You've made a good start. If the court does go ahead, you can also move to set aside any judgment on all the grounds you have stated. I think your diligence will impress the court. You might also want to fax a copy of your letter and of the return receipt if the court cannot find it.
Courts rarely award punitive damages in security deposit cases.
No attorney can appear in the small claims court for you.
I agree 100% with the first answer. The court doesn't function as we'd like all the time so I understand your frustration. I don't see where/if you state that you are being sued in small claims but I assume that you are based on Plaintiff ease of filing. If it isn't small claims you can hire someone to appear on your behalf and it might be cheaper than a plane ticket.
Thomas A. Schaeffer, Esq. Law Office of Juarez and Schaeffer PO Box 16216, San Diego, CA 92105 (619) 804-4327 www.jslaw.org This posting is provided for "informational purposes" only and should not be relied upon as "legal advice." Nothing transmitted from this posting constitutes the establishment of an attorney-client relationship. Applicability of the legal principals discussed here may differ substantially in individual situations or in different States.
I agree with the other contributors, but also recommend that you call the Court clerk each day to confirm that the letter has been received. Your argument is that you did not receive good notice of the hearing date and you weren't properly served with the Summons for the court hearing. If the Court grants and extension of time, you will still need to show up eventually, or you can try to work out a settlement with your former tenant. In the long run, that may be a much cheaper outcome.