Sometimes, home contractors will not perform according to your contract with them. The workmanship might be shoddy, the materials might be incorrect, or the work might never be completed, despite your up-front payments. When these sorts of contractor-homeowner disputes arise, Minnesotans can take advantage of the state’s small claims courts, called Conciliation Court.
In Conciliation Court, you can sue your home contractor for claims up to $15,000 – one of the highest dollar limits of any small claims court in the county. This type of court is ideal for relatively low-dollar value claims, where the cost of an attorney could surpass the amount for which you might be suing your contractor. How can you recover this money from your contractor, without an attorney, in Minnesota’s Conciliation Court?
Most states refer to low-dollar value courts as “small claims” courts. What is “conciliation”? The terminology reflects the value that Minnesota places on settlement and mutual understanding between litigants. When you go to Conciliation Court, mediation services will likely be available. In mediation, a third-party neutral will sit down with you and your contractor and attempt to work out a settlement. This is essentially a negotiation facilitated by a third-party mediator who is trained in conflict resolution. The process is entirely voluntary, but can be faster and more efficient (and perhaps less stressful) than going before a judge.
The first step is to determine whether your claims fall within the statute of limitations period. Minnesota’s statutes of limitations control the time within which you can sue. The purpose of these limits is to encourage litigants to file and resolve their claims quickly, to give individuals and businesses a sense of security.
Typically, the most common legal causes of action against a contractor are breach of contract (“He promised to repaint my garage green, but he repainted it blue!”) and property damage (“She dismantled my heating system when he was supposed to be doing plumbing repairs!”). Minnesota has a six-year limit under Minn. Stat. § 541.05, subd. 1(1) for breach of contract, as well as a six-year limit under Minn. Stat. § 541.05, subd. 1(4) for property damage. Thus, you should not delay in filing your claims.
First of all, you will be required to pay a filing fee in order to file your Conciliation Court lawsuit. Fees vary from one county to another, and you can look up your county on the Minnesota Court System website. You must sue the defendant either in the county court where its offices are located, or where the event that is the basis for the lawsuit occurred – in other words, your home, where the contractor was supposed to do his work.
Plaintiffs usually prefer to sue in their home county since it's more convenient and provides a certain degree of “home court advantage.” You can expect the fees to be between about $50 and $90, although counties will shift the fees around from one year to the next.
Next, you’ll file a Statement of Claim and Summons with the clerk. All counties in Minnesota have slightly different forms, but these are generally 1-2 page forms that contain basic information about the lawsuit. You can fill it out in person or download it from your county’s website and bring the completed version to court. You’ll need to provide names, addresses, and phone numbers for both yourself and the defendant contractor (or his business entity name).
You’ll then need to describe your claim. Finally, you’ll indicate the amount of money you believe you are owed. Don’t exaggerate; judges will require you to prove the full extent of those damages.
Perhaps the most important pitfall to avoid when writing your Statement of Claim and Summons is to avoid legalese. A common trap that plaintiffs fall into is to try to do extensive Internet research and make a legal argument, as if the person was an attorney. The Conciliation Court judge knows the finer points of the law and you do not need to. Your role is to present the facts of your claim clearly.
Once you've filed the Statement of Claim and Summons, the clerk will send a copy to the contractor along with a notice to appear in court on a specified date. That will be the date when you each orally present your case to a judge.
Your contractor will have an opportunity to file a document called an Answer. Like the Statement of Claim and Summons, this is a short form that allows the contractor to tell his side of the story.
An athlete wouldn’t go to the Olympics without practice. Similarly, you should not walk into Minnesota's Conciliation Court unprepared. Even for experienced attorneys, appearing before a judge is stressful. One can forget dates, documents, and other details. Practice what you will say in your one to two minutes speaking to the judge by rehearsing your claim to a friend or family member. Omit extraneous details. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see many plaintiffs every single day. Make the judge’s job easier by making the story short and simple.
The evidence you present is another key aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim. In the context of home improvement contractor litigation, evidence is crucial to avoiding a he-said/she-said situation, where you and your contractor simply disagree on whether or not he properly performed his duties.
Typically, the most convincing evidence a homeowner can provide will include: 1) Any written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for performance, and the payment agreed upon; 2) Any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already given him; 3) Any correspondence, such as copies of emails, text messages, or letters you’ve sent to the contractor, outlining your dispute; 4) Photographs of your home before and after the construction work, especially showing shoddy workmanship.
In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
Minnesota’s court system offers helpful instructional videos on appearing in front of a Conciliation Court judge. Spend ten minutes watching these to get a sense of the types of questions the judge may ask you.
If the judge agrees with your version of the facts of the dispute, and that the law supports pressing a claim against the contractor, you will receive a piece of paper called a judgment. This indicates that you are owed a certain amount of money – perhaps everything that you asked for, or perhaps a portion of what you asked for.
Business owners tend to pay judgments immediately, because they fear negative relationships with banks and lenders and others in the community. However, your contractor might not behave so responsibly.
If your contractor doesn't pay you within 30 days, you’ll need to return to court and fill out an application for aSatisfaction of Judgment. This procedure may allow you to collect money through your contractor’s bank accounts or other assets. Speak with your county clerk about the specific procedure in your county.