This is part of a series of articles on how to file papers in California’s Superior Courts. When I talk to somebody who has just been sued, I always tell them that they need to respond to the lawsuit within 30 days. By “respond” what I really mean is that they need to file certain papers with the court. Throughout your case, you will have to file papers with the court. There are several different ways to submit your documents to the court for filing. This article covers how to file documents by physically taking them to the courthouse.
It wasn’t too many years ago when this was the main way of filing documents. Law firms would send a “runner” to the courthouse with a satchel full of papers, and the runner would wait in line at the court clerk’s office. When the runner got to the front of the line, he or she would slide the papers across the counter and hand over a physical check for the filing fee. Self-represented litigants would do the same thing.
Most California courts have shifted over to mandatory electronic filing for law firms these days, but courts still allow self-represented people to do it the old fashion way, recognizing that some people don’t have convenient internet access.
If you want to file your documents by physically taking them to the courthouse, here is what you need to know.
a. Make Sure You Go to the Right Building
Make sure you go to the correct courthouse; not just the correct county mind you, the correct courthouse. For example, if a debt collector has sued you in Los Angeles Superior Court (LASC), you want to be aware that LASC has tons of courthouses and you have to file your papers in the specific facility where the plaintiff filed the case against you. In the particular instance of LASC, that will usually mean taking your papers to either the Chatsworth or Norwalk courthouses, because that is where most of the debt collection cases are handled.
When you are the defendant in the case this is pretty easy to ascertain, because you generally take your documents to the same courthouse where the plaintiff filed the case against you.
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).
b. Take 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 take 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. You might think that you should just keep your own copy at home rather than take it to the court; after all, it’s your copy. In reality, you’ll want to bring it with you, so the court clerk can “stamp” it for 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 give 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 bring 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 take an extra copy.
c. Take 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 take it with you and submit it to the court along with the 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 bring in a signed proof of service pertaining to the document you are trying to file. The clerk will take the proof of service to file it along with the main document, so remember to take your two extra copies of the proof of service as discussed above.
Fortunately, you do not need to provide a separate proof of service to demonstrate that you served the first proof of service because that would trigger an infinite spiral resulting in the courthouse bursting at the seams, and expelling a cloud of proofs of service!
d. Be Ready with 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. The court clerk’s office will not accept cash. Some courts have historically also rejected credit cards, however, I’m not sure if there are still any holdouts in that regard. The safest route is to take a check. Don’t worry, 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 come back for a second try.
e. The Dropbox
Some court clerk’s offices will have a dropbox for filings, which can be used when the office is otherwise closed to the public. During the COVID pandemic, this has become more common because of reduced court hours. If you run into this situation, read the instructions posted near the box and follow them carefully. Taking advantage of this option will likely require that you provide a self-addressed stamped envelope if you ever want to receive your conformed copies. If circumstances permit, you might simply choose to come back when the office is open.
May your expedition to the courthouse be a success!