This is part of a series of articles on how to file papers in California’s Superior Courts. This article covers how to file documents by mailing them to the courthouse – which is not a preferred way to file your documents, but I’m providing this how-to just in case it’s your only practical option. In separate, related articles, I’ve covered how to file documents by physically going to the court and how to e-file.
I am not a big fan of mailing documents to the court. The mail takes time. Even if you pick a reliable overnight carrier like FedEx it is not instant. The mailroom staff at the courthouse also need time to process the mail and route it to the correct department, and there is no way to know how backed up they are.
If your documents go missing anywhere along the way, you might have difficulty proving that you properly submitted them for filing. In contrast, if you submit documents in person you walk away with a stamped copy as evidence. If you use e-filing you get an electronic confirmation that your document is in the court clerk’s queue and then a confirmation that it was successfully filed.
In recent years, most California courts have shifted over to mandatory electronic filing for attorneys but they still allow self-represented people to do it the old fashion way, recognizing that some people don’t have convenient internet access. Nevertheless, you should consider the downsides of filing by mail, before you commit to that strategy.
If I have failed to talk you out of filing your documents by mail, or if that is your only option, here is what you need to know to get it done.
a. Make Sure You Send Your Documents to the Correct Address
There are a couple of different aspects to this.
First, many of California’s counties have multiple courthouses and you need to send your mail to the right one. For example, if you are sued in Los Angeles County it is not sufficient to randomly select a courthouse in Los Angeles county and mail your documents to that address. You need to make sure that your documents are going to be filed at the correct courthouse, the one where your case is assigned. Continuing with the example of the Los Angeles Superior Court, if you are sued on a debt collection case that will probably mean mailing your documents to either the Chatsworth or Norwalk courthouses (you will need to pick the correct one) because that is where most of the debt collection cases are handled.
If you are right at the start of the case and filing your initial response to the lawsuit you can get the proper location by examining the documents that were served on you when you were sued. In particular, one of the case initiating documents is called the “summons” and on that document, a specific courthouse will be identified along with the street address. If you are filing documents later on in the lawsuit, you’ll need to be aware of whether the case has been reassigned to a different facility which is rare, but not unheard of (if it happens you should have received written notification).
Second, in addition to selecting the correct courthouse, you need to be specific about how to address the envelope. Simply using the street address of the courthouse might not be enough. Sometimes courts use a mailing address that is different from the street address of the courthouse. You might also need to specify where in the building the mail should be routed — the courthouse mailroom serves many individuals and offices within the building. It might need to specify “Civil Clerk Filings” or maybe “Room 106” or any other specific designation required to get your mail to the specific clerk that handles mail-in filings for your type of case.
Don’t guess at this information. Look for it on the website for the superior court that you are dealing with. If you do not find the specific information you need, then call the court clerks office. The information you want might be provided on a recorded line, or you might need to talk to a person (which is sometimes difficult to manage if it is a busy county). If you call the court, have your case number handy because it might be useful if the person who takes the call is willing to look your case up in the system to tell you the precise information that you need.
b. Mail the Original and Two Copies
There are many different types of documents you might be trying to file with the court so I can’t get specific here, but there are a few universal things you need to know.
First, whatever you are filing mail two extra copies. You want to have an original — usually defined by the fact that it has an original ink signature on it — and two additional copies. The original is the one that ends up going into the court’s files and at some point, the judge will probably be looking at this one.
One of the copies is for you. The reason that you should mail it to the court, so the court clerk can “stamp” it with an official court stamp, and mail it back to you.
The clerk stamps “FILED” on the original, and keeps it to put in the court’s file. Then, the clerk will stamp something on your copy indicating that it is a duplicate of what is in the court’s file, and will mail that one back for your personal records. Your copy is now called a “conformed copy”. It is important because you can now prove that you submitted the original to the court, just in case there is ever any controversy about it. Don’t lose it.
Above I mentioned you should provide an original plus two copies, so why do you need the second copy? You might not need it. However, some courts have a local policy of requiring an extra copy that gets routed over the specific courtroom that is handling your case. Until you know the local policy of your court, it is good to mail an extra copy. (If you want to be extra diligent you can look up the “Local Rules” for your county’s superior court to see what they say about extra copies and about any other filing requirements).
c. Include a Proof of Service (and Two Copies of the Proof of Service)
For any document that you want the court to accept for filing, you need to have a document called a “proof of service” (sometimes called a “declaration of service”). This article is not about how to prepare the specific documents so I’ll assume that you have properly prepared your proof of service, but be aware that people frequently botch up the proof of service, so should consider researching how to do this properly. For current purposes, the point is that you need to include a proper proof of service along with any document that you are trying to file.
Once the case has been started, the court clerk is not supposed to accept any documents for filing unless those documents have already been properly served to the other side. The clerk will not accept your document for filing unless you provide a signed proof of service pertaining to the document you are trying to file. Remember to include the two extra copies of the proof of service as discussed above.
d. Enclose a Check for the Filing Fee (When Applicable)
Unless the court has granted you a financial hardship fee waiver, filing certain documents at the court can cost money. For example, if you are filing your initial response to a lawsuit, it will cost a minimum of $185 and possibly over $400, depending upon the specific type of case and paperwork involved. After you have filed your initial paperwork, most of the subsequent filings are free or at least much less expensive (with certain exceptions).
Courts seem to have many ways of not accepting whatever form of payment is being offered by self-represented litigants, so you might want to research in advance the policy of the court you are dealing with, or at least be mentally prepared for the necessity of having to navigate a second attempt if your payment is rejected for some reason.
If for any reason the precise amount required for the filing cannot be determined, one strategy is to fill in the “amount” line on the check as “Not to exceed $450” (or whatever amount represents the high end of what your filing might cost) and leaving the numerical box blank for the court to fill in.
e. Enclose a SASE
Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope, so that the court can return your stamped copies to you along with a receipt. If anything is unclear or novel about your filing, you could also include a transmittal letter (cover letter) addressed to the court clerk, that says “Enclosed is the [whatever] and please do [whatever] with it.” But also, if anything is unclear or novel about your filing, well, “good luck with that” (i.e. consider trying to shoehorn whatever you need to file, into a clearly defined category of document that the court clerk will recognize).
f. The Filing Date
Often the date on which something is considered to be “filed” is very important in a lawsuit. Therefore it is important to know that the date you mail something is not the date it is considered to be filed. Instead, you get the benefit of the date that the court receives your document (or the next court day if it arrives on a court holiday or weekend). So, if you mail something on May 15th and it arrives on May 21st and the mailroom does not forward it to the court clerk’s office until May 30th, your filing date will be May 21st, because that is when the court received it (assuming that is not a weekend or court holiday).
Good luck with your court filing!