By Melody Scott – January 4, 2021
So, you have a tenant who owes you rent from last Spring. What can you do NOW to be ready to file your case after March 1st? What will happen when it’s time to go to court?
Where to Start
Make sure you have….
- A copy of the tenant’s lease/rental agreement, addendums, and any other legal documents
- 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
Consider putting all “evidence” in a binder using pocket dividers to hold 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
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 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.
- Determine where the court you will be filing in is located. It most likely would be the one closest to the rental property. Each county will have a website that lists all available courts and search features to figure out which one makes sense.
- On that same website, you should be able to find the appropriate forms that are necessary for your county. Read SC-100-INFO Information for the Plaintiff, to know your rights. You can find this document at https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/sc100info.pdf
- Review form SC100. You can get this form at any courthouse or go to https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/sc100.pdf. Fill out pages 2 and 3 of this form and then make copies of all pages of the form (one for each party named and an extra for yourself).
- Take or mail the original and the copies to the court clerk’s office and pay the filing fee. The clerk will write the date of your trial in the box at the top of page 1 of the form.
- The papers must be legally served to each defendant. You cannot do this yourself. See Forms SC-104, SC-104A and/or SC-104B. You can find these forms at https://www.courts.ca.gov/forms.htm?query=small%20claims.
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. There are organizations that can help with the collections process if you wish. However, they generally take a hefty portion of anything collected.
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.
Melody Scott is an AOA advisor 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 manager caring for a property too far away to manage herself. Melody has been very active in her local community and was recently selected to the Tournament of Roses committee.
Reprinted with permission of the Apartment Owners Association of California, Inc., (AOA).