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Are attorney's fees permissible in California Small Claims Court?

Under certain exceptions, yes, they are. However, like any other court, the fees are at the discretion of the court.

Under California law, parties are to bear their own legal fees; unless a statute permits otherwise. The most common statute is Cal. Civ. Code 1717. This statute states where this is a written contract between the parties and a provision in the contract provides for attorney fees if a dispute arises from the contract, then attorney fees may be awarded to the prevailing party.

NOTE, there are many similar provisions in California law, and it is best to talk to a lawyer about your lawsuit.

In order to recover the attorney fee, you must establish that an attorney was employed. This can be done with the aid of a receipt of the lawyer (best, since it also shows how much the court should also award.) However, if the lawyer wrote a demand letter, then the letter COULD be sufficient (though the court will not know how much to award.) If there is a fee agreement between you and the attorney, this will also be helpful.

The real catch is that the Judges can permit or deny the award for attorney's fees for any reason. There is a whole body of law related to this at the Superior Court level!!! Even if there is a contract that permits attorney's fees, and attorney's fees were spent, the court can deny them because attorney's are not allowed to 'appear' in Small Claims court (see generally CCP 116.530, 116.540.) Moreover, the plaintiff canot appeal the denial of attorney's fees (see generally CCP 116.710.)

In short, be preapred to argue everything, even the award of attorney's fees. If in doubt, ask a lawyer for help on hw best to prepare. This could even be the basis for your attorney's feees request.

Additional resources provided by the author

There are many resources to choose from.
1) MOST counties have a Small Claims Legal Advisor.
2) MOST County Court's have a website about Small Claims.
3) The Superior Court (http://www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp-smallclaims.htm).
The Department of Consumer Affairs (http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/small_claims)
4) Lawyers that specialize in Small Claims (www.smallclaimsappeals.com)

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