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Suing an Employer in California: Small Claims Court Guide

by | Nov 16, 2023 | Small Claims Process | 0 comments

Have you ever worked for someone who didn’t pay you for your work? Unfortunately, it happens sometimes when people hire you but refuse to pay or argue about the bill. It’s unfair when you fulfill your job responsibilities, but the client or customer fails to meet theirs. In such situations, consider taking your case to Small Claims Court.

Seek justice in Small Claims Court when you haven’t been paid for your work. As with most things in the law, there are many rules, and things can get tricky. This article guides you through some of those rules so that you can decide what to do next.


Employee vs Independent Contractor

First, when suing an employer in California, determine whether you were an ’employee’ or an ‘independent contractor’ for the job. This distinction will affect the rules that apply and how you can seek justice.


Let’s break it down. If a large company employed you, issued a W-2 IRS form, and provided regular paychecks with tax deductions, you likely classify as an ’employee’.


On the other hand, if you’re an “independent contractor,” you might do work for a short time, not pay taxes right away, but report your income later using a W-9 IRS form. Below are some common examples of independent contractors:


  • Plumber
  • Hair stylist or makeup artist
  • Chef or caterer
  • Writer
  • Graphic designer
  • Handyman
  • Electrician
  • Writer
  • Driver
  • Photographer
  • Housekeeping


Why does it matter?

Businesses must adhere to specific rules when they have employees. If a business doesn’t follow these rules, the government can make them pay for any wrongdoing. If you’re certain you’re an employee (for example, you filled out a W-2 IRS form with your employer), Small Claims Court might not be your best choice. Alternatively, seek help from the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) in California if you haven’t received payment or experienced mistreatment at work. Speaking with the DLSE or an employment law attorney in this situation is a good idea. They can help you explore better options for justice, including getting more money for any damages you’re owed. Read this Justice Direct article to find out how to get a one-time consultation with a lawyer.


If you work as an independent contractor, consider Small Claims Court as your best option for seeking justice. (like in the examples above).


First, Demand Payment

If you haven’t received payment for your work, start by formally demanding it. This step is not only required by law before going to Small Claims Court but can also help resolve the issue. The best way to do this is by sending a demand letter.


Write a letter to your employer stating how much money you’re owed and the reasons behind it. Include the terms of your work agreement and ensure you’re not asking for more than what was agreed upon. Check our How to Write a Demand Letter in 10 Steps for more help.


Send your demand letter via certified mail for the best results. Certified mail provides the sender with confirmation of completed delivery or notification of an attempted delivery, much like a receipt. If you need more options, you can consider Demand Letters: 5 Effective Ways to Send Them


Use tools like JusticeDirect to avoid the hassle of preparing a professional demand letter and going to the post office to send it. They prepare a professional letter on your behalf and send it via certified mail.


What if that doesn’t work?

When suing an employer in California, they may respond to you and try to settle the issue by offering you some money. It’s a good idea to consider a settlement offer from your employer. If your employer is willing to pay you what you are owed, you can avoid going to court–which includes taking time off work, paying filing and parking fees, and risking losing your case altogether. If payment is still pending after sending the letter, start preparing for Small Claims Court.


Do your research

Before working with Justice Direct to sue your employer, review these articles to help you get prepared:


  • There are special rules to follow when you are suing a business in Small Claims Court, follow this link to read about them.
  • There are also time limits (called “statute of limitations”) on when you can file your lawsuit. To make sure you’re within the statute of limitations, read this article.


To initiate a case in Small Claims Court against your employer, you’ll start with completing and filing a Plaintiff’s Claim and ORDER to go to Small Claims Court (SC-100).


JusticeDirect can help you prepare and send your demand letter, then prepare your court documents to initiate a case in Small Claims Court. Check out JusticeDirect.com to get started.


The quest for justice is never easy, particularly when it comes to getting your money back. However, thanks to advances in technology, it has become easier. Quest for Justice’s first app, JusticeDirect, is the only app of its kind designed to support people without lawyers to resolve their disputes and get their money back, both in and out of court. The first step to getting money back is through a letter demanding payment from the other party JusticeDirect offers customizable demand letters for free. If the letter demanding payment does not work, then the next step is taking them to court. JusticeDirect* will guide users every step of the way through the small claims court process by helping them:


  1. Understand the legal process;
  2. Evaluate the pros and cons that come with taking someone to court;
  3. Generate small claims court forms; and,
  4. Avoid common mistakes when filing your forms and serving notice on the other side.
*Currently, JusticeDirect can only help litigants sue in California’s small claims court.

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