You Can Sue for Defamation in Small Claims Court

Wow. I may actually know what I’m talking about.

In one of my earliest postings on this blog, I recommended Small Claims Court to those who have been defamed, but can’t afford an attorney. In 2012 California raised the damages limit in Small Claims Court to $10,000!  Obviously this is not the way to go if you have a case with significant damages, but often the damages are minor, or damages are simply not the victim’s purpose in bringing suit. I suggested that an action in Small Claims Court can be an effective way to stop someone from continuing to defame you, and permits you to respond to anyone who asks you about the rumor, that you sued the defamer in court and won.

I had some secondhand knowledge of defamation actions being brought in Small Claims Court, but since attorneys are not allowed to represent clients there, I will never be able to test my theory directly. I’ve also been slightly concerned because I have received a couple of emails from readers who say that they were informed by a court clerk that defamation actions cannot be pursued in Small Claims Court.

Thankfully, a reader of my original posting was kind enough to call and spend some time on the phone with me, talking about his experiences. A vicious rumor got started about him some time ago, and like the urban legends that reappear periodically on the web, every few months the rumor about this person grows legs and starts getting spread again. Fortunately, because his professional circle is somewhat small, eventually the rumor reaches people that report back to the victim. He then brings a Small Claims action against the defamer, and has a witness to the statements.

This caller has brought four such actions, and has won every time. The judgments are small, but for the caller, damages were not the goal. He has found that the suits tend to eradicate the rumor in the community pockets surrounding the person who was spreading the lie. In other words, having lost in court, that person then goes back and tells the same people about the lawsuit. No doubt, the story is not told in flattering terms. Most likely the story goes something like this:

“Joe is such an asshole. I told Dave about how I had heard that Joe was stealing from clients, Dave told him what I said, and Joe sued me in court. The judge awarded him $2,500, so now I have to write him a check for $250 every month until it is paid off.”

But despite how the story is being told, the fact is that the people hearing the story are walking away knowing that it was a lie to accuse Joe of stealing, and Joe won’t put up with the lie being told.

This caller’s successes illustrate a couple of points. First, a “republisher” of a defamatory statement – one who simply repeats what he was told – is as guilty as the person who started the false rumor. Our hypothetical Joe may never learn who started the original rumor, but going after those who are repeating the lie is like a firefighter starting a backfire to stop a fire. It can help to stop the spread of the rumor, and may get back to the person who started it and cause him to shut up.

Secondly, and more to the point of this article, you can sue for defamation in Small Claims Court, regardless of what the court clerks may be saying. As I explained in the original article, a judge in Small Claims Court cannot give any equitable relief. In other words, he or she can’t order the defendant to stop spreading the rumor, or to provide a letter of apology, for example. That is why attorneys often don’t think to suggest Small Claims Court, and may be why the clerks think defamation actions cannot even be brought there. (Actually, a Small Claims judge can grant certain limited equitable relief, mostly having to do with contracts, and can condition an award on an act. He could, for example, award $2,500 in damages, reduced to $1,500 if the defamatory statement is removed from the Internet.)

And there are other big advantages to Small Claims Court. In many defamation actions, the specter of an anti-SLAPP motion looms large. If you sue for defamation and the defendant successfully brings an anti-SLAPP motion – convincing the court that the speech was protected – you get to pay the other side’s attorney fees. You are safe from an anti-SLAPP suit in Small Claims Court, and in any event there likely would be no attorney fees. Further, you cannot be sued for malicious prosecution if you lose on a Small Claims action.

With all this said, you’ll be wasting your time in Small Claims Court if you think you can go in and wing it.  You’ll be suing for thousands of dollars, so it will time and money well spent if you buy and review Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California.

[Update] I had recommended to another caller that her case was perfect for my Small Claims approach. She said the defamer would not stop defaming her, so I suggested that each time she learned of another defamation, she should drag him to court again. She took my suggestion to heart, and has sued him numerous times, and has prevailed every time, with total damages approaching $50,000. As you can see, a Small Claims action is not only a very streamlined and cost effective way to proceed, it can also be very lucrative.

15 Responses to You Can Sue for Defamation in Small Claims Court

  • Betty Briscoe says:

    Thank you for this information. It’s refreshing to see an attorney “share” information without the benefit of charging by the second for it. I don’t have the funds or resources to sue my defamer(s), so I have been researching pursuing a small claims action against them instead. I was very pleased to see such a well and informative article written to help me in my cause.

    Thank you again.

  • Mike Stanton says:

    Can you advise how these people chose their figures of $2,500 or up to $50,000, and more importantly how they (and how we) may convince a Judge that such “damages” are appropriate? If something is just libel or slander, but it has not cost us money out of our bank account, but instead has just caused severe emotional upset, stress, and loss of friends/family-in-law, how does one convince a Judge of a dollar amount for that? Obviously ideally all suits would be for exactly $10,000 (the limit of the small claims law), but is that possible/realistic in the real world?

