The 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.
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.
|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 Jersey||$3,000 ($5,000 for claims relating to security deposits); certain landlord-tenant suits cannot be brought|
|New York||$5,000 ($3,000 in town and village courts)|
$5,000 to $10,000 depending on county
$15,000 or $25,000 in counties with population of more than 700,000
|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.
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.
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.