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

Written on October 3, 2017 by , updated on January 28, 2019

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
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.
Connecticut$5,000 (except in landlord-tenant security deposit claims).
District of Columbia$10,000
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.
Indiana$6,000 ($8,000 in Marion County)
Louisiana$5,000 (city court); $5,000 (justice of the peace, but no limit on eviction cases).
Massachusetts$7,000; no limit for property damage caused by motor vehicle.
Minnesota$15,000 ($4,000 for claims involving consumer credit transactions, $15,000 for claims involving money or personal property subject to criminal forfeiture)
Nebraska$3,600 from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2020 (adjusted every five years based on the Consumer Price Index)
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
Rhode Island$2,500
South Carolina$7,500
South Dakota$12,000
$15,000 or $25,000 in counties with population of more than 700,000
West Virginia$5,000
Wisconsin$10,000; no limit in eviction suits

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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127 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Connie Lyons

    Hello I live In Ga and I was renting a town house the property manager said that I broke the washer and dryer but I never used it I asked him to come in get it but he said that he had no where for it to go, then I rented a storage the whole time, then I was charged for not cleaning a ceiling, broken blinds/ vertical blinds that I replaced plus the had some left. Due to some falling because they were taped together because they were so old, cleaning, and moving the washer and dryer. What can be done

  • Tom Miles

    My question is a tenant looses in small claims.Has the funds to pay rent a day after your eviction is granted And now the sheriff Writ is on the way.Exsample I have Mobile homes on landlord property And I own the homes.and I rent them out to my tenants.They want to take my homes and Wich are way worth more than I owe What can I do?

  • Natasha Poole

    How do I take my landlord to court

    • angelo

      i the tenant had to go for surgery and landlord refused to let me in the house to get my belongings took the key and my parking pass without my knowledge ,refused to let me in house had to call police to stand by while i removed my belongings had no lease but a stipulation of a 30 day notice to vacate and my security deposit was never returned. i have been living in my car because the rents are high and they want security dep. which i dont have

  • David Holbert

    My landlord doesn’t want to give me back my $1,200 security deposit due to the fact he says I left the house dirty which cost him $250 to clean I didn’t cut the grass which cost him $100 to cut what can I do to take him to court and how do I file

  • Irosha Peterson

    I’ve been living in Harrisburg Park Apartments for the pass few years. As of last year in November, I had stopped paying my rent cause I was asking for things to be done that was going on with the apartment and nothing was ever done. But the lady never gave me a eviction notice from November to Now, and when I spoke to her, she act like she didn’t even care that the Apartment was making sick to the point where I had to be Hospitalized, and have a tube put down my throat so I could breath. There was also mold but she doesn’t wanna believe it. Now I wanna know if I can take her to court cause I’ve been telling her this for 2 years and nothing has been done but she gave me a Recertification letter.

  • Sherri McDaniel

    I discovered that my landlord was overchargi g me by $100.00 per month for approx 3 years. My SSDI payee, without my permission, allowed the landlord to deduct 1 mo rent +$100.00 the following month. According to my math the landlord owes me about $3000.00. How do I collect that amount?

    • Sylvia terry. Tujunga

      I have a landlord who inherited this property about 6 years ago and had been very mean to the 5 tenent. He is always accusing me of things I didn’t do but now my daughter came over and parked on hill he told her to not park there And to park at bottom of hill he thinks I reported him for not giving us a parking place. I did not he has threatened me and yesterday he took cabneetfrom my porch and through my things out and took cabinet. I had money and house key. In drawer hidden. It is gone. I tried to be nice but he put the blower on me and my eye his hurt from debies. I am a senior. Please help me. I pay on time. But he wants me out in 20 days threatening me. He fools people he tries to pretend he is nice but if u look close at

  • Jenn

    My neighbors are extremely loud at all times of the day and night. They have peered into my window and taken pictures. I complained to the landlady. She does nothing and doesn’t want me to call the cops. I texted her stating her responsibility to do something about this. Her texted response was that she is only there to make sure the apartments are clean and not to resolve “disputes” between the tenants and that if I complained to her again about their noise, I would have to find somewhere else to live. My son is falling asleep in school because of being kept awake at night by these neighbors. Can I use the landlady?

  • Jenn

    My neighbors are extremely loud at all times of the day and night. They have peered into my window and taken pictures. I complained to the landlady. She does nothing and doesn’t want me to call the cops. I texted her stating her responsibility to do something about this. Her texted response was that she is only there to make sure the apartments are clean and not to resolve “disputes” between the tenants and that if I complained to her again about their noise, I would have to find somewhere else to live. My son is falling asleep in school because of being kept awake at night by these neighbors. Can I sue the landlady?

  • Tabitha

    Where do I go to get help, because my landlord won’t fix the rental property that caught on fire, due to the electric. I have animals on the property, which I just paid him$100 till I can find a place. I haven’t been staying there, but wants to evict me cause of rent. Now I find out, he doesn’t own the property.

  • gracie

    Helo, My landlord gave us an eviction letter since NOV. but I am not in the lease. My room mate who is in the lease already left last january.
    My landlord let me lived there free, and extended my stay. He have no time to hire a policeman to give me a force eviction coz he lives in different state.
    And now May, he just want to let me get out of the house. The problem is I am not ready coz I have no vehicle available and manpower to rely with moving my stuff out. Then he just threw my things and furniture out of the house and my dogs out of the yard too… while I’m not home.

    Can I sue him? though im not in the lease?
    what if I show some unrepaired floors, molds and mildew when we lived there before?

  • Rebecca LeVan

    Hello we been renting at this apartment complex with two other people because they needed help with the rent since October 1, 2018 and paying rent of $500. The landlord came in the house and saw we were living there without him knowing and then asked if we were on the lease. We were not on the lease and he kicking us out. Can I sue them for taken $4,000 from us without a lease?

  • Aprile Patton

    I live in TN. I hired a lawyer to represent me due to falling through a rental house floor. Landlord was notified ahead of time but did not come to fix it. I did not break any bones. The settlement offered was $1900.00 which was 3x my hospital bill. I feel like my case should have paid more due to negligence. Should I sue them in small claims court?

  • Cassundra Thompson

    Need help my landlord trying to double my rent if I don’t renew my leases.

  • Jennifer

    I was staying in a apartment and my lease had expired 2 years I was down without at least I decided to purchase a home which I purchase in September of last year I gave her a notice let her know that I was moving in purchasing a house I did not pay her rent for August September she charged me a whole month rent 4 September I remind you I had no lease now I was willing to pay her for August but not September because I only was there 14 days what shall I do

  • Erika Bedford

    Hell I have been living in a town home for almost 2 years, the AC has broken down 3-5 times since I have been here, I recently requested a work order , I was charged $70 for the repair saying that my filter was the cause of the AC not working , I have receipts to show the purchase of new filters prior to the work order and a week later the office had to replace the same part they always do. It’s not in my lease but the landlord says maintenance tickets have to be paid prior to rent, my rent was paid in full 5/30 now since I haven’t paid the $70 they charged me a $100 late fee for rent even though I paid but not the $70 and $5 a day, what can I do ?

  • Billy Yorek

    I paid my rent on time, eviction started with a ten day notice of repeat violations. When I wrote a letter addressing that the write up wasn’t even my apartment, they told me to address it at court. Had me sign an intent to vacate. I applied at other complex and was denied due to eviction that wasn’t even filed. By the time it was fixed, court eviction for in tent to vacate

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