How to file a small claims lawsuit against your landlord or renter

Written on October 3, 2017 by

small claims court landlordThe one safety net both landlords and renters have against being taken advantage of is small claims court.

Knowing that you can sue your tenant or your landlord for a violation makes the whole landlord-tenant arrangement work.

Think about it. Because landlords know they can sue their tenants for nonpayment of rent, for example, they are more likely to become a landlord in the first place. If they had no recourse for lease violations, they might choose to buy an Ace Hardware franchise instead.

Or if a tenant knows they can sue a landlord for wrongly withholding a security deposit or for not providing a habitable unit, that tenant will not be too skittish about handing over security deposit money in advance and should feel more comfortable about renting property in general.

So small claims court is a good thing. The problem is that some work is involved in filing a claim, and there are no guarantees you’ll win. Even if you do win, you might not collect. The more you know, however—whether you’re a landlord or a renter—the easier filing will be and the more likely it will be that you’ll win a judgment.

1. Try to resolve the issue

If your tenant or your landlord has wronged you, your first course of action should be to try to resolve the issue before going to court. The person who owes you money is probably hoping that you’ll just forget about it and go away. You want to let them know you have not forgotten and will not go away. Here’s what to do:

  • Send a letter requesting what is owed to you, called a demand letter.
  • Start by stating the problem, such as, “You have not paid April’s rent in the amount of $1,400.” Or, “You have wrongly withheld my security deposit of $1,200. I returned the property in good condition.”
  • Let this person know they need to pay you (state the dollar amount they owe you) by (give a date, such as 10 days from the date you’re writing the letter).
  • Conclude by letting them know you’ll sue them in small claims court if you don’t receive the money by the due date.

The demand letter often works in getting your money. If not, small claims court is your next resort.

Related: 7 tips for preventing security deposit disputes

2. Look up your state laws

The procedure for suing someone in small claims court varies by state. Do an internet search such as, “file small claims in Georgia,” to find out the particulars for your state.

Related: Landlord-tenant state law guides

3. Find out Your state’s limits

There’s a limit as to how much you can sue for in small claims court. The amount varies between $2,500 and $25,000. Here’s a chart with figures from 2015.

StateDollar Limit
Alabama$6,000
Alaska$10,000
Arizona$3,500
Arkansas$5,000
California$10,000, except that a plaintiff may not file a claim over $2,500 more than twice a year. Limit for local public entity or for businesses is $5,000. $6,500 is the limit in suits by an individual against a guarantor that charges for its guarantor or surety services.
Colorado$7,500
Connecticut$5,000 (except in landlord-tenant security deposit claims).
Delaware$15,000
District of Columbia$10,000
Florida$5,000
Georgia$15,000 (no limit in eviction cases).
Hawaii$5,000; no limit in landlord-tenant residential security deposit cases. For return of leased or rented personal property, the property must not be worth more than $5,000.
Idaho$5,000
Illinois$10,000
Indiana$6,000 ($8,000 in Marion County)
Iowa$5,000
Kansas$4,000
Kentucky$2,500
Louisiana$5,000 (city court); $5,000 (justice of the peace, but no limit on eviction cases).
Maine$6,000
Maryland$5,000
Massachusetts$7,000; no limit for property damage caused by motor vehicle.
Michigan$5,500
Minnesota$15,000 ($4,000 for claims involving consumer credit transactions, $15,000 for claims involving money or personal property subject to criminal forfeiture)
Mississippi$3,500
Missouri$5,000
Montana$7,000
Nebraska$3,600 from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2020 (adjusted every five years based on the Consumer Price Index)
Nevada$10,000
New Hampshire$10,000
New Jersey$3,000 ($5,000 for claims relating to security deposits); certain landlord-tenant suits cannot be brought
New Mexico$10,000
New York$5,000 ($3,000 in town and village courts)
North Carolina
$5,000 to $10,000 depending on county
North Dakota$15,000
Ohio$3,000
Oklahoma$7,500
Oregon$10,000
Pennsylvania$12,000
Rhode Island$2,500
South Carolina$7,500
South Dakota$12,000
Tennessee
$15,000 or $25,000 in counties with population of more than 700,000
Texas$10,000
Utah$10,000
Vermont$5,000
Virginia$5,000
Washington$5,000
West Virginia$5,000
Wisconsin$10,000; no limit in eviction suits
Wyoming$6,000

