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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62 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • robin hyldahl

    i would like advice opinion, we bought this fifth wheel from this guy who had been staying at this place for two years he had fifth wheel trailer parked along side hooked up to power and water it was a hang out place. we agreed to trade services and cash for trailer with agreement we could live in it as we were doing work it was agreed. family members who lived in house new and family members outside new and didnt care. after 3 months family member outside agreed we pay rent we paid one month and then they wanted us out no notice but lots of text messages to move yelling at us outside trailer take our money threats now to have trailer towed power and water turned off and threats to start fight still wont serve notice just threats to get us

  • Ross

    Hi, need some advice please. My landlord is withholding my $2,200 security deposit by totaling ignoring all correspondence. We were very good tenants, and paid the landlord $54,000 on time over the 24 months we lived there . We moved out on May 31 and left the property in a very clean and acceptable condition. The landlord refused to attend and do a final walk through. I took pictures before I left, and sent the landlord a strongly worded email saying that I would take him to the small claims court if our deposit was not returned within the 45 days. That has now passed by and no deposit has been received. I am concerned that if I take him to the small claims court, even if I win, I may still not get my money. What should I do?

  • Michelle Hernandez

    The landlord did not fix and I asked them we expected from FEMA and we found more itmes that we don’t expected. The house caused me sick. And I have pictures to show u. I m hearing impaired w fibroids. We moved to other house pls call me @713 5880589

  • Seth Sturges

    I was a roomate and the person who I lived with and who was named on the lease was evicted without my knowledge while I was away..
    The landlord qill not return any of my calls and I was told that my belongings were in a storage unit but the landlord would never agree to a time to meet to retrieve my belongings and now the 21 days has passed that he is legally allowed to hold my things. How can I get my things back 8f the landlord has mever and refuses to respond EVER?

  • Meena Sharma

    I have some question regarding rent collection. One of my tenant he did not pay the rent for May and June. He also did not pay utilities bills since couple of months. His lease ended in June. I have his security deposit for one and half month. After security deposit still he has to pay me $670. I wrote him so many time but he ignored. Should I contact collection agency to collect my money or go for small claim court?
    I would appreciate if you can advise me in this matter what is the best way to recover $670.
    Thank you for your time.

  • Michelle Hernandez

    In hearing imparied. Call me 7135880589

  • Andy

    I recently moved out of my Condo after the landlord wanted to raise the rent $325. We moved all of our things and vacuumed before leaving, on August 2nd the landlord came to do an final inspection, during the inspection he told me that I will be responsible for the carpet because I didn’t leave it in the condition that I met it and a broken sliding mirror for the closet. I agreed to pay $750 total. He said OK and he will transfer the balance to my account, he never did. 2 days before the 21 days ended he sent me an invoice for the damaged floor. During the walk thru and texts he said I wont be responsible for the damaged floor that was caused by a pipe leak so why he is he now sending me an estimate for $2k for the floor so no $ back to me

  • Vidya Murthy

    I rented a room which is 5*7 sq.ft carpet and a tiny bathroom near university and monthly rent was 680$. I was initially promised bigger room and after I signed my lease, they gave me small room and threatened that I pay whole year rent if I break the lease and I had to stay there for financial reasons. I kept my room very clean, cleaned the bathroom and left it spotless. However, the property manager has sent a move-out fee for 200$ stating deep carpet clean fee-80$, deep room and bathroom clean 80$ and paint 60$. This is wrong and I don’t want to pay this amount, in-fact is there any way I can sue them for causing trouble through out the school year? They have treated me differently than other room-mates.

  • Samantha Harris

    I moved in my apartment with my blind and disabled brother 3 weeks ago. Prior to me signing the lease I was informed that the central air did not work but would be fixed within a week. Here we are 3 weeks later still no air. The windows are made so you can’t have window air conditioners. I have real bad asthma and health issues so it makes me sick being at home. So I keep having to stay else where leaving my brother home with a sitter. I keep calling the office and asking about the issue and all the keep telling me is they will check on the service order. Still nothing. I moved into these apartments only because they had central air. I don’t think it’s right for me to have to keep paying rent in a place I can’t be. I wanna break my lease. If I’m having these problems now and I’ve only been here 3 weeks I hate to see how it’s gonna be in the winter. Plus everything is starting to fall apart. Closets won’t close no more ect. I don’t even have alot of furniture in the house just a bed and clothes and 2 TV’s. There’s no way I should be this dis satisfied already

  • Melissa Mctaggart

    Half this summer my air conditioner has been leaking froze up and not working. Mold is growing and floor is rotten where leak was. The electric bill is sky high because the air is trying to work and my bills are getting backed up where now I’m receiving late fees. I have pictures I’ve turned in to landlord I have text and written statements I’ve sent to landlord and still 3 months now nothing has been done to resolve this…. so Can i take everything I have to courthouse and file a complaint? Please give me advice I am really down and out… thank u
    Melissa

  • Greg

    Is my landlord retaliating against me or breaking any laws, cause I asked for multiple things to be fixed in the rental including mold & mildew problems and received a 60 day notice shortly thereafter?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Greg,
      If it’s the end of your lease term, landlords generally don’t need to give a reason for not renewing the lease. If your landlord gave you notice because you asked for fixes, then that would be retaliation. But unless you can prove that’s the reason for getting a notice to leave, you can’t prove your landlord broke any laws. Note that I am not an attorney, and that this was just a general answer.

  • Cynthia f

    My granddaughter moved into her own apartment it was a six month lease one month into the least she found bedbugs which when she moved in the landlord was asked about bug and he said no the apartment did have any but he new the down stairs apartment was loaded with bedbugs so he had someone spray to get rid of them but they were so bad that to treatment didnt get rid of them so he was told and my granddaughter moved out 47 min later he put it on the for rent site than he say he not giving security deposit back because she still had three months still on her lease and then he changed and said the damage was more than her security deposit should we take him to small claims court?

  • Tc

    Hi, I’m renting a room my landlord just said he wants me and my fiancé out next week we’ve been living here for over 6 months and have been paying every month but the other day we seen mail it’s from court stating he owes over 5k on rent what can we do

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