Plaintiffs and Defendants ... The Judgment

Receiving the Judge's Decision

After hearing from the parties who appear at the hearing, the judge will make a decision. The judge will base the decision on the evidence, the law, and common sense. The judge may rule for either the plaintiff or the defendant, or may award something to both parties.

Sometimes the judge may decide the case immediately, announce his or her decision in court, and ask the clerk to give the parties the judgment form — called the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) — in the courtroom. Other times, the judge may not decide the case until later. This is called "taking the case under submission." If the judge takes the case under submission, you'll receive your copy of the Notice of Entry of Judgment in the mail, after the case is decided.

The judge may take the case under submission, either as a matter of practice, or to review the evidence, research a point of law, or consult an expert. Also, if you forgot to bring an important document or other evidence to court — for example, a written contract — the judge may allow you to bring it in promptly after the hearing so that it can be examined by the judge before a decision is made.

If you don't receive the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) within two or three weeks, call the small claims court and ask the small claims clerk to check on the matter. You may also be able to check the status of your case on a court Web site. Be ready to give your case number when you call. If you change your address, be sure to give the clerk your new address. Do this by letter, and include the name and number of your case, as well as your old and new addresses.

A small claims judgment is a public record that is often listed in the credit record of the losing party (the judgment debtor), even after the judgment is fully paid. To avoid marring a person's credit record, particularly if the losing party hasn't done anything morally wrong, some judges hear the case and issue a decision that becomes effective only if the losing party fails to do what the judge decides (e.g., pay a stated amount of money). This keeps the dispute out of the official records if the losing party performs. The judge has actually decided the case, but schedules a follow-up hearing to see if the losing party has paid the money or done the things that the judge has ordered. If the losing party performs the conditions described in the judgment, the judge will then dismiss the case with prejudice (alternative (4) under "Resolving Your Dispute Before the Hearing").

If the judge doesn't rule in your favor, that doesn't necessarily mean that the judge didn't believe what you said. Instead, the judge's decision may be based on a law that must be applied to the facts of your case. You may write to the court for an explanation of the ruling, although the court isn't legally obligated to explain it. Also, you may write to the judge who heard the case, the presiding judge of the court, or the court administrator, to register your feelings, good or bad, about your small claims experience. Your comments will help the court monitor the performance of the court and its temporary judges and staff, as required by Judicial Council rules.

Judgment Against a Party Who Doesn't Come to the Hearing

Sometimes, one of the parties doesn't come to the small claims hearing. If the defendant doesn't appear, the key question is whether the defendant received proper notice of the hearing. If the Proof of Service (Small Claims) (Form SC-104) shows that service of process was properly made, the judge will consider the plaintiff's evidence and decide the case, even if the defendant is absent.

A judgment isn't automatically awarded against a defendant who doesn't come to the hearing. The plaintiff must still prove the plaintiff's claim by evidence. If sufficient evidence is provided, the judge may award the plaintiff some or all of the amount claimed, and possibly also court costs and interest. If the defendant is an active duty member of the armed forces, a judgment can be awarded only if certain prerequisites are met.

If the plaintiff doesn't appear at the hearing, and doesn't notify the court of the reason for the absence, the court has several options. The judge may reschedule the case, dismiss the case with prejudice, dismiss the case without prejudice, or — if the defendant appears — enter a judgment against the plaintiff after considering the defendant's evidence.

Setting Aside a Judgment Against a Party Who Didn't Come to the Hearing

If a judgment is entered against a non-appearing party, the non-appearing party can ask the court to set aside, or vacate, the judgment in certain circumstances.

If the plaintiff doesn't appear at the hearing, and a judgment is entered against the plaintiff, the plaintiff has 30 days after the date of the clerk's mailing of the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) to ask the small claims court to set aside the judgment and hold another hearing. To make this request, the plaintiff must file a Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment and Declaration (Form SC-135) and explain why the plaintiff didn't appear at the hearing. A hearing to consider the request will then be held. (The word "motion" means "request," and the words "notice of motion" mean that the person giving the notice desires to make a request.) The request to vacate (set aside) the judgment may be granted, but only if the judge finds good cause for the plaintiff not attending the hearing. If the request is granted, most courts will hold the hearing on the plaintiff's claim immediately, so both parties must attend that hearing and be prepared to present their cases.

If the defendant does not appear at the hearing, similar rules apply. A defendant who doesn't appear must first ask the small claims court to vacate (set aside) the judgment. If the defendant was properly served, the defendant must file a Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment (Form SC-135) within 30 days after the date the court mailed the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130). The Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment and Declaration (Form SC-135) should be completed to show why the defendant didn't appear at the hearing. A hearing to consider the request will then be held. The request to vacate(set aside) the judgment may be granted, only if the judge finds good cause for the defendant not attending the hearing. In that event, most courts will hear and decide the plaintiff's claim immediately, without rescheduling it. For that reason, both parties should attend and be prepared to present their claims and defenses.

If the defendant wasn't properly served with the plaintiff's claim, the defendant has up to 180 days after learning that the judgment was entered to file a Notice of Motion to Vacate Judgment (Form SC-135). A hearing to consider the request will then be held. If the court determines (1) that the defendant was not properly served, and (2) that the request to vacate the judgment was filed within 180 days after the defendant either discovered the judgment, or should have discovered the judgment, the defendant's motion will be granted. If both parties are present, and both parties agree that the case can be heard at that time, the case will be heard without rescheduling it. If both parties do not give their consent, the case will be set for hearing on a later date.