Be sure to click through to your state government webpage, which will have the latest figures and dollar amounts. If you need to sue for more than the limit for your state, you need to either settle for your state’s maximum or use a different court.

4. Determine whether you can use a lawyer

You don’t need to hire a lawyer to sue someone or defend yourself in small claims court. And most people don’t. They represent themselves. In fact, in some states, you aren’t even allowed to have representation. Find this out before you file.

5. Understand the terms

Small claims court itself can have a different name depending on its location. Sometimes small claims court is called “magistrate court,” “pro se court,” or “justice of the peace court.”

When you file for small claims court, you’re the plaintiff (making a complaint). When you’re being sued, you’re the defendant (defending yourself).

6. Watch the clock

A statute of limitations applies to cases brought to small claims court, ranging from 2 to 15 years. If you wait longer than what your state allows, you can no longer file.

7. File your complaint

If you are the one suing (the plaintiff), you need to go to the courthouse in the same town as your rental property, not the town in which you live (if they differ). You will need to file a complaint with the court clerk, which describes the charges you’re making against the defendant. It’s best to bring copies of any proof you might have when you’re filing. You should keep the originals.

You typically will need to pay a filing fee. This varies by court, but it’s usually around $50.

8. Wait

Here’s what to expect after you file a complaint with the court:

  • The court notifies the defendant who receives a copy of your complaint and a summons to appear in court. The defendant needs to answer this complaint, typically within 30 days.
  • If the defendant doesn’t answer the complaint within the allotted time, you can ask the court for a default judgment. Here, you can take your case to a judge without the defendant being there.
  • If the defendant answers, the court sets a date for the hearing, usually within the month.
  • The defendant can also file a counterclaim against you, which will be heard at the hearing.

9. Bring proof

Bring to court any documents, including photos, videos, text messages, and emails, which will help prove your case. If, for example, you are a renter trying to get back your security deposit, provide photos from the day you moved in and photos from the day you moved out.

10. State Your case

You’ll need to describe to the judge why you are seeking money from the defendant. Be prepared with all the facts. State them clearly, getting to the point as fast as possible. Next, it will be the defendant’s turn to present any evidence they may have.

11. Receive the verdict

The judge decides whether the plaintiff wins a judgment against the defendant or not, and if the defendant has filed a countersuit, whether that will be granted or not.

12. Consider appealing

Either party can appeal a verdict they disagree with to a higher court. The higher court decides whether it will grant the appeal. Note that higher courts typically grant appeals only on cases where the judge made a mistake, not to simply give you a chance to retry the case.

13. Collect your judgment

If you win your case, you need to collect your judgment. If you aren’t paid immediately, you have options.

  • Garnish the defendant’s wages or bank account.
  • Put a lien on their property.
  • Hire a collection agency.

Bottom line

There are specific steps involved in suing someone and taking them to small claims court. And if you win, you’ll need to collect the judgment, which is sometimes hard to do, such as if you can’t find the defendant or if the defendant has little to no assets and no job. You might want to consider the defendant’s ability to pay before you file a claim. But if you are wronged, it’s great knowing that you have the option of small claims court.

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42 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Vladimir

    I lost August rent money order check. Cannot believe it happened. I notified tenant and agreed to compensate all expenses to cancel and re-issue the money order check. I have texts from my tenant who agreed to re-issue the check. I checked with my tenant several times, but getting no response back. I think she is hoping I will forget. Technically, I have the security deposit which I can use at the end of the term. But do you think it is worth to file a suitcase? She paid next month’s rent no problem, probably used returned amount from the moneygram.

