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
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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151 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Alisa Carr

    My landlord wrote up and sent a summary process (eviction) summons paper work attempting to get me to move out of my apartment illegally. I found out by going to court on the date on the paper and was told that the landlord did not file any such paperwork, the clerk then showed me what the actually paperwork looks like. They then sent me several notice to quit telling to me vacate the apartment within 7 days, days after I had paid rent. They did this all because I asked to handle the issue within the apartment. What can I do?

    • Earline Green

      I have been living in my apartment for 18 years, The original Landlord sold the property, to someone else.so I was still live ing there under a new lease.for 3 years. On July 30.2019 I received a letter dated for August 1.2019 to vacate the premises
      August 31.2019 My rent has never been late, they claim they are selling the property. Is this legal. The paperwork that they sent out was not a legal document.

      .

  • Earline Green

    I have been living in my apartment for 18 years, The original Landlord sold the property, to someone else.so I was still live ing there under a new lease.for 3 years. On July 30.2019 I received a letter dated for August 1.2019 to vacate the premises
    August 31.2019 My rent has never been late, they claim they are selling the property. Is this legal. The paperwork that they sent out was not a legal document.

    .

  • Candice Bruce

    I had to come down to help my mom with my stepdad, because he was diagnosed with cancer, my apartment manager wrote a note saying that my boyfriend and I are in good standing, gave my soon to be ex sisters-in-law verbal permission to be at the apartment, decided not to rent the apartment to her, because of her boyfriend , but had told me the day that he wrote that note, our names would be taken off of the lease as of August 1st, now his brother and him are coming after my boyfriend and myself. What do we do?

  • Candace Jackson

    I was on section 8, of which the rent increased when my son moved out. I wanted to find and move into in apartment where I wouldn’t have to mow the yard or shovel snow, clean the gutters, etc.. My landlord said to me that if I stayed they would decrease my rent without section 8 knowing. I stayed a year but, decided to move because I was diagnosed MS. Even though I was working, my landlord wanted me to quit my job and sell my car so I could continue to stay there on section 8. Since I moved, they are refusing to send me my deposit back.

  • Jocelynn C

    Hi, me and my husband and 7 mo old baby live in ND. We have had many issues with the company we are renting from. They have violated our terms of lease more than once and are unwilling to accommodate for those violations. Example, our shower floor caved in in our second bathroom and we put a work order in 6 mos ago and it hasn’t been fixed, lease says issues will be fixed in timely manner, what do I do? The issues with the bathroom make it unsafe for my baby and worried their not going to give us back our deposit or allow a walk through like they have done with other tenants. Help please!

  • Brittany Wilson

    Hi me and my son live In a one bedroom apartment in the state of North Carolina I pay $850 a month we have been here now right at 6 months now my rent has always been on time I have never been late on my rent I have visitors from time to time unannounced that just stop by and all I had gotten a call from my landlord stating that someone told them that I have to much traffic coming in and out of my home on a regular basis and that I’m supposeably saling drugs out of my house which isn’t true what so ever and that my son never has clothes on him whenever we go outside. By law can my landlord evicted me do to hear say she say without any proof of any wrong doings

  • Alexander Morris

    Parents rented house under a verbal agreement to give my grandparents a better living situation than they had before. The living situation is way worse and they charge more than when they stay at their old place. Half the outlets in the house work and the whole house is surrounded by sewage making it impossible to leave due to no plumbing or sewage disposal. They turn off the water and I had to call the police to get it turn back on and then was given an eviction notice signed 10 minutes after the cops showed up

  • Maria T. Abreu

    I recently moved out of a CA apartment. The security deposit was $600.00 but they had a laundry list of deductions and only would return $142.00. However, I left the place in immaculate condition and requested that they refund the full $600. They declined. I put them on notice that if they did not return the full amount with the time alloted that I would seek legal action. My question is when I file the complaint in small claims who would I name on the summon? Can I summon the property manager who handled the move out? I know the plaintiff would be the Apt Complex. Right? What a pain but I just can’t stand these people taking advantage.

  • Michael Baswell

    The apartment complex came in an planted plants an grass. I was paid for watering the plants. So my landlord asked me to water the front lawn an he would take care of me. I watered for 2 weeks at 3 hours a day. He give me a 30 dollar restaurant gift card. Which is not enough for the work I done. So can I sue him not enough paid

  • rocio

    I told my property manager that my air conditioning was not working and it took them 58 days to get it fixed. I was 9 months pregnant at the time and continued to live without ac for another month after my newborn came home from the hospital. I contacted them various times and heard little response. When the ac was fixed I asked for a reimbursement for the 2 months rent because i did not have proper ac during the hottest summer in my city. What can i do if they denied giving me any rent concessions?

  • Ronald WhiteI

    I am a renter in Texas of a duplex I have lived here for around 10 years there are roughly 18 units here of which only three are occupied mine being one of them the landlord decided to renovate these units all at the same time this is been 3 years ago none of them are done yet so now I am being sweated for rent he hasn’t finished the work that he started in the unit I’m in and is trying to up the rent from $620 2 $950 a month he hasn’t finished this unit that I’m in had to do some some repairs on the walls and such I had a water leak at one time in my kitchen ceiling caved in this is been a year ago roughly I can’t get him to fix the ceiling or finish off the work he started in here yet what can I do

  • Ronald WhiteI

    I am a renter in Texas I have lived here for around 10 years there are 18 units here of which only three are occupied mine being one of them landlord decided to renovate these units all at the same time this is been 3 years ago none of them are done so now I am being sweated for rent he hasn’t finished the work that he started in the unit I’m in and is trying to up the rent from $620 2 $950 a month he hasn’t finished this unit that I’m in had to do some some repairs on the walls and such I had a water leak at one time in my kitchen ceiling caved in this is been a year ago roughly I can’t get him to fix the ceiling or finish off the work he started in here yet what can I Do.I’m not trying 2 screw him just want him off my back

  • Shaketia Sellers

    I been living in my apartment almost 3 years. My kids has been coming in and out of my apartment since I been living in it. But as of September 30, 2019 it became a problem with him coming in and out of my apartment. My landlord said that I needed to show proof that he don’t live with me. I that she also said that he can only be over three time out of the week. Now he only comes over on the weekends. And I told her that now she saying that she didn’t say that and that I have to add him to my lease or I’ll have to vacate off the property. What should I do?

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