Going to Small Claims Court: A Mixed Bag
Your Day in Court
Considering Going to Small Claims Court?
Going to Small Claims Court is the right of all US citizens (and many others worldwide) in order to collect on small amounts of money in a relatively informal setting. The amount sought must be under a threshold as determined by the state, and is generally done without the expense of a lawyer. In Colorado, for example, the maximum one can sue for in Small Claims Court is $7500.
Regardless, it does require preparation and the ability to coherently describe your grievance to a judge. You must assemble and present appropriate evidence of your claim. And it does require waiting in the courtroom until your case is called in a "docket" of other cases. Following through on all of this can require a fair investment of time and perhaps other resources.
It is not unheard of for people to bring complaints to Small Claims Court more out of a desire for justice than to claim the actual monetary reward, which may be a relatively trivial amount! This motivation factored into my own case which I will elaborate in more detail later.
Typical items brought to the court include:
- contract violations
- property damage
- failure of a landlord to return damage deposit
- merchandise not as presented
- refund not paid
A person would be well advised to know that winning a judgement is no guarantee of collecting it. If you are awarded a settlement and the person still refuses to pay, it is up to you to take action to collect the award. The court is not responsible for collection.
Obviously, it may not be worth it to go to small claims court if the defendant has no money or resources to be able to pay you, even if you feel you can win the case. It also requires some upfront expense to cover court costs and sometimes a fee to serve process to the other party of the dispute.
I recently chose to sue my former landlord for the return of a damage deposit in small claims, a fairly typical case. What was less typical was that I willingly chose to leave the apartment without the specified notice required in the lease for what I felt was an egregious safety issue. Since I vacated without much notice, the landlord chose to countersue me for additional damages based on having left the apartment early.
From this experience, I can thus report firsthand that it is both easier and harder than I expected. In addition, I risked losing the case and having an award made to the defendant!
The following video presents an overview of the procedure and what you should be prepared to do:
How to Sue in Small Claims Court Overview
In small claims, you may sue over money only. You cannot recoup attorney fees from the defendant. This is not likely the right court to sue over more complex issues like mental anguish or for punitive damages. However there may be a provision in your state's laws to be able to sue for twice or treble an amount as deterrant for inconvience, for instance when a rental damage deposit is not repaid.
I recommend finding documentation as to how exactly proceed in your jurisdiction. This information may be available to you online, You also may be able to file the necessary form(s) online or alternatively by mail or in person. You may have to track down documentation regarding any state law that allows you to collect double or treble damages in your particular situation, and to be able to quote that provision to the court.
In your filing with the court, itemize a list of all damages you wish to receive from the defendant and state clearly what each of them are for. It is generally considered reasonable to ask the defendant to pay the filing fee and to recoup the cost to serve notice to the defendant.
In all cases, notice must be sent to the defendant or process served. Many cases get settled out of court when the defendant sees that you are ready to pursue a court case! In the event that you can settle the matter between yourselves, you can cancel your court proceeding.
Your court may be able to send notice of the impending lawsuit (for a fee) to the defendant by way of a certified letter, which is cheaper than serving process. Note that this is hardly a guarantee that process is served. The defendant may fail to pick up the letter at their local post office. In such a case, you may have to serve process by having a friend deliver it or by paying a company to serve it.
In my particular case, I chose to sue for treble the amount of the damage deposit, which is allowed by a state law in Colorado. I also added in my itemized list of requested damages the cost of having a company serve process to the defendant, since it was in a nearby city where I didn't know anybody.
Prepare Your Case
Recall that you are not likely paying an attorney, so it is up to you to present the facts and evidence in your case clearly and in an organized manner with suitable evidence.
I recommend that you prepare an outline of how you will verbally present the case including the sequence in which you will introduce your supporting documents or receipts. Although verbal agreements can be legally binding, informal evidence as this will likely have to be supported by a witness. Such evidence is generally is much weaker in court.
The judge or magistrate will label any paper evidence you bring in with an exhibit number sticker so he/she can clearly keep track of these items as you build your case.
Judges and magistrates often have a heavy case load and will want to get down to the facts in the most succinct way possible. Having your "ducks all in a row" as they say will keep the matter professional (and the officiator's frustration level down).
As I said, I had vacated my apartment without as much notice as was required in the lease agreement because of safety concerns. There had been water dripping on the electrical outlet circuitry in the walls. So I photographed water staining in the area to use as evidence. In addition, I had on hand a report from I obtained from the fire department, whom I had called out for concerns of an electrical fire when I discovered water was dripping on the circuity. I was actually fearful of being burnt to a crisp in an electrical fire, a concern which seemed to fall on deaf ears as far as my landlord was concerned!