    • admin says:

      That is the $64,000 question in any tort claim. When you suffer a personal injury, how does the judge set a dollar amount for your pain and suffering? The answer is that there is no good answer.

      In a defamation action, there are two types of damages — actual and presumed. Actual damages are self-evident. You prove whatever actual monetary damages you suffered, and if the judge is persuaded by your evidence, that is the amount he or she should award.

      But in a defamation case, unlike any other tort, the judge is REQUIRED to award damages if you prove the elements of defamation. Those are the presumed damages. Your reputation is deemed to have value, so damage to that reputation can only be addressed with money damages.

      So, to answer your question, the judge will determine the damages based on how persuasive you are in setting forth the emotional distress you have suffered, and that requires specifics. Don’t just testify that after the defamation your friend stopped talking to you, testify to the pain you feel each time you go to the Oggi’s where you and your friend used to meet every Taco Tuesday. You get the point.

      As to how much to ask for, it’s a fine balancing act. I used to be a Small Claims Judge, and if the plaintiff asked for an amount I felt was inflated, then he or she immediately lost credibility. On the other hand, the judge cannot award more than you ask, so if you ask for too little, you are leaving money on the table.

      Fortunately, when bringing a defamation action in Small Claims Court, that weighing process is largely eliminated. Just about any serious** defamation, in my opinion, would warrant an award of the maximum amount of damages permitted in Small Claims Court. Indeed, if you ask for less than $10,000 on a defamation action, that could be taken as an indication that you really do not think your reputation took a serious hit. So I would suggest that you always ask for the full amount of $10,000, and then leave it to the judge. I don’t think any judge will be so shocked by that request that it will harm your credibility.

      From the feedback I have received, $2,500 seems to be the going amount for a defamation claim in Small Claims Court, but I would certainly award more than that if I were the judge and heard a convincing presentation on the emotional distress it had caused.

      ** I have to include the “serious” disclaimer because I get a lot of amazing calls involving very questionable “defamation” claims, and I don’t know how many of those end up in Small Claims Court.

  • Lori Martin says:

    I have solid proof of Libel Slander and retaliation, exparte communications and fraud, in order for DCFS Los Angeles County to leave my son with criminal, and mentally ill characters, so putting my son in the foster care system is easier.. I have fought DCFS Los Angeles County for more than 10 years, they even showed the court a Falsified Substantiation, which I have proof via the Grievance Officer for the CACI listings has provided, I need help filing a tort claim against these services. I know I have been red flagged due to my former ward status, I do not have convictions, rehab trips or mental health holds. DCFS left my child with someone who has had 72 hour holds convictions of controlled substances, dui’s and one person convicted of vehicular manslaughter by dui… yet my son remains in their care, and DCFS retaliating for a complaint I lodged 3 months prior to the detainment.

    • Aaron Morris says:

      It sounds as though you want to pursue what is called a collateral action. You state that “my son remains in their care” which I take to mean that you have not been able to convince the agencies in question that you should prevail. That is why collateral actions, especially for defamation, seldom make sense. If in one forum you can’t prove your position, then it is unlikely that you would prevail for defamation in a different forum.

      Go to the following websites for a more detailed discussion and information, and feel free to call me if you have any more questions.

      http://tinyurl.com/c8l24n9
      http://www.whatisdefamation.com

      • Lori Martin says:

        It is up from dismissal and termination of jurisdiction plus many of the workers have been fired or put on leave

  • sofia says:

    hi i have a question an need some advice but due to an active court case i am limited to what i can post online, i will give u the basics an maybe u would even allow a phone call. my kids where taken from my jan 29,2013 with a report of “abuse” due to text messages from what HAD been my phone number to my adopted moms phone, cps came to my home an forced there way into my home demanding to speak to my kids alone i said NO but they where about 5 feet away from my kkids watching them play. the next day they came to my house with a piece of paper signed by a judge saying to tale my kids because according to cps/dhs they told the judge i was acting mental denied them access to my home an to my kids. there is now testimony from the same worker on the stand stating i did allown them access to my home i jujst refused them to speak to my kids without council. i am now in a fight for my life to get my babies back with a judge that has no thoughts of ever giving me my kids back an does this to every family that has delt with cps/dhs.. please email me back im at a dead i an cant stand the thought of never having my babies back.. thanks sofia

    • Aaron Morris says:

      Since you posted your question here, I will assume you are contemplating some sort of collateral action, arguing that CPS is defaming you. For the reasons explained at the link below, that is seldom a good idea, and will often amount to a SLAPP action. Your energies need to be devoted to presenting your case in the present context, not with a separate action. Simply stated, if you can’t convince a judge in one forum, there is no reason to believe you would be successful in another.

      http://tinyurl.com/c8l24n9

  • Ken says:

    I filed a small claims suit in Washington State for Libel damages to our business reputation, the defendant asked that the case be dismissed because he said the district court does not have jurisdiction. The judge was disturbed by his request and said he belived he did have jurisdiction. I asked the judge for a continuance which he grantetd and set a new date for mandatory mediation. My question is does small claims court have jurisidction in Wa State for slander and Libel cases? The defendant quoted

    RCW 3.66.030
    Restrictions on civil jurisdiction.

