It is all too common to have problems with one's neighbor. Usually these problems can be handled personally, other times not. Sometimes the problem becomes potentially violent and a civil harassment order is appropriate. However, a small claims suit can sometimes be the best way for a person or neighborhood group to force an irresponsible property owner to act after all other remedies have been exhausted. Before you start any small claims action, you may want to visit the Department of Consumer Affairs website regarding the basics of Small Claims Court filings.
This page is designed to inform you how to solve a neighbor dispute via the court system. It is strongly advised that you attempt all avenues of addressing the problem before continuing. Skipping steps in this process will result in being unprepared for court or being referred back to the beginning. Therefore, you should follow these steps in order to maximize effectiveness. Please watch the following video for an overview.
Maintain an activity log on a word processing program or on a notepad. The log should include any activity that "deprives you of the quiet use and enjoyment of your property, or causes you any emotional or mental distress." Your log should include dates and times, plus a description of the activities that disturbed you, and how you suffered as a result.
Write a letter to the property owner letting him/her know that if no action is taken within 10 business days, you or the neighborhood group will collectively sue him/her in Small Claims Court for maintaining a Public Nuisance. Send the letter certified mail with a return receipt requested. If the property owner does not act, then you may proceed with your small claims lawsuit.
Everyone in your neighborhood group must individually file a claim which may be collectively heard in court. Children under the age of 18 may sue by using their parents as their legal guardian. Contact the Small Claims Court clerk and advise them of your intent to file with the number of people involved. Pick up the forms necessary to file the suit from the clerk. Also, ask about a Small Claims Court Advisor who may be available to assist you free of charge.
Forms are also available online here.
Each person must fill out a Plaintiff's Statement Form. You must sue each person listed as the legal owner on the property deed. You can sue for the maximum amount allowed in Small Claims Court. An individual cannot ask for more than $10,000 in a claim. Corporations and other entities (like, government entities) cannot ask for more than $5,000. You can file as many claims as you want for up to $2,500 each, but you can only file 2 claims in a calendar year that ask for more than $2,500.
Return all of the Plaintiff's Statement forms to the Small Claims Court clerk. Ask the clerk to schedule the same court date and time for all claims. Bring a self addressed, stamped envelope for each claim. You should receive the service copies with the court date in approximately one week. To determine the cost to file a claim in Small Claims Court, refer to the fee schedule here.
When the forms are complete, a copy must be served on the person, people, or corporation you are suing. This is called "service of process." It is important to know the paperwork which must be completed for proper service, so speak with an Small Claims Court advisor for details. For a small fee, the Small Claims Court will mail your summons to the property owner by certified mail, but personal service is recommended. Someone not involved in your suit can serve the property owner, or you can hire a process server.
GETTING READY FOR COURT
Ask your Small Claims Court advisor for help in subpoenaing a specific police officer if you believe it is important to your case. This may cost over $150 to defray the cost to the department. You can also subpoena a copy of a police report that may corroborate the activity shown in your activity log. You will need dates and times of the reports but a report number would be ideal. The Small Claims Court advisor can help you draft a subpoena that asks for incident reports taken on specific dates regarding specific addresses. Other records and reports from the Fire Department, Health Department and Code Enforcement may be helpful to show other violations.
Organize your records. Each person should have a separate file to give the Judge. Be sure to keep a copy for yourself. Include in this file your activity log book, all correspondence to the property owner and city officials, and any other reports regarding health or safety code violations that are relevant to the case.
Prepare a personal statement detailing the emotional and mental distress that the defendant caused you. Be prepared to prove your individual monetary damages to the court.
Have a meeting with all people involved in the lawsuit and discuss how you will present your case to the Judge. Make a list of questions that you would like to ask the property owner and any witnesses that you have subpoenaed. Always contact your witnesses first. A hostile witness to a Small Claims Court action may be unproductive.
If you win in Small Claims Court, the process may not be over. The property owner may appeal the case to Superior Court. The appeal hearing is similar to the Small Claims Court hearing and the same laws apply. The only difference is that lawyers are allowed to represent the participants. Property owners usually obtain legal counsel, so it is a good idea to obtain the services of a lawyer. Be sure to request your lawyer's fees from the Judge.
Note: Information on this page is subject to change without notice. Fees and processes change frequently and it is up to you to verify the information. This information is not legal counsel or advice. For more information and resources, please consider the following resources:
Yuba/Sutter Legal Center
725 D Street, Marysville, CA
Yuba County Court
215 5th Street, Marysville, CA
California Courts Website - Small Claims
THE COURT HEARING
No lawyers may represent a client in Small Claims Court. So it will simply be you and the property owner sitting before the Judge to state your case. The legal theories underlying your case are that the property owner is liable for:
1. Maintaining a nuisance
2. Acting negligently
To support this legal theory, you must prove that:
1. The property owner owns the problem residence and was notified of the problem and given a reasonable opportunity to correct it.
2. The activities of the problem residence have deprived you of the quiet use and enjoyment of your premises and/or caused you emotional distress.
It is critical that the Judge knows what the case is about before you start arguing it, so tell the Judge the problem and briefly outline your position.
Now present your case to the Judge, describing in detail the problem. A map of your neighborhood, photos of the problem residence and a display board of any litter or other debris are good support documents. Describe what efforts you took to address the problem residence and what actions you took to contact and discuss the problem with the property owner.
If you have any witnesses, like a police officer or a neighbor not involved in the case, you can have them testify.
Read your personal statement detailing the emotional and mental distress the problem residence caused you.
The property owner will have his/her chance to talk and ask questions. Do not interrupt. You will have your chance to respond.
When you finish your presentation to the Judge, you should be sure that he/she realizes that you have incurred certain court costs and ask for these costs to be added to the judgment. Ask the Small Claims Court Advisor which costs you may ask for.
The Small Claims Court Judge can award each plaintiff up to $10,000, but does not have the power to order the property owner to evict a party who is not before the court.