You purchased a charming old home in Selma, Alabama and decided that the kitchen needed a little sprucing up. You hired a contractor to install new tiles and repaint the walls. You agreed on the type of tiling, the color of the paint, the total cost, and the schedule. At first, everything seems to be going well. But after working for a few weeks, and collecting your full deposit, the contractor disappears. Less than half the work is done. Upon closer inspection, you also see that the contractor installed a cheaper kind of tiling than you had agreed upon.
What can you do? The cost of this job was likely only a few thousand dollars – not enough to warrant hiring an attorney. But the money is also too much to leave on the table. Alabama’s Small Claims Court lets you sue your contractor to recover your losses.
Like all states, Alabama has a small claims court where parties can sue for up to $3,000 in damages. Suits in small claims court can only be for money, meaning you cannot sue your contractor to force him to complete work on your house; the judge does not have this power.
Moreover, there are no juries, only judges. The rules of evidence and procedures are more relaxed, aimed at non-lawyers. This means that you do not need any legal training to file a lawsuit in small claims court, although some basic writing and public speaking skills will be helpful.
Each of Alabama’s counties has its own court, and you can find yours on this directory.
Avoiding court might seem like counterintuitive advice for an article on suing in small claims court, but it's actually a strategic approach to litigation. All litigation – even in small claims court, where procedures are relatively easy – is time-consuming and stressful. If you can negotiate an arrangement with your contractor without proceeding to court, you will both likely be better off.
Begin with a conversation with your contractor about the situation. Refer to relevant portions of the written contract or agreement, if you have one. Remind the contractor what was promised, and inquire as to the problem – are materials more expensive than originally thought? Is the job more complex? What would the contractor need in order to complete the project as promised? You should be able to work out the dispute if you and the contractor put all your cards on the table.
If this approach doesn’t lead to satisfactory results, try writing a positional letter. Such a letter tends to be taken more earnestly than an oral complaint, particularly if you note that you are “reserving all legal rights should a resolution not be worked out.” Known as a Demand Letter, this can later be used as evidence that you did your best to avoid court. You gave your contractor a reasonable chance to fix the error, or refund your money, rather than burden the court system.
Alabama’s statutes of limitations control the time within which you can file your lawsuit. Typically, the most common legal causes of action against a contractor are breach of contract (“She said he would repaint my garage green, and instead repainted it black!”) and property damage (“He destroyed my heating system when he was supposed to be doing electrical repairs!”).
Alabama’s small claims courts are decentralized, meaning the precise filing fees and court rules vary from one county to another. Alabama’s court system website has a convenient map of all of the counties; use this to find the appropriate county clerk’s office in which to bring your lawsuit. You must sue the defendant contractor 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. Most plaintiffs prefer to sue in their home county, since this is more convenient and provides a certain degree of “home court advantage.”
Despite each county having its own rules, there are some common rules throughout the state. You’ll need to file a Civil Complaint with the clerk. 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.
An important tip for writing your Complaint: avoid legalese. A common trap that plaintiffs fall into is to try to do extensive Internet research and make a detailed legal argument, as if they were an attorney. In small claims court, the judge knows the finer points of the law. Your role is to present the facts of your case in a clear fashion.
Once the Complaint is filed, you will need to have your contractor served with process (deliver the paperwork to him or her) by a third-party process service company. Your contractor will then have an opportunity to file a document called an Answer. Like the Complaint, this is a short form that allows the contractor to tell his side of the story.
What happens if your contractor does not file an Answer, and simply ignores the notice from the court? You can win by default if there is no Answer within 20 days. You’ll need to file a default judgment application with the clerk’s office, which gives the contractor one final opportunity to defend himself.
The biggest mistake you can make is to come to court unprepared. Arguing in front of a judge is stressful. It’s easy to forget dates, documents, and payments. Practice what you will say in your limited time before the judge by rehearsing in front of a friend or family member. Keep it simple, like a story. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoid irrelevant facts. Make the judge’s job easier.
Consider also whether you want to subpoena any witnesses. For example, perhaps a subcontractor saw the contractor’s defective work.
A second important aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim will be the evidence you present. In home-improvement litigation with a contractor, evidence is crucial to avoiding a he-said/she-said situation. Typically, the most important evidence 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 paid; 3) Any emails, letters, or other correspondence you’ve sent to the contractor outlining your dispute; 4) Photographs of your home before and after the construction work, especially photos that show shoddy or inadequate workmanship.
In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
You can win in a variety of ways. First, if you sue your contractor and he never answers the complaint or comes to court, you can file a default judgment.
Second, you can win in court. If the judge agrees with your version of the facts of the dispute, 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 it.
Typically, business owners pay judgments pronto, in part because they fear negative relationships with banks and lenders and bad word-of-mouth among potential customers.
However, your contractor might not be so forthcoming. If your contractor does not pay you within 30 days, you’ll need to return to court and fill out an application for an Order and Writ of Seizure with the clerk. This will allow you to use the power of the court system to “attach” assets that the contractor has in the state, such as bank accounts or equipment, in the amount of the judgment.