You have a charming old home in Denver, and you hire a contractor to do some minor work on the kitchen or bathroom – retiling, new grout, and upgraded piping. Your contract with him is for $2,000 total, with 50% paid up front and the remaining 50% paid upon completion. He takes the $1,000, does a small amount of work, and then stops showing up. Your bathroom remains unfinished.
What do you do? You may need to sue your contractor to get your money back. In situations like these, where you have a claim worth perhaps a few thousand dollars – not enough to hire an attorney, but still enough that you don’t want to give it up – how can you recover this money? Colorado’s small claims courts are a useful mechanism to get justice.
Under C.R.S. §13-6-403, Colorado’s small claims courts are courts of “limited jurisdiction” that are empowered only to hear civil claims up to $7,500. There are no juries in small claims court; all cases are heard by judges (sometimes called magistrates).
Small claims court general hears disputes over contracts, where one party owes another money. This makes it an ideal venue for many construction-related disputes. (More complex causes of action, like libel or injunctive relief, cannot be brought in small claims court). Parties generally do not need lawyers in small claims court. The forms and processes are intentionally designed to be simple enough for average individuals.
When a dispute with a contractor begins to develop, think twice before immediately running to small claims court. Nolo has some advice on the best first step when considering your options at this juncture. Starting with a conversation with your contractor about the problem is probably the best idea – bringing up issues like the quality of the materials, the shoddy workmanship, or the lack of completion. Is there a reason the project went wrong, or is taking longer than expected? Perhaps a compromise solution can be reached without either of you wasting time in court.
If your contractor doesn’t offer to fix the problem, the next step is to write a demand letter. These letters are often taken seriously, since they come across as more formal than talking in person. Such a letter will put your contractor on notice that the status quo is not acceptable.
This letter is also creating a paper trail, if you do eventually go to court. The letter lays out the facts as you know them, demonstrates to the judge that you gave your contractor an opportunity to negotiate and settle, and that you did not want to burden the court’s time with your dispute. This can make you look like the more reasonable party, which can be a significant advantage.
Negotiation sometimes fails. If your contractor is stubborn, or thinks he can get away with his actions (or inactions), you may need to file a lawsuit. How do you do this?
First of all, you will be required to pay a filing fee. If your claim is between $1 and $500, the filing fee is $31; if your claim is between $501 and $7,500, the filing fee is $55. (These are 2015 figures.) Note that these fees will occasionally change, and you should check the Colorado Court System’s website before writing a check.
Next, to initiate your lawsuit, you will fill out the “Notice, Claim, and Summons to Appear for Trial” form, sometimes referred to as JDF 250. The form asks for basic information, such as: (1) your name, address and phone number; (2) your contractor’s name and address; (3) a description of your claim, including dates and other relevant information; and (4) the amount of money damages you are claiming.
When describing your claim, you have only a few lines. Avoid legalese or references to statutes. There is no expectation that you know the law at this level of detail. That’s the judge’s job. Your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion.
Once you've filed your lawsuit, the clerk will send a copy to the defendant contractor, along with a summons to appear in court on a specified date. That will be the date when you each orally present your case to a judge. The contractor must be served with the papers at least 15 days before the trial date, and you will get back a form that shows service was completed. This form must be filed with the court at or before your trial. Your contractor will have an opportunity to submit a short reply to your claims in writing before that date. Generally, though, your appearance before the judge is likely to be more impactful than your short descriptions of the claims.
As a plaintiff, you need to pay close attention to the statutes of limitations in Colorado. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (three-year limit under C.R.S. §13-80-101(a)) and property damage (also a three-year limit under C.R.S. §13-80-101(n)).
Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period. If it does not, your suit may be time-barred.
Even for experienced litigators, it’s easy to get nervous in court. While you can’t prevent nervousness, you can make sure you are prepared. Try explaining your case to your friends or family members in just one to two minutes, while including all the relevant facts and details. Weed out any extraneous information that might confuse the judge.
Also, come to court with any evidence that you have. In the context of home improvement contractor litigation, the most common pieces of evidence 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 emails or letters 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 workmanship.
Winning your case will get you nothing more than a piece of paper, called a judgment. Most contractors will see that they’ve lost in court and will pay you what the judge ordered. But some will not – either because they do not have the cash, or because they think they can get away with it.
If the contractor fails to pay their debt, you will need to fill out a form called the “Motion and Order for Interrogatories.” These are essentially court-ordered questions, sent to the defendant, about his property and assets. If he fails to answer these questions within the time provided, the court can issue a bench warrant to attach assets, like bank accounts or cars. Often, the prospect of vigorous collection will scare the contractor into paying his debt.