If the defendant's motion to vacate the judgment is granted, the case is re-heard by the small claims court, either then or later. If the defendant's motion is denied, the defendant has 10 days from the date of the denial (or of the mailing of the notice of denial) to obtain a review of the denial by another judge (one designated to hear small claims court appeals). The defendant's request is registered by filing with the small claims court a Notice of Appeal (Form SC-140). The new judge only decides if the original judge was correct in denying the defendant's motion to vacate the judgment, and does not decide the case again.

Correcting an Error or Appealing a Small Claims Court Judgment

Only the person against whom a claim is made may appeal a small claims court judgment. The party who files a claim in small claims court (the plaintiff) can't appeal the judge's decision on that claim. For that party, the court's judgment is final. Similarly, if the defendant files a claim against the plaintiff, the defendant may not appeal the court's ruling on the defendant's claim. Only the plaintiff can appeal a decision on a claim filed by the defendant.

There are two ways to have a dispute re-examined by a judge. The first is to appeal, which entails a re-hearing of the dispute before a different judge of the superior court. A defendant (or a plaintiff who loses on a claim filed by the defendant) who appeared at the small claims hearing may have the dispute re-heard by a different judge. Also, an insurer of a defendant may appeal the judgment if the judgment exceeds $2,500 and the insurer's policy covers the matter to which the judgment applies.

The appeal from a judgment in small claims court is started by filing a Notice of Appeal (Form SC-140) with the small claims clerk within 30 days after the judgment is delivered or handed to the parties in court or, if the decision is mailed, within 30 days after the date the clerk mails the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) to the parties, whichever is earlier. The date of mailing (or in-court delivery) appears on the form. The fee for filing an appeal is $75. Once the defendant files a Notice of Appeal, the judgment from which the appeal is taken can't be enforced, and the defendant (judgment debtor) need not pay anything to the plaintiff (judgment creditor) unless and until the appeal is dismissed or the defendant loses the claim on appeal.

A plaintiff or defendant also has the right to invite but not require the small claims court to re-examine its decision. This is accomplished by filing with the small claims court a Request to Correct or Cancel Judgment and Answer (Form SC-108). While the defendant is the only party with a right to file an appeal, either party, whether plaintiff or defendant, may request the small claims court to correct "a clerical error in the judgment" or vacate a judgment and re-hear the dispute "on the grounds of an incorrect or erroneous legal basis for the decision." The request should describe the asserted error both clearly and persuasively.

The option to register such a request gives both parties to a small claims court action a limited opportunity to have the small claims court reconsider an allegedly erroneous decision, although not the right to another hearing unless the small claims court considers it necessary to re-hear the case. Such a request must be filed no later than 30 days after the small claims clerk mails or delivers the Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) to the parties (but the court retains its inherent power to correct an error).

If a defendant files a request to correct an error (Form SC-108), the defendant should be mindful of the need to also file a Notice of Appeal (Form SC-140) within 30 days after receiving the Notice of Entry of Judgment. The reason is that the 30-day time limit for filing a Notice of Appeal is not extended. If the small claims court does not grant the request to correct the alleged error, the defendant's appeal right will have been lost unless a Notice of Appeal was filed.

Re-Hearing Before a Different Judge on Appeal

The appealing party is entitled to a new hearing before a different judge of the superior court. The plaintiff's claim and any claim filed by the defendant are heard together, as in small claims court. That means that the parties must present their cases as if they were being presented for the first time. The results of the first hearing, and the testimony and other evidence offered at that hearing, are not considered by the second judge who hears the case.

  • Example: If a plaintiff buyer seeks to cancel the purchase of a motor vehicle and recover the down payment, and the defendant car dealer files a claim against the plaintiff for the unpaid balance of the purchase price of the vehicle, an appeal by either party entails re-hearing the claims of both parties. At the new hearing on appeal, each party should be prepared to present his or her side of the case and bring any supporting witnesses and documents.
  • Example: If the plaintiff files an action against two defendants and is awarded a judgment against defendant #1 but not defendant #2, and defendant #1 then decides to appeal, the appeal entails re-hearing plaintiff's claims against both defendants. This carries out the policy that treats an appeal as an entirely new case.

The judge who hears the appeal conducts the re-hearing in the same informal way that cases are heard in small claims court. The only exception is that an attorney may represent a party at the hearing on appeal. The judge who presides at the hearing on appeal allows the parties' attorneys to present evidence and examine witnesses under the judge's guidance and control.

At the close of the hearing, the judge issues a new judgment, and a new Notice of Entry of Judgment (Form SC-130) is delivered or mailed to the parties. If the judge awards costs to the prevailing party, the costs so awarded include those incurred by the prevailing party in both the small claims court and on appeal.

For good cause and where necessary to achieve substantial justice between the parties, the judge who hears an appeal may award reimbursement of the following expenses to a plaintiff who has prevailed at the hearings in both the small claims court and on appeal:

  • Attorney's fees actually and reasonably incurred in connection with the appeal, but not exceeding $150, and
  • Actual loss of earnings and expenses of transportation and lodging, to the extent actually and reasonably incurred in connection with the appeal, but not exceeding $150.

The court will make an award of expenses against a defendant who loses an appeal only if the court determines that the circumstances justify the award, and the award is necessary to achieve substantial justice between the parties.

If you are the appealing party, and the judge who hears the appeal finds that your appeal was not based on substantial merit or good faith, but was intended solely to harass or delay the other party or encourage the other party to abandon his or her claim, the court also can award the other party a judgment against you for up to $1,000 for attorney's fees and up to $1,000 for transportation and lodging.

If you are sued in small claims court and lose, don't appeal unless, after evaluating your defense, you have a good faith belief in the actual merits of your defense, and are not just trying to delay payment to the plaintiff.