How to Appeal a Small Claims Court Judgment

California small claims court is designed to make it easier for parties who have a dispute with another party to go to court and get a judicial ruling regarding their dispute.

After the judgment however, sometimes the parties are not satisfied by the result or they feel they did not get a fair hearing. If a party to a small claims court action wants to appeal, they have a right to appeal to the Superior court and to have a trial de novo, which means a new hearing.

However, there are a number of limitations which apply. A defendant may appeal if the small claims court’s judgment is against the defendant. However, a plaintiff who loses on their claim cannot appeal on that claim. The reason for this is when a plaintiff files a claim in small claims court, they agree to accept the result issued by the court.

The same rule applies for a defendant who was sued in small claims and then filed a counter-claim. If the court issues a judgment denying defendant relief on that claim, the defendant cannot appeal that decision.

However, if a plaintiff filed a small claims court action, the defendant filed a cross-claim, and then the small claims court issued a judgment in favor of defendant on defendant’s cross-claim, then the plaintiff could appeal that ruling.  Clear as mud? Probably. The general idea is if you file a claim in small claims court, you are agreeing that you will be bound by the ruling; however if you are sued in small claims court and get a ruling against you, then you should have some right to a second opinion on appeal.

Just like in small claims court, there is no right to jury during the appeal hearing. Another rule that applies to the appeal hearing is a different judge must hear the appeal. The same judge cannot rule on the appeal.

There are also risks to filing an appeal which any party should take into consideration before deciding to appeal. If you file an appeal after a judgment, and you lose, the prevailing party could file a motion for attorney’s fees and costs. If the court finds that the appeal was “without substantial merit” and not in good faith, but was intended to harass or delay, then the court may award up to $1,000 for reimbursement of attorney fees, plus up to $1,000 for lost earnings and transportation expenses.

Finally, the judgment of the superior court is the last word of the courts, and cannot be appealed. There is a split of authority however on whether a losing party at the court of appeal can file a petition for rehearing. And a court of appeal may entertain a petition for extraordinary writ, if there is a need for statewide precedent on an issue. However, this would be extremely rare, as the vast majority of small claims court actions are not going to give rise to an issue that needs to be addressed by the court of appeal.

John Corcoran is an attorney with Plastiras & Terrizzi in San Rafael, California (Marin County).  He advises clients about various real estate and land use matters.  He can be reached at (415) 250-8131 or jcorcoran@ptlegal.com.

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