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Vladimir,

      I’m sorry that you’re in that situation – that’s rough. The tricky part is that money orders are considered guaranteed funds, and in some cases, they are considered “like cash”. The money was likely already taken out of their account when they purchased the money order. So, it’s not just a matter of canceling a check – the bank also has to refund the tenant – and you can imagine that they don’t like doing that.

      I think you need to have a real conversation with her. Get her on the phone and let her know that you will be terminating her lease and taking her to court if she doesn’t pay up. But also, you need to be sensitive to the fact that this was your fault, and getting the refund might involve her spending a few hours to take care of it.

      I’m not a lawyer, and can’t give legal advice, but if I were in this situation, I would make sure I talk to my tenant first – even if that means a face-to-face meeting, and then send a formal notice to pay or quit. But do so with humility.

      Plus, I also suggest you stop collecting rent with checks and money orders. Consider switching over to online rent payments (like from Cozy.co) and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief.

    • Sheena folsom

      So your going to punish a tenant for something you did not take care in safeguarding. This is your problem, your tenant did not lose it you did so thats not even close to being their responsibility. Hate to tell ya also you CANNOT withhold the security, the deposite is only supposed to be applied by a landlord if the tenant has caused any damage and an itemized list must be sent to the tenant within 30 days of their departure. It cannot not be used by you or them for any missed rent. If you dont however provide the itemized list within 30 days and do not return the security deposite, in some states the tenant can sue you for triple damages which means your going to come out of pocket way way more than you would if you had given it back.

  • AMELIA

    I appealed the Judges decision for the tenant in the amount of 2200 dollars plus court cost, what can I expect, or do to get a win on my case, the Tenant is asking for all of her money back, I can’t believe that the Judge granted her request, The tenant took down a ceiling light that she had installed, and took it with her, the contract clearly states that anything that is installed in the house will stay,Lost of damage to the wall and nails in the cabinets, left oven filty and did not shampoo the carpet, and subleased the property to her daughter that was suppose to be in college. What did I do that made the Judge give her the decision. Going to court this Friday on my appeal. HELP ASAP. THANK YOU

  • Veronica Black

    I recently moved into an apartment about 4-5 months ago, I didn’t no u til I was already moved in that this place was infested with bedbugs and roaches, when I moved into this place I had no furniture what so ever only brought the clothes on mine and my children’s backs. As I lived here we started to accumulate things. I have a o e year old son and a 2 year old son, my 2 year old kept getting these big red welts on his neck and his shoulder/back area and I didn’t no what was wrong, I thought it was mosquito bites Bc this apartment never had a screen in the windows and it was in the middle of summer so as time goes along things keep happening the same way but all of my kids are getting bites on them now. So one morning around 3 am I get up..

  • Michelle

    I had a tenant who lied on pet addendum and my insurance was dropped because they discovered the pet was a rottweiler.

    The realtor said the dog was a mutt and that is what was on lease tenant filled in. I ended up having to evict as I could not get homeowners.

    I sued her as the lease states they are responsible for lease until end if they were evicted due to violating the lease.

    The Judge told me it was my responsibility to find out what the breed was. I am still amazed that I am being told that when I did not lie and I was the one who lost something due to this lie.

    The Judge said I am lucky she left as she could have opted to stay because you didn’t verify the breed. I guess I shouldn’t go by the lease.

  • Sam

    Hi–my building was without gas (oven only) for 6 months. No regular meals and couldn’t make family holiday meals. The landlord supplied a camp-type double burner to cook on. I gained 20 lbs eating stovetop and takeout! Anyway, it was six weeks before we had communication from the landlord and then it was another 4+ months to have it fixed. I think they owe us a rent abatement. They are not responding to calls so I’m about to write my first letter. I have lived here for a long time and worry about eviction. should that be a concern? is abatement something that they should be offering? and if so, how much? same for everyone or percent overall? (I just also found out that new tenants in all of their buildings in nyc get 1 mo free). thank u!

