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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102 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Amy

    Hello Laura,

    I actually reside in NH. I need to unfortunately sue some previous tenants for property damage as we have been unsuccessful at getting them to pay. However, I do not know their current addresses. Do you happen to know how I can find those addresses? I obviously have SS#, work and previous address history but it’s not so easy to look up people in the phone book anymore…
    Any help would be greatly appreciated.


  • Jennifer

    I live in Washington state, my landlord gave me the walk through information but never did a walk through. He had black mold, a broken sewage in the land field we had a broken heater and broken refrigerator. We told him we were moving and we’re not on a lease we did not but anything in writing. The landlord would show up when ever he wanted and never gave notice or nothing in writing now he says he will sue for last months rent and he took our deposit

  • Alice

    Hello! Thank you for your help. I m resident In a condo in Omaha Nebraska, I m the first resident of this brand new unit. The apto is 1 bedroom and have a lot issues. The garage door broke 3 times (in less than 3 months) and one day I couldn’t get out for work. Hot water do not support more than 10 min shower. There are nails in the carpet that have not been fixed well, forcing me to wear shoes because it hurts my feet. No control how many cars are parked outside, no parking space. How can I express my dissatisfaction at having rented a apto with a lot problems In the courtroom and getting out of that contract before the end of it, without having to pay fees? Thank you so much for your help.

  • Patricia

    My landlord asked for 3850. In dept. We moved in did all kinds of repairs painted and up keep for the property. We took off repairs from the rent. She filed in court stating we have not paid rent since jan of 18 till now. We gave her att the bank records stating diffrent. She refuse to give our dept back. Also have to her reastate brocker and he has told everyone in our building that we have no paid rent and to any one who wants to buy the building. So they a ruining our name how do i go about sueing them

  • Sheila

    Hello, I live in VA and my landlord claims I have done $900.00 in damages which is not true. I moved out in August and have not received anything from my deposit. The night I moved out I had lost my wallet and phone because I had taken pictures but I do have witness. Could they count has my proof? Thanks

  • Linda Spurlock

    I been going through a lot with my landlord. Everytime it flooding sewage water comes into my house from under the toilet. I have mold under my wooden floor. And my bedroom has mold in and down the walls. My electricity keep tricking. Help

    • elizabeth

      You have to be very cautious and extremely careful
      If you are living with mold. Depending on the spore(s) it can be deadly very quickly and or cause irreversible neurological damage. I myself
      Am suffering from
      Renting a home covered in black mold ( intentionally covered so
      I would
      Not be able
      To see any or all
      Of it, and I’m still in process of trying to recover after being out for 2 years, prior to living there4 & a half years, without ventilation because that issue was also covered up to gain me as a tenant. Anyway I’m asking that you leave that premises, contact a Dr and most definitely the landlord. Very unsafe and the symptoms arent always immediate.

  • Luis Ramirez

    Hello, I am being evicted for a late payment (which was never a problem before) but thats grounds for a eviction and i accept that! The issue is i have told 3 diffrent mgrs both on-site and off site about problems with my apt(which include mold in bathroom, mold under sink, broken locks on windows… I can go on…)for the past year and a half unfortunately i have no paper trail i figured a person to person was enough we sent texts but since the texts i have mysteriously lost w phones in my apt. With broken locks on windows and torn screens whos to say what happened to my phones. I have taken pictures of all that needs repair. I know i do not have a paper trail of my requests will i have a case to take them to court for tenant negligence?

  • Lillian Price

    I gave my landlord two months security $2,000. He won’t cooperate. I moved, left apartment pristine. Video recorded. I sent a notarized letter to his lawyer. Will that work? In CT.

  • Lillian Price

    I gave my landlord two months security $2,000. He won’t cooperate. He will not answer his phone. I moved, left apartment pristine. Video recorded. I sent him a notarized letter and it came back. I sent a notarized letter to his lawyer. Will that work? In CT.

  • Shelita Nolen

    My friend lives in a rooming house and there was no contract given at the time of move in. Now there are major problems going on in this house with the plumbing , the floor caved in around the kitchen, the washer and dryer does not work nor does the dishwasher and no one is repairing anything but still collects the monthly from all the tenants. Can you please tell me the proper channels to take with handling this situation.

    Thank you in advance

  • Josie Rapp

    My rental property is in South Carolina. I, the landlord, live in Maryland and so does the tenant who has not paid their rent. Where do I file the claim? Thank you.