Present Your Case
Although it would be nice to be able to schedule your own time slot with a judge or magistrate, you will likely be scheduled to be called within a potentially large group of cases. Expect to wait as other cases are presented and presided upon before the judge or magistrate gets to yours.
Clearly state the nature of your grievance and state whom you wish recourse for it. Next present your supporting documents or have your witness give testimony to support that the defendant in fact is the responsible party to address your grievance for the amount of money you have requested.
Frankly, in my case, I became fairly nervous in this well-attended setting in Denver. Denver and other large cities tend to see quite a few cases and the crowds can be large. But, I was also emotionally charged by the landlord's refusal to return my damage deposit when I had vacated the apartment for fear of my life! I suggest you calm yourself as much as possible if you are skittish about public speaking. I ended up upsetting myself and slowing down the court proceeding in this way, losing my train of thought, etc.
Nonetheless, I produced the lease showing the amount of the damage deposit with the defendant's company's name on it to establish who, what and how much I was looking for in pursuing the case.
Next, I stated that I felt so unsafe in the apartment that I left having had visions of being consumed in a horrendous fire. I had notifed the landlord to no avail. For this reason, I did not give the amount of notice specified in the lease before vacating.
To support this, I produced the photographs showing the actual water staining around the circuity. I then presented the fire department's report about being called out at 4 AM when I had awakened hearing sizzling around the outlet. The fire department's report described the details of the call and how they resolved it by disconnecting the electrical circuitry to avert a fire.
The magistrate labeled each of these items with an exhibit number. Then he proceeded to ask the defendant's side of the issue. The company who managed the property for my landlord then reiterated that I had vacated it without the amount of notice required in the lease.
This is where things became hairy. When asked by the magistrate did I notify the landlord about the issue, I said yes I had on three different occasions. First to tell him about the danger. Second to schedule a time to fix the issue, since the electricity was still disconnected. And then a third time to complain again about no resolution and that the lights were still off.
The defendant hummed and hawed and said that yes I had called, but it was not evident what was the problem. I did not notify them in writing. When I called each successive time, I was increasingly upset about failure to make required repairs and over concerns that winter was coming, snow might seep into the walls and on further circuity as this was a basement apartment.
The magistrate asked for the specific dates I made the calls, but I had not jotted them down. My roommate, who was with me for moral support, testified then that he had heard me make at least two calls. The magistrate at this point asked my roommate to identify who he was, how long he had lived with me and what he heard me say over the phone. Thank goodness I had asked my roommate to come along to help me out! I hadn't considered this particular angle on the case.
I reiterated that I was certain I had made three separate calls, but the lack of notification in writing to the landlord about the problem did not look good. (I had written finally to state that I was now vacating.) Still, the report from the fire department was fairly indicative that a serious problem did indeed exist.
Case Conclusion: An Award or Not?
After both sides present their case, the presiding judge or magistrate either decides in favor of the plaintiff or for the defendant in the case and specifies or denies a monetary award.
In my case, the magistrate decided in my favor and that the defendant, my former landlord, should pay me the amount of the damage deposit plus the cost of filing the case, about $39. He denied me my request for treble damages because he did not feel I had adequate follow-through on notifying the landlord about the problem to see that it was fixed. He chose not to award me the cost of serving process, which was $50. So I was out what I felt was a reasonable expense which I could prove with a receipt. Go figure!
He denied the countersuit where my former landlord requested compensation from me for leaving early.
The award given to me by the small claims court specified that I should get 8% interest on the total amount until paid in full to me. I have sent now one letter demanding payment from my former landlord, but I have yet to see any of this money at all.
So was it worth it to me to sue him over this fairly trivial amount of $549?
I spent a substantial amount of time assembling the evidence in the way of photographing the walls around the circuitry, creating a timetable of events as they transpired and getting a copy of the fire department's report. In addition, I sat through at least one hour of other cases scheduled before I presented mine. I dressed up and even wore make-up and luckily had my roommate on hand to give support to my testimony that I had made the phone calls.
Still, I would resoundingly have to say "yes", this was worth it. I felt that the defendant was a fairly unresponding "slumlord" who cared little about me or my safety. I believe he was actually surprised at the outcome. I feel certain that many cases are taken to small claims in spite of the time involved because it provides a sense of justice.
So, you see that going to small claims court can certainly be a mixed bag! Now, to find out more about how to go about a collection action, since apparently the former landlord refuses to pay up. Wish me luck!
--Laura in Denver