How to Sue Your Landlord: Overview

How to file and win a small claims court case against your landlord

By , Legal Editor

So long as the dispute falls within the financial limits on small claims cases (in most states, you can't sue for more than a few thousand dollars—see the discussion below), tenants can sue in small claims court to:

  • force a landlord to follow through with promises in rental ads
  • pressure a landlord to do minor repairs
  • enforce an ordinance requiring the payment of interest on security deposits, and
  • make a landlord return a security deposit.

When negotiation and mediation fail (or aren't worth trying) and you're ready to file a lawsuit against your landlord, you might want to consider using small claims court. Small claims courts have simpler procedures than regular trial courts, making them a friendlier venue for people who cannot (or don't want to) hire a lawyer. In fact, many states' laws prohibit lawyers from representing parties in small claims courts.

Using Small Claims Court for Security Deposit and Other Disputes

Small claims courts primarily handle disputes involving money, rather than disputes in which one side wants a judge to order the other to do or not do something. For example, arguments over security deposit refunds are prime candidates for small claims: There is a dispute as to whether the tenant damaged the property, left it a mess, or owes rent, and there is a sum of money at issue. The judge will hear both sides' arguments and issue an order (judgment). The judge's part in the dispute ends after the judgment is issued; If the money isn't allocated in the way the judge ordered, the victor can use the judgment to try to collect from the loser—often by attaching the loser's bank account or garnishing wages.

A dispute that cannot be resolved solely by the payment of money, however, might not be a good candidate for small claims court. For instance, sexual harassment cases often result in orders that the harasser pay the victim damages and that the illegal behavior stop (often some counseling is required, too). If the harasser doesn't obey the judge's orders, the victim has to go back to court and ask the judge to enforce the judgment (a judge might do this by finding the loser in contempt of court). Unlike small claims court judges, regular trial court judges are often involved in enforcing their decisions—small claims courts simply are not set up to do follow-up work. Consequently, small claims judges are hesitant to make orders that, if disobeyed, require the parties to return to court for enforcement.

Learning Small Claims Court Rules

Small claims court rules are relatively simple and easy to master. A typical tenant's lawsuit against a landlord might proceed like this:

  • the tenant (plaintiff) files the lawsuit with the court clerk, paying a small filing fee
  • the tenant has the papers served on the landlord (this can often be done by mail)
  • the parties show up on the day appointed by the court for the trial
  • both the tenant and the landlord have the opportunity to present their sides of the story to the judge (small claims courts rarely have juries), along with any witnesses and other evidence, and
  • the judge decides the case and issues an order, either immediately after the parties have presented their cases or shortly after.

The court clerk is an excellent source of information about court procedures such as how to file your lawsuit, how to deliver court documents to your landlord (called "service of process"), and what kinds of evidence you can bring to your trial. In some states, small claims court clerks might even help you fill out basic forms like the complaint and summons. If necessary, be persistent in your requests for assistance. If you ask enough questions, you'll get the answers you need to handle your own case comfortably. Also, in some states such as California, you can consult a free small claims court adviser. Finally, many small claims courts have online DIY guides that outline everything you need to know and answer FAQs.

Financial Caps on Small Claims Cases

Exactly how much can you sue for in small claims courts varies from state to state. The maximum amount in most small claims courts is somewhere between $4,000 and $10,000. You can check Nolo's 50-state chart of small claims court limits or call your local court clerk to find out how much you can sue for in your local small claims court.

When the amount you want to sue your landlord for exceeds your small claims court's limit, it might make sense to scale back your claim to fit within the limit, rather than suing for the entire amount in regular trial court. Between attorneys' fees and the costs of bringing a suit in the regular trial court, you might find that you would have come out ahead had you chosen small claims in the first place.

How to Win a Small Claims Court Dispute

Showing up with persuasive evidence that supports your story is the way to win in small claims court. For example, if you are suing your landlord to get your security deposit returned, you'll want to have a photograph of a clean and undamaged apartment and the convincing testimony of someone who helped you clean up.

Luckily, you don't have to be a trained lawyer to present your evidence. People in small claims court aren't usually held to the picky and difficult-to-understand rules of formal court. For example, a judge might be willing to listen to your account of what a repairman had to say about the condition of the furnace in your frigid flat, but in formal court, you'd hardly get the words out before the other side would yell "Hearsay!" and shut you down. That's not to say, however, that the judge will necessarily believe your account of the repairperson's assessment. It's far better to have a written, signed statement from the repairperson, which would dispel any suggestion that you misunderstood or misinterpreted what the repairperson said.

Where to Get More Information on Small Claims Court

See Nolo's Small Claims Court and Lawsuits Center for lots of useful articles on small claims court lawsuits. Also, Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by Cara O'Neill (Nolo), provides detailed advice on bringing or defending a small claims court case, preparing evidence and witnesses for court, and collecting your money judgment when you win. Especially if you have never been to small claims court, you'll want to closely study the material on how to present your testimony and witnesses in court. Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court is also useful in defending yourself against a landlord who sues you in small claims court—for example, claiming that you owe money for damage to the premises.

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