  • Melisa

    My kids and I moved into an apartment in January and it was infested with bed bugs. When I made the property manager aware of the situation she retaliated by giving me a notice to vacate. After having her exterminator come out and inspect he made her aware that the bugs had been there a very long time, she said this letter to vacate and notice to evict within a month was no good and she has had the apartment treated twice unsuccessfully riding the bugs. We have had to throw away our beds and the majority of our property due to her negligence to have it inspected and treated before having is as a tenant. To make it worse our vehicle is now also infested. Should I go to small claims? And how? Help me please in SC.

  • Mar

    My husband’s tenants owe him over $10,000 in back rent. The lease expired and he never renewed because they promised to pay him back Little by Little. All we have are text messages. Do we have a good case if we try to take them to small claims court for the maximum amount the state will allow? In this case, $10,000.

    • Sheena folsom

      Why did he allow them to get that far behind? I understand people do have hard times but you cant live anywhere for free. In the future dont alliw this to happen again. The first time a tenant fails to pay you, you need to send them a notice to quit(a certain amount of time to leave 5-7 days) or payment and dont back down or accept sob stories. Alot of landlirds depend on that rent to pay the mortgage on the houses they rent or as income. If they dont pay then it significantly effects you. Your husband may have to just chalk this up as a learning experience and a loss. It sucks i know.

  • Serenah Johnson

    I rent out my trailer that is located in a trailer park. When we moved out to rent it out it was a bit of a mess and they moved ina week earlier so the place wasn’t able to get cleaned up and our things were left behind. They haven’t paid rent on our agreed date and it’s constantly changed. Recently however, they have become more of a problem and the place is trashed. They never informed us of any damages that had or was happening. Now my husband was mainly in charge and I somehow ended up becoming in charge of it. We gave them a notice of when to leave but are refusing to do so, I was not only treated like dirt but I was blocked so if I want to speak to them I have to go in person. Keep in mind my hubby didn’t write up a lease…

  • Veronica Ortiz

    I move into an Apartment thats not Stable. The floors are not even its looks like its going sideways …i spoke to the manager
    And she told me due to an earthquake the buliding cracked and thats why my floors look that way ….What can I do ?
    Can i take her to court?

  • Ashley

    My Cotenant Had to move out due to a restraining order and does not want to pay rent, I have them on text saying they are not paying cause they don’t live there but they are still on the lease. They have been paying up until this coming month. They asked the property manager to let them off the lease and they said if I agree to sign for them to be off and take on the lease by myself and I don’t want to do that. They signed the lease for that year so it’s no my fault they can’t keep them hands to themselves so that keeps them off the property but still liable for the rent. What should I do?

  • Misty

    My landlord didn’t clean out the garage before she moved out. I gave her 18 days worth of rent which was 1000 dollars and reminded her that as per our agreement, text messages and California Law, she has to have it free of debris, trash and combustible substances, which is isn’t, and she told me to move out. I told her that she is breaking the law and today she served me with a Pay or Quit 3 day notice. Ive been hearing that because she kicked me out over a text message and not a written 30 notice, that I get 3 months grace period of free rent. Do I have to move out within that 3 days and can I keep the next 3 months of rent because of this?

    • BM

      I’m having the same problem. My landlord won’t fix the septic that neighbors are calling on but then in return since he had so many calls he is blaming us and saying we have 30 days to get out. He didn’t even send is a written notice of why just said he sold his house and now needs a place then today he said he sold our house so we have 30 days but hasn’t legally done any paperwork. So do we have to move? BTW he hasn’t ever fixed anything we asked him to fix and we have told him about the septic for 5 years. We remodelled the bathroom and told him we wanted paid for labor and he said he never agreed to that which he did but I have no proof because it was a verbal agreement so I guess we remodelled the bathroom for free.

