Better Call Glew: Small Claims Court Edition
Jay Brockman

Better Call Glew: Small Claims Court Edition

Hi Mr. Glew,

I am landscaping my yard and my gardener burned me and didn't do the work after I paid him $3,000. I think this is the type of lawsuit you file in small claims court. Is that correct? If so, how does a lawsuit in small claims court work, and how likely will I get my money back?

You are correct: this is the type of case that is best suited in small claims court. I'm assuming this occurred recently, but if not, you have four years to sue for breach of a written contract, and two years for breach of an oral contract. The first step is going to the clerk of the court, or online, and filling out and filing the appropriate documents. There is a filing fee, which varies from county to county, but is generally around $80.

The next step is going to court, where you will have the option of having your case heard by a mediator, avoiding trial, or by a judge or court-appointed official, for trial. Remember, in California you cannot be represented by counsel in small claims court, so you will be on your own.

At trial, the plaintiff, or the person bringing the suit, carries the burden of proof. Both sides will be able to submit documentary evidence and call witnesses, so long as the witnesses have been subpoenaed in advance of the trial. Further, both sides will be able to argue their case to the court before the court makes a final ruling.

The ruling of the court can be appealed by a defendant, but this rarely occurs.  Most likely, the biggest hurdle you will face will be collecting, should the court rule in your favor. If there is a judgment and the responsible party does not pay, there are various remedies, including wage garnishments, available to aid in collection.

The question you must ask yourself is, after you add up the filing and subpoena costs, as well as the value of your own time in seeing this suit through, does filing suit really make sense?  Sometimes it's better to take a loss and move on than to chase bad money with more bad money. 

Send all questions to And remember, Better Call Glew!

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