place of business. This is ‘substituted service’ and also requires that the defendant be served via certified mail (for proof of mailing). The courts provide a useful very detailed guide.

Properly name the defendant. A case will fail if the defendant is not accurately named. If you have difficulty finding a landlord’s address for service then call the City of Beverly Hills Business Office at (310) 285–2427 to see if there is a street address associated with the landlord. There is also the county tax assessor (surely the tax bill goes somewhere!). Renters Alliance may also be able to help by looking though online permit records and the state entity registratins to identify a beneficial owner or at least a designated recipient for the purposes of service.

Step #4: Present the Claim to the Judge

Small Claims cases are heard at the Santa Monica Courthouse at 1725 Main St. (Room 210A) in Santa Monica on Mondays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1:30–4:30 p.m. and Friday mornings only. Be there before the beginning of the session in case your claim is called out of order.

Present a clear case narrative. Be succinct, ground it in the relevant provisions of law or ordinance, and link it to the case timeline. Reference communication with the landlord and bring the lease (mark the relevant clauses, if any). In stating the claim, the tenant should think like an attorney: persuade the judge to view it from the tenant’s perspective.

  • As the court’s website reminds us, “The judge’s decision will be made based on the law, the evidence and common sense.” You should:
  • Be truthful and present the facts.
  • Be objective and control your feelings.
  • Be respectful of the judge and the other party.
  • Only speak to the judge, not the other party.
  • Never depart from the facts of the case into anecdotes or speculation.

Here the timeline is key! Don’t get caught out by a competing claim from the landlord on a date or the order of events. Make sure your dates and facts are in alignment.

Some questions that can shape a claim for a deposit return (to use that example):

  • Does the landlord’s itemized statement accurately reflect conditions at move-in and move out?
  • Do the landlords receipts sufficiently explain the work involved?
  • Did the tenant incur any expense to prepare the unit before turning over the keys?
  • Is withholding the deposit a pattern and practice of this landlord?
  • Has the landlord in any statements impeached his own credibility?

Documentary visual evidence is invaluable! Annotate each image with the date taken and perhaps a caption. Bring any cancelled checks (for example work you performed on the apartment) and drawings that may help explain your case.

Do your legal legwork. Has the landlord been named defendant in other such cases? Has a former neighbor contested the landlord’s withholding of a deposit? Bring to the hearing a signed affidavit!

Step #5: The Judge Decides

The judge can find for the defendant, for plaintiff, or even for both parties by ordering some or all of the deposit returned to the plaintiff (or none of it) for example. The judge will rule either at the hearing or later by returning the ‘notice of entry of judgment’ by mail. There are three possible outcomes:

  1. Tenant loses on her claim. Here the judge has decided for the landlord and that decision is final for the tenant because her claim failed. If it was to recover some or all of the deposit, she will forfeit what the landlord has withheld.
  2. Landlord loses. If the landlord is ordered to return the deposit, he can, at his option, appeal the case to Superior Court and parties there will present their case anew and each may be represented by an attorney (as the matter has left small claims).
  3. Judge ‘splits the baby.’ Here the judge awards partial damage on the tenant’s claim. Either party can appeal.

The example we use here concerns the withholding of a rental deposit. But another example could turn around the table: maybe the plaintiff is the landlord and the tenant is the defendant accused of damaging the apartment or failing to pay rent in excess of the deposit. Should the tenant lose such cases then she may appeal. (Read more about appeals.)

The small claims court decision becomes final 30 days after a Notice of Entry of Judgment is issued in court or mailed. This period allows for any appeal. Upon expiration of the 30-day window the prevailing party (‘judgment creditor’) can collect.

Step #6: Collect on the Judgment

Most landlords will simply honor the court’s judgment and pay up. After all they do business at a fixed location and the ‘judgment creditor’ tenant has options as enumerated on the Los Angeles Superior Court small claims website. That includes putting a lien on the property (use an Abstract of Judgment form EJ–001) or request the court put a levy on the landlord’s commercial bank account (use a Writ of Execution form EJ–130).

The property lean is effective because it will trip-up the landlord when he refinances to tries to sell the property. We would really like to see some version of the “Sheriff’s till tap,” where the Sheriff is empowered to literally enter a retail business to take the plaintiff’s award right from the cash register. (If only!)

Remember that the prevailing party can ask for court costs including the filing fee, the process service fee and costs for subpoenas and witnesses. Recovery for fees is decided at the time of trial so bring proof of costs with you.

Other Considerations

Know that the court allows for the defendant to file a ‘defendant’s claim’ against the plaintiff if the defendant alleges the plaintiff owes damages. It can be filed in response to the original claim against the defendant and may be heard at the same time as the original claim. It should be related to the original claim but not replicate the original claim. The defendant’s claim may be served close the court date so timely action is needed by the plaintiff to prepare — or perhaps request a continuance to a later date.

Legal Help with the Case

Free help for Small Claims Court litigants is available downtown from the Los Angeles County Small Claims Advisor Service at 500 W. Temple St. Room B–96. Reach them by phone: (213) 974–9759 M-F 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Some legal aid programs will also help with small claims cases. City of Beverly Hills contracts with Bet Tzedek Legal Services. The consultation is FREE. Call (323) 939–0506 ext. 499 to schedule a walk-in appointment at Roxbury Park on Mondays from 10 a.m.-noon.

The do-it-yourselfer should Nolo Press’s Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California which is held by the Beverly Hills Public Library. Find it on the shelf at 347.794 Everybody’s 2018 or consult the reference copy if it is checked out.

LawHelpCA is California’s official free legal resource receives funding from the State Bar of California and generous donations from legal aid providers throughout the state. It provides many resources on small claims proceedings.

Self-Help Legal Access Center (SHLAC) program provides forms, information about court procedures, and help with reviewing court forms prior to submission. Find SHLAC at the Santa Monica Courthouse at 1725 Main St. room 210A. Hours are courthouse hours: M-Th 8:30am–12pm & 1:30–4:30pm and Friday mornings until noon. SHLAC is operated by Neighborhood Legal Services and is funded by the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs.

Good luck! And let Renters Alliance know about your experience. We are eager to share it.