    The jurisdiction covered by RCW 3.66.020 shall not extend to the following civil actions:

    (1) Actions involving title to real property;

    (2) Actions for the foreclosure of a mortgage or enforcement of a lien on real estate;

    (3) Actions for false imprisonment, libel, slander, malicious prosecution, criminal conversation, or seduction; and

    (4) Actions against an executor or administrator as such.

    [1961 c 299 § 114.]

    Did I make a mistake by using the word libel in my complaint?

    Thank you for any advice you have for me.

    Respectfully

    ken

    • admin says:

      All my articles are specific to California (although I sometimes write about decisions from other states that illustrate a point of law). Apparently Washington excludes defamation actions from small claims court, which is unfortunate. I can\’t advise on how you should proceed, but you will probably need to dismiss and file in a different court. In California we have a limited jurisdiction court for claims under $25,000. It is far more complicated than small claims court, but less so then unlimited jurisdiction Superior Court, and is still navigable by laypeople.

  • Ken says:

    I would add that the continuance the Judge granted was for his ruling on the motion to dismiss.

    Thanks again

    Ken

  • Matt says:

    Thanks for posting this. I have NEVER sued anyone before.

    I have a situation where a person made a spectacle in front of other parents (coaching situation) in what should be a professional setting and it puts my reputation in the community at risk. The situation itself demands a response from that individual to “clear the air” of any possible wrong doing on my part – otherwise it leaves the rumor mill open for business and other parents to think the worst of me. By the way this person was a coordinator representing a corporation.

    I have asked the other person to send a nice email explaining their outburst – and I have asked her boss and her boss’s boss. No action. So I want to sue. Your article explains to me (correct me if I am wrong) that I cannot force them to send the email legally through small claims court – but I can sue for defamation and seek damages which should cause them to want to “settle” for sending the email and less damages. Am I correct?

    Would my case be a good one for small claims? Since the incident – things “feel” weird in our community, and if an email doesn’t go out then there is a good chance that friends, neighbors, and potential business opportunities could think the worst of me (drugs/felony/pedophile – you name it). I have to get action right away to protect my reputation.

    Please advise! :)

    • admin says:

      Yes, that is how a judgment in small claims court can apply pressure for the defendant to remove or retract the defamatory comments. Of course, if you don\’t prove your case, it can have the opposite effect. The defendant would then have bragging rights, telling all that he proved in court that you did the things he was claiming. It\’s not really true; if you lose it just means you did not prove your case, not that the statements were true, but most people won\’t chose to understand that distinction.

  • Josh Mendez says:

    Thank you for the excellent article Mr. Morris.

    I am in a situation where I received a performance evaluation with specifically false, not to mention serious and damaging to my integrity and reputation, allegations made by my superiors. I am confident I can prove the are false and that they were with done with malice. I would like to pursue this in small claims though I work for a public agency (a California County) and understand there are some additional requirements such as sending in a initial claim to the agency before filing suit. Any advice with this? Can an attorney assist with the initial claim form to the agency.

    Thank you.

    • Aaron Morris says:

      Keep things in perspective. I receive a lot of calls from people wanting to sue for things put in their personnel files, but I seldom agree to handle such cases because usually it is not the best path. I understand completely the desire to keep false information out of your file, but consider the fallout. An employee gets written up, and drags everyone to court wanting to prove the write-up was false. Even if you win, how popular have you made yourself with the company? And just because you win does not mean that anyone has to accept that win. In other words, based on your limited question, I assume a supervisor put false statements in your evaluation, and you are concerned that in the future that might cause you to be denied a promotion or raise. But in the future, when you apply for a position, you can explain to the powers that be that the statements in the evaluation were untrue. Indeed, in most companies and especially at government jobs, you have the ability to put your own summary of the facts in your file, or respond to any bad reviews. Thus, you should already have a mechanism to tell your side of the story. If you are concerned that someone in the future will not believe what you have stated and will instead believe the performance review, then what makes you think they will believe what you had to say in court. How is that even going to work? Getting a judgment in Small Claims Court will not alter the evaluation. When time comes to consider you for a promotion or raise, the evaluation will be there, but the court judgment will not.

      If all of these questions and disclaimers have not dissuaded you, and you still want to sue in Small Claims Court, then the answer is yes, you do need to file a claim with the government agency first (and only have a limited time to do so), and an attorney could assist you with that process. Since attorneys cannot bring actions for their clients in Small Claims Court, I have no experience suing government agencies there. For all I know, there could be some prohibition against suing government agencies there, but you can probably make that determination pretty easily with some Internet research.

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Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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