How Should a Landlord Prepare For Court?

As a landlord, being sued in small claims court is never fun. Fortunately, though, small claims rules and procedures are fairly straightforward.

By , Attorney ● UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 11/30/2022

It's a common scenario: A landlord returns part of a tenant's security deposit after deducting the cost of repairs for damage caused by the tenant. The tenant then claims that the landlord is wrongfully withholding the money, and sues the landlord in small claims court.

Here's what a landlord being sued in small claims court should expect, along with some tips on how to prepare.

What a Landlord Should Expect in a Small Claims Court Case

To begin a small claims court lawsuit, a tenant making a security deposit claim will have to file and serve a complaint on the landlord. In the complaint, the tenant will have to describe the alleged wrongs of the landlord, as well as request a certain amount of damages (money) from the court.

Landlords can use a tenant's security deposit to cover unpaid rent as well as the cost of repairing damage caused by the tenant that goes beyond normal wear and tear. If the landlord doesn't charge a cleaning fee, the landlord can usually also use the security deposit to cover cleaning if the tenant leaves the rental in a dirtier condition than it was in when the tenant moved in.

The Complaint: Potential Tenant Claims

Security deposit lawsuits brought by tenants typically involve a claim that the landlord wrongfully withheld some or all of the tenant's security deposit. This might involve claims that the landlord:

  • didn't follow state law in accounting for the use of the security deposit—perhaps the landlord returned the money late or didn't provide a detailed enough description of how the money was used, or
  • should've returned a greater portion of (or all of) the deposit, because the tenant either didn't cause the damage or paid the rent in full.

Landlords have a duty under most states' laws to provide a timely accounting of how they use the security deposit. Usually, this involves a requirement that the landlord provide receipts for any repairs or cleaning performed. When a landlord doesn't adhere to the rules, depending on state law, the tenant might be entitled to damages.

Similarly, landlords must make only reasonable deductions from the security deposit. For example, if a landlord pays $200 to have an electrician replace a broken light fixture, the landlord can't turn around and charge the tenant $1000.

A landlord who is sued by a tenant must carefully review the complaint to find out what the tenant is claiming. Sometimes this can be a challenge—small claims court lawsuits typically don't involve lawyers, so it's up to the tenant themselves to describe their grievance. That means that complaints can run the gamut from a simple "My landlord didn't return my security deposit" all the way to a detailed, pages-long list of examples of the landlord's supposed wrongdoing.

The Complaint: The Tenant's Request for Damages

A tenant can sue only for money in small claims court, not for court orders. In other words, the tenant cannot ask the judge to order the landlord to do something or stop doing something.

The tenant's claim must also fall below the legal limit allowed in small claims court. For example, in California small claims courts, a tenant can sue for up to $10,000. The tenant also has to be able to prove all of the money damages in the lawsuit. This means small claims judges typically won't award damages for more nebulous harms such as time spent dealing with a dispute or emotional distress.

Small claims court rules vary from state to state, so be sure to check the rules in the state you live in.

The Answer: Responding to the Tenant's Claims

After the landlord receives the tenant's complaint, the landlord will have the opportunity to respond in an answer that must be filed with the court. Be sure to review the complaint to find out how long you have to file your answer—typically, answers are due within 20-30 days.

Be sure to respond in your answer to all the points raised in the complaint. It isn't necessary to go into great detail; just lay out the facts. For example, if a tenant is claiming that the charge for a repair is unreasonable, you could simply respond by stating the amount you paid, and note that you have the receipt to back up the amount. If you're allowed to attach documents to the answer, attach a copy of the receipt. If you can't attach documents, be sure to bring the evidence to court.

The Hearing: Presenting the Case to a Judge

In most courts, when the tenant files the complaint, the court clerk will also assign a date for a trial (or a hearing) with the judge. The date, time, and place of the trial will be noted in the summons, which will be served with the complaint on the landlord.

Nearly all small claims court trials are in front of a judge—there's no jury. The trial or hearing is both parties' opportunity to present their cases to the judge, along with any supporting evidence (such as paper receipts, witness testimony, or video). Although there are procedural rules that the parties must follow, the rules are usually more relaxed than they are in other courts, and the judge will usually guide the parties on how to present their cases.

The Verdict: The Court's Decision

When the judge makes a decision varies court-to-court. Some judges will issue an order right on the spot after the parties have presented their cases. Other judges will write up an order after the trial, and the court clerk will notify the parties when the court has entered the order. Usually, the order will be entered within no more than two weeks after the hearing.

Once you've received the court's decision, you have the option of accepting it, or you can appeal it. Because appeal laws and procedures vary state-to-state, you'll need to check with the court's clerk to find out in which court you should file your appeal.

How Landlords Can Prepare for a Small Claims Court Trial

The best piece of advice is to read everything that you receive, including the complaint, summons, and any attachments. Also, most small claims courts have detailed guides about rules and procedures—check online or ask the court clerk for any publications they have for parties to small claims lawsuits.

As for the trial, what matters in small claims court is not so much what you say, but the evidence you bring with you to the courtroom. When you do land in court, you will need to convince the judge of your position: For example, that the damage was not there when the irate tenant moved in, that you have spent reasonably for needed repairs, and that you followed your state's procedures for itemizing deductions and refunding the balance of the deposit.

Before going to court, ask the clerk how many copies you should have of each piece of evidence you plan to bring. Some courts also require you to label them as "exhibits." For example, a receipt for repair work might be your Exhibit A, a photograph of the rental when the tenant moved in might be your Exhibit B, and a video of the destruction when the tenant left might be your Exhibit C.

Bring your receipts, pictures, and any helpful witnesses. If your witnesses are not able to appear in person, a signed declaration (sworn statement) explaining what they saw or did (such as cleaning or repairs) will probably be sufficient. For example, if you hired a cleaning person to vacuum up excessive pet hair left behind in the rental, you could ask them to write and sign a letter detailing the work they performed and stating that the letter truthfully describes the work.

It's important that the judge believes you're being reasonable and presenting the facts without embellishment or exaggeration. Be calm, factual, and as succinct as possible when making your presentation. Find out if the court has a time limit on how long you have to present your case, then practice your presentation in front of a friend (or even the mirror) so you'll be more comfortable presenting it to the judge.

Try not to be nervous. Small claims court judges have seen it all, and as long as you tell your side of the story truthfully, you'll be fine. Dress professionally, be courteous to the judge and all court staff, and get a good rest the night before.

Finally, if you're at all concerned about the evidence you have or how to present your case, consider contacting an attorney. Although you probably won't be able to bring an attorney with you to court, most attorneys—especially ones with smaller practices—are willing to provide advice on an hourly basis. Spending just one or two hours with a local attorney talking over your case can greatly increase your chance of a successful outcome.

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