      • Laura Agadoni

        Hi BM,
        Look up the laws for your state to see how much notice you are entitled to get when asked to move. It depends on whether you have a lease or are a month-to-month tenant. In some cases, if you are a month-to-month tenant who has lived there longer than 12 months, you get more than 30 days’ notice. Regarding the bathroom, whenever you propose to make changes to a rental property, put the deal in writing, ideally as an addendum to the lease.

  • Jessica

    Even since he had to pay for the spray in he has Sent me an eviction notice every month so far. For no reason. I need to know what to do and what action to take next.

  • Allan

    There was a fire in the trash can located at the front yard on my townhome rental property. This caused the fence to burn down. My landlord says that it’s my fault without any proof. Landlord refused to pay for the repair, refused to claim it on their insurance. Instead told me to get it fixed, claim it with my insurance and if she gets a check she will return it to us (Verbally). She got the check last October and cashed it. It was upon checking my insurance premium which had doubled, i found out that she got the check and cashed it, never told us about it. Now when im asking for the money back, she is denying me the money because she says that her HOA premium has increased due to the fire. Can I sue in small claim court?

  • Dan H

    I have a Q. Im a tenant lives in california in a old 1000 sqft flat. The apt has only one small window ac unit that is our only heat source. When i asked landlord to fix i was iqnored. I am a licensed electrical contractor so i nstalled my own mini spilt energy efficient heat/air unit. This only reguired a single Electric outlet and a small 3” hole in wall. I did this without landlord permission bc he refussed to address problem. I did not charge him for it and agreed to pay for any cost of repairs when i leave and take it w me. Now lanlord served me a 3 day notice to remove my hvac. Leaving me without heat or air conditioning. I tried many options to resolve and now i get a 3 day notice to remove unit or move out.

  • Nina Alivera

    I am a disabled veteran. The VA moved me and my son. The apt had no screens I was bitten all over. After constantly texting and calling I went to the city. I finally received my screens. Then 3gas leaks lastly mice infestation. I called the city again and now he is kicking me out for calling on him.

    • Sheena folsom

      Thats called retaliatory eviction and its against the law. Do not go anywhere. You cannot be evicted for demanding your home be habitable. The law requires that there be a guarantee of habitability if you are not being provided that then they need to be reported to the county your rental property is in, they will be given notice and a list of what needs to be fixed in alot of cases they can/will be fined for non-compliance. If you have to move because of their inaction you can be compensated by that person for moving expenses.
      I was a property manager for 10 yrs so im pretty well versed in the laws.

      • Nina Alivera

        I signed a piece of paper that stated I will receive full security deposit when I turn in keys Aug1st. He let me keep this months rent to look for a place but pay in July. I am disabled and no one wants to rent to me and my son. On the 12th of May a mouse ran over my foot in the kitchen and I jumped fell and cracked my forehead. He isn’t the owner. I don’t know what to do

  • Tawanna Dade

    I signed a lease to move into a private condo that was later found by the neighbors in the building to be infested with mice. I have given my security deposit of $1100 & first month’s rent of the same. I was told by the landlord that he will not return the money because his unit was on the market 5 months prior & he has bills. What can I do to get my money back.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Tawanna,
      A lease is a contract. Since you signed it, you must abide by the contract. Don’t rely on hearsay from neighbors. Find out for yourself if the place has mice. If so, the landlord needs to get rid of them. You need to give the landlord time to rectify the situation if there is, indeed, mice. And if there is mice, and the landlord refuses to do anything about it, you might then have cause to break the lease.

  • donna

    After I gave the customary 30-day notice to my landlords, (husband and wife), we spent ample time cleaning the (unfurn.) unit until it looked better than it did when we moved in; yet, they say we left it ‘dirty’! We phoned them back and met at the unit to see what the problem was and, apparently, what they say was ‘grease all over the stove’ was some gunk under the burners that are very difficult to take off to clean. The other issue(s) the landlady had with our cleaning was a toilet ring that had been there since we moved in I couldn’t remove with normal cleaning. She even shamed me and my husband because we didn’t leave any toilet paper! They still haven’t returned any of our security dep. What should I do if they don’t after 30 days

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Donna,
      Follow the steps in this article. Good luck!

