Fights over security deposits make up a large percentage of the landlord-tenant disputes that wind up in small claims court. Typical lawsuits are brought by tenants against landlords who unfairly withheld deposit money for cleaning, repairs, or back rent, or failed to return the deposit at all. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple to file a small claims lawsuit in New York when you follow the steps below.
The first step in filing a New York small claims court lawsuit against your landlord is to make sure you legal grounds for doing so. Some valid reasons include your landlord’s:
You’ll also want to make sure that you have evidence—such as written correspondence, a completed landlord-tenant checklist, or witnesses who can testify as to the condition you left the unit—to back up your claim that you are entitled to a return of at least some of your security deposit. Without evidence, your case can be difficult to prove, and might result in a battle of your word against your landlord’s word in court.
Before you file a small claims court, you’ll want to make sure that you have given your landlord a letter demanding the return of your security deposit. Your letter should spell out the main facts, your legal rights, what exactly you want, and your intent to sue if necessary. Sending a written demand is important for several reasons:
Send your letter by certified mail (return receipt requested), or use a delivery service that will give you a receipt confirming delivery. Keep a copy of your letter and the delivery receipt. You’ll need them if you end up in court.
If your landlord does not respond satisfactorily to your demand letter, you can file a lawsuit immediately. Alternatively, you could first try mediation, a procedure in which you meet with a neutral third person who helps you and your landlord arrive at your own solution. Mediation might be available from a community-based mediation program, or even right in the courthouse. In some cases, the court might require you to try mediation before suing your landlord, so check with your court for details on this.
Suing your landlord is inexpensive, usually less than $50 to file a case (fee waivers or deferrals are sometimes available for people with low incomes). You don’t need a lawyer—in fact, they’re not even allowed in many small claims courts. Small claims court cases are usually presented to a judge (there are no juries) within a month or two of the initial filing.
You can sue for the amount of the security deposit that your landlord wrongfully withheld, up to the state limit. The maximum amount for which you can sue in New York City’s Small Claims Court is $10,000. In other City Courts, as well as in Nassau and Suffolk Counties’ small claims courts, the maximum is $5,000, and in Town and Village Courts the maximum is $3,000.
For more detail about New York’s small claims court procedures, visit the New York courts’ small claims website. On the site, you’ll find a comprehensive guide to small claims cases in New York state City, Town, and Village Courts, along with a guide to small claims and commercial small claims in New York City, Nassau County, and Suffolk County.
In addition to knowing your state's security deposit rules, tangible evidence is key to winning your case in small claims court. Here are the types of evidence you should take to court (what you need depends on the specifics of your case):
Small claims courts are informal places, but consider watching a few cases a few days before your court date so you know what to expect. Also, many court websites provide useful advice, and some courts even offer free legal advisor programs to help you prepare your case. Before you go to court, practice your presentation out loud.
At trial, both you and your landlord will have the opportunity to present a narrative of events, as well as any evidence or witnesses. Explain and document your case thoroughly, but be brief and succinct. Describe your loss and how much you are asking for. Then go back and tell the story chronologically, and present the evidence you’ve collected to support your case. If you brought witnesses, point them out to the court, summarize the testimony you expect they will give, and ask permission to call them. Each side’s testimony typically takes less than 15 minutes. After both sides have concluded their presentations, the judge will either announce a decision right in the courtroom or let the parties know when to expect a decision.
If you don’t agree with the court’s ruling, you will need to research how to appeal a small claims court case, and decide whether an appeal is worth your time and effort.