A significant number of landlords and property managers across America have shown great empathy and understanding to tenants who can’t pay their rent due to the poverty and illness the coronavirus has caused. Many state laws prohibit them from evicting renters based on non-payment, and many individuals are offering generous grace periods to those in dire straits.
However, in too many cases landlords and property managers are issuing eviction notices despite the prevailing economic decline and binding state and local laws prohibiting eviction for non-payment of rent. In these instances, when negotiation or mediation fails (or worse, if they aren’t even an option), your only alternative may be to file a lawsuit against them to assert your rights.
Small claims court is typically the best option in disagreements involving the return and/or amount of security deposits, failure to keep living conditions safe, and other common tenant/landlord disputes. The filing fees are minimal, and you can ask in the lawsuit that the person you’re suing absorb all of the court costs and filing fees if you win.
Filing a small claims lawsuit is time-consuming but cost-effective way to resolve rental issues and disputes. Just follow these easy steps:
Try to Avoid a Lawsuit
Before you file in small claims court, give old-fashioned communication a fair chance. Send a certified demand letter with a requested receipt to your landlord or property manager. The signed receipt is proof they received it. Clearly state the problem, such as a security deposit that wasn’t returned, the exact amount you feel you are owed, and why. Give them a deadline for payment, too — often 10 working days from the date of the letter. Make it clear that if you don’t receive that amount of money by the deadline, you will proceed to small claims court to sue them.
Things to Know Before Going to Small Claims Court
Choose the Right Court
Small claims court goes by a variety of names, depending on the state you’re in. It might also be called “pro se court,” “justice of the peace court,” “magistrate court,” or something else. Simply call the courthouse to find out which court is appropriate for your claim.
Know Your State Laws on Small Claims Limits
Every state has a maximum amount of money that you can sue someone for in small claims court. Look up that amount before you file your claim. It usually varies between $2,500 and $25,000. Even if it’s less than what you want, you should still consider taking it, as the cost of hiring a lawyer and suing in a higher court is probably much more than you are owed.
Find Out if a Lawyer is Allowed in Your State’s Small Claims Court
Many people feel nervous about representing themselves in front of a judge and prefer a lawyer to be present. This increases costs, of course, so most just end up going it alone. In addition, some states prohibit lawyers in small claims courts. Keep in mind that small claims court is relatively informal compared to higher courts, and its judges are ready and willing to hear cohesive personal statements without formal presentations.
Keep Track of Time
Every small claims court has a statute of limitations on how long after an incident occurs you can actually file a claim. This ranges from two to 15 years, depending on the state. You can’t file after this range expires.
Filing the Paperwork
When you’re finally ready to take your case to small claims court, you must file with the clerk at the courthouse in the same city where the rental unit is, (not your hometown, if that is different). You can find forms and instructions online. You’ll usually have to pay a filing fee, which is generally no more than $50, but you can always ask that the filing fees be paid by the defendant if you win.
The Waiting Period
After your landlord is served the court papers, they’ll usually have 30 days in which to respond. If you get no response, you can ask for a default judgment, which means you can present your case to a judge alone. If they do respond, a court date will be set, typically within 30 days. In some cases, the defendant will countersue you, which will be covered in the same hearing.
Arm Yourself with Proof
Collect any and all correspondence and pictures related to the case, including text messages, letters, emails, videos, and photos. Organize them in a folder so you look professional and organized. Prepare a clearly written statement that outlines the particulars of your case so can read it to the judge without stressing about leaving out any important facts. The landlord will also have a chance to present their side of the story.
The judge will ultimately decide whether or not the plaintiff wins their case against the defendant, or if the defendant’s countersuit (if there is one) is granted. Either or both parties can appeal the decisions. However, unless a higher court finds that the judge has made an error, it’s unlikely an appeal will be considered.
In a perfect world, the landlord will pay you what you’re owed if you win. However, if they don’t pay immediately, you can always hire a collection agency to collect the payment, seize the defendant’s assets, such as their wages or a bank account, or apply a lien to their property.