  • Sarah

    Do I sue the Apartment Landlord Co or the Management Company for apartments. And if so can I sue a company and do I serve a company or the manager?

  • Jayme Gallo

    I live in wv in low income apartment and my rent is paid by hud. My apartment is infested with silverfish and the manager refuses to get me an exterminator please tell me what I need to do

  • Melissa

    So we have been renting a home in Virginia for 3 years come the end of March of this year. We do not deal with the owner. We paid a years rent upfront, security deposit, and pet fee. The owners have a property management. We had one company and three months into our lease the owners switched companies. So we have been with the new company for 31 months and 15 days. January 2 we got an email that owner does not want to renew the lease ( since October floor is coming up and the roof is leaking) . After all this time we get an email today stating that we have to pay our deposit again before we move out in March due to them including the amount with our yearly rent and used it. What can and should I do?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Melissa,
      You’ll need to discuss this with them. If you prepaid for the whole year this year, and if you gave a security deposit when you moved in, you should get back your security deposit when you move out minus any damages you might have caused beyond normal wear and tear.

  • Evelyn M Bennett

    Hi I’m currently seeking to file a lawsuit. I have been renting from the same landlord for over 10 years, I transferred here almost 8 years. the entire time The landlord services bad and maintenance guys and building manager does not make repairs does not do anything, harassing tenants, keep causing disturbances, all make comments against me earning income or going to school to get me to move I have tried to move out of the unit but loss income and rent increases have made it impossible. I use to pay rent on time and even before rent is due, I stop talking to the landlord at office, lease not renew. due to a job loss; I now pay rent late, and he against me getting rental assistance. But mentally I’m tired stress-out, harrass 8 years.

    • Evelyn M Bennett

      The ceiling is leaking now for over two months, now I have a big hole in my ceiling, not the first time; left with a big hole in the kitchen ceiling 2012, later bedroom. and went a year without appliances being replaced(lease agreement) and repairs been done to my apartment for a long time, and still kept up with my rent, and paid on time, even if he in Israel, during holidays. I have made numerous request to the landlord to fix the unit above me, and he did nothing as usual. The tenant in the apartment above me had the intention of filing a lawsuit the first week she moved-in the building. So she don’t care about the water damage I have to deal with. Can I at lease still file a lawsuit, without knowing the status of my lease renewal.

  • Ray A.

    Hello- I am a landlord in Texas. My tenant has broke the lease 5 months before the lease end date and moved out. I have kept his security deport as he was in violation. Can I still file a lawsuit in small claims court for non-payment of 5 months lease remaining in the lease agreement and someone else might be moving in (as the house is in the market)?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Ray,
      I’m not an attorney, so this is not legal advice. You might wish to check with one. Here’s what I know as a landlord. You are entitled to be made whole. That means, you are entitled to get rent for the full lease term. If you are keeping the security deposit, that takes care of 1 of the 5 delinquent months, so now you are only out 4 months. Your tenant would probably be responsible for those 4 months unless you get someone in before the 4 months. In most states, landlords have a duty to actively look and not just sit back and collect rent on a vacant unit. Your ex-tenant is responsible until you re-rent. You can sue your ex-tenant for any money you are out.

  • Stephen J Poirier

    I’m on disability I have live here about 16 years. I’ve not had problems until now. They had a bed bug problem in the building, they had a company come to assess what it takes to prep every apt. for spraying. A:The 1st company backed out but when they were here I came home and my dresser draws were open and things had been moved around inside. My neighbor called and said hers were also. we hadn’t been told they needed access to them. I told the manager but got no response. B: The manger gave notice she was going to do random inspections per week (indefinitely) with no other notice. I handed her a copy of the law, a 48 hr notice is required. She’s still using her random 1 and I can’t find any recourse. HUD/HOC RI

  • Rosie

    I am wondering it says that when a landlord sues that they need to file the papers with the clerk/court where the rental property is located. Is this true for all states? I live in NH, I am being sued by my landlord the apartment is in Jaffrey, NH (which has a courthouse) but the landlord filed the paperwork with Lancaster, NH court which is the court for his home town.
    Thank you

  • Jessica Clough

    Hi, I’m wondering if you can take a current tenant to small claims court for unpaid rent/violating the lease? They are still living in the house. Do we have to do an eviction or can we just do small claims court for the rent they owe/will owe us? Thanks

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