      • donna

        Thanks Laura,
        I have actually gone ahead and hand delivered a letter to the owner/landlords, before they go back home to CA, briefly reiterating our position and acquiescing to a reasonable deduction for their issues regarding our cleaning of the unit.
        I JUST HAVE ONE MORE QUESTION FOR YOU PLEASE: If we, the tenants, after having done everything in our power to satisfy these owner /landlords, don’t receive a favorable security deposit, and I go ahead and inform them we intend to file a small claims court complaint–The property being in OR, and the landlords residing in CA–What will they, (as defendants), be required to do about appearing in court in OR? Or will we, (as plaintiffs), be required to file in CA?
        How does that work?

  • Angela Minson

    Hello, My question is I recently moved out of a house that was cleaned no trash left just had normal wear and tear painting and carpet, i gave them my 30 day notice , we where out of the house within the 30 day notice so they went in to do there check out , i really was looking for my deposit back because the house was clean the lawn was cut, So a couple of weeks later sent me a list of things they found wrong to the house 2,386.15 of the things on this list where thing i didn’t understand how can i go about filing a suit to get my deposit back and file a lawsuit for falsey accursing me of things that’s wrong in the house that really weren’t

  • breffni

    Hello Laura
    If the landlord has not responded to the demand for the return of the security deposit , when filling out the small claims forms to sue should one put in the amount as the deposit or three times the amount? as allowed by law in Colorado? Plus travel costs to fly back to the city in which the property and landlady live (are) plus attorney advice fees?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi,
      To answer your specific questions for your venue, it’s best to look up the information online for your jurisdiction or call your local courthouse. Good luck!

  • Misty

    We pay 1600 for rent. My landlord says it pays for her mortgage, but its only 1000 a month. She is also renting illegally from a small cabin that’s on the property. She pockets 800 from them and the extra 600 from us, but she refuses to repair anything in the house. There are tears in the carpet, the fridge is going out, the stove is falling apart etc. There’s just so much wrong in the house. She told us to replace the carpet and that she’s not responsible for the appliances. Her husband has also come onto the property and has taken our things. And she says he’s allowed to. We don’t have a lease, only verbal. I keep track of everything though with pictures and videos. What can I do to get something done about her neglect?

  • JACQUELINE OLDENDICK

    I am a former tenant. My landlord is saying i did not give proper 60 day notice. I have emails showing I did. I have had issues with the landlord including improper care of curbs causing a busted tire and hundreds of car repair. The curbs still aren’t fixed and they called it an unfortunate incident. This is just one of Many issues. They want me to pay $1550 and sent it to collections immediately. Should i take them to small claims?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Jacqueline,
      If you gave proper notice to vacate and have proof that you did and your landlord is withholding your security deposit with the claim that you did not give proper notice, then you should probably take them to small claims court to try to get your security deposit back. Good luck.

  • Hannah

    I am a former tenant. I finally got my ex landlord to answer me about my security deposit 52 days after I vacated the premises. At this time she texted me saying that there was a lot of damage to the property and wanted to inform me that I would not be getting my security deposit back. When i asked her why she hadn’t informed me of this earlier she told me that she had a lot going on and forgot. In Indiana you only have 45 days to send an itemized statement. I told her i was going to take her to small claims for my deposit and she said she would just turn around and get me for the damages. Can she do this? Will it be worth taking her to small claims for the $900?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Hannah,
      If your landlord did not return your security deposit or an itemized list of the withholding in the allotted time for your state, then yes, you could probably win a judgment in small claims court. And you might receive punitive damages if the court thinks your landlord acted in bad faith. However, if you caused damages, your landlord could countersue. Whether they win depends on your state law. There might be a time limit for landlords who sue for damages. Check with your local courthouse on this.

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