Breach of Contract Cases in Small Claims Court

Find out what you need to establish a breach of contract case

Updated by , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

A significant number of small claims cases involve a breach of contract. To win a breach of contract case in small claims court, you'll need to establish that:

  • a contract existed
  • the defendant broke the contract, and
  • you suffered a monetary loss.

If you're successful, the small claims judge will issue a money judgment for your loss. Learn tips for collecting a money judgment.

What Is a Contract?

A contract is any agreement between individuals or businesses in which one side agrees to do something for the other in exchange for something in return. For example, Avery asks Blake to paint his kitchen for $3,000, and Blake agrees.

The agreement can be written, oral, or implied from the circumstances. Breach of contract cases end up in small claims court when one of the contract parties fails to perform according to the terms of the agreement.

Find out about other case types filed frequently in small claims court.

Unpaid Debt Cases in Small Claims

Small claims breach of contract cases often involve a failure to pay money owed. Hardly a day goes by in any small claims court when someone isn't sued for failing to pay a friend, relative, or a local small business.

In many situations, getting a money judgment for an unpaid debt involves no more than stating that the defendant made a commitment to buy certain goods or services, that the plaintiff provided the services, and that a legitimate bill for X dollars remains unpaid.

The Plaintiff's Case

As a plaintiff, you'll likely need to prove:

  • the identity of the debtor
  • the existence of a contract with the debtor
  • that you kept your promises under the deal (that you provided the goods, services, or loan), and
  • that the debt hasn't been paid.

Find out about tips that could help you win your small claims case.

The Defendant's Case

If you are a defendant and believe you have a good defense, you might argue that:

  • the goods or services you were supposed to receive were delivered late, were seriously defective, or didn't arrive
  • the plaintiff never lent you the money in the first place
  • you already paid back some or all the money the plaintiff lent you, or
  • the plaintiff agreed to a subsequent contract to forgive the debt or give you more time to pay.

If fraud is present as part of a transaction, the judge can cancel the deal and refund your money. Fraud can be:

  • intentional misrepresentation (a deliberate, false statement about a product or service)
  • negligent misrepresentation (a statement about a product or service made without investigating its truth)
  • fraudulent concealment (suppression of the truth) or,
  • a false promise (a promise with no intention to perform), or any other act designed to deceive.

Also, if you make certain types of purchases under certain conditions, you may have a "cooling-off" period under federal law or state law during which you can cancel the contract or sale. To learn about these and similar defenses, look into the rights afforded by consumer protection laws.

Learn more about defenses to a breach of contract action.

Failure to Perform Cases in Small Claims

Sometimes a breach of contract suit results not from a refusal to pay a bill, but because one party claims that the other failed to carry out one or more of the terms of a contract. Such would be the case if:

  • A tenant suing an apartment owner who agreed to rent the person an apartment but instead rented it to someone else.
  • A small business dispute involving a caterer who showed up four hours late with the food and drink.
  • A customer suing a tattoo artist who began an elaborate skull pattern on his back but couldn't find the time or inspiration to finish it–leaving the customer with what looked like an incomplete lumpy potato tattoo.
  • A freelance writer hired to write an annual report suing the business involved when it failed to provide essential financial information, making it impossible to do the job.

In court, you'll need to convince the judge that the contract existed. If the contract is in writing, bring it to court. If it's oral, be prepared to prove the terms through witness testimony and other evidence. Be creative–if you lent money to a debtor using a check, bring a copy. Along with your testimony that the borrower promised to repay you, this should be all you need to establish the existence of a contract.

Damages resulting from a breach of contract are usually easy to prove. After you show that the contract existed and that the other party failed to meet its terms, you should testify as to the dollar amount of damages you have suffered as a result. And when appropriate, you'll also need to introduce evidence to convince the judge that you did lose this amount. Presenting estimates, valuations, and other supporting documentation will go far toward proving damages. And remember, if you don't prove that you lost money as a result of the breach, you won't receive a money judgment—even if the breach of contract is clear.

Find out more by reading Your Day in Small Claims Court: What to Expect.