Connecticut is filled with charming New England-style homes, many in need of renovation. If you are a Connecticut homeowner, you might need to engage a contractor to perform some small-scale renovations – new shingles on your roof, repointed bricks, or new tiling in the bathroom. Occasionally, disputes will develop between homeowners and contractors. Your contractor might take longer than promised, use cheaper materials than you thought you had agreed upon, or perform deficient work.
If you have a dispute worth $5,000 or less, Connecticut’s Small Claims Court might be your answer.
Unlike in some states, Connecticut allows you to have an attorney represent you in small claims court. While youcan hire an attorney, you don’t necessarily need to. In fact, it is far more common to represent yourself and indeed, the court is set up so that average citizens of Connecticut can fill out the forms without an attorney’s assistance.
While many disputes with home contractors can be annoying, the dollar value is often too small to justify hiring an attorney, who is bound to charge you hundreds of dollars an hour. That said, it might make sense to consult with an attorney briefly before appearing in court. The attorney might be able to give you a neutral assessment of your claim and some pointers in drafting your lawsuit. This attorney need not be a construction or real estate law specialist.
Remember, the court clerks can provide general information, but they will not provide you with legal advice.
Note that if you sue your contractor as a company (i.e. the LLC or corporation), Connecticut law requires that the company appear in court through an attorney. Nevertheless, you can subpoena your contractor himself or herself to come to court and testify.
A lawsuit seems like a powerful first step, but just because you can go to court doesn’t necessarily mean that youshould. Before you run to see a judge, consider negotiation and mediation.
Negotiation just means that you try to discuss the situation with your contractor before you sue. If you can negotiate an arrangement without proceeding to court, you will both save time and money. 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 originally intended? Perhaps you can compromise.
Demand letters are another effective strategy to jump-start communication. Nolo has guidance on writing letters to adversaries, which business leaders often take letters more seriously than an oral complaint. Be sure to note that you are “reserving all legal rights should a resolution not be worked out.” This gives your contractor a clear choice: negotiate with you in good faith or be sued.
Finally, think about mediation. Connecticut is a leader in court-annexed mediation programs and alternative dispute resolution. Law schools throughout the state even offer free clinics, where law students will act as mediators to Connecticut residents in conflict.
Once you file a lawsuit, the court will encourage you to use no-cost mediators. These individuals will sit down with you and your contractor to attempt to work out a settlement. These settlements can be more creative than the result from a trial, where the court will only award (or not award) money to the plaintiff. In mediation, you could write an agreement where, for example, your contractor agrees to provide certain additional materials and services.
Negotiation and mediation are smart first steps, but they aren’t silver bullets. You won’t always be able to make your contractor be reasonable. If these strategies fail, you may need to proceed to litigation.
One of the first factors to consider is the statute of limitations; these state laws limit the amount of time a plaintiff has in which to file a claim. The most common legal causes of action against a contractor are breach of contract (“She said she would put new pipes in my walls, and instead removed all of the pipes!”) and property damage (“He caused a huge flood in my kitchen after he removed them!”).
Connecticut has a six-year limit under C.G.S.A. § 52-576 for breach of contract as well as a two-year limit under C.G.S.A. § 52-584 for property damage. Many homeowners make the mistake of waiting to sue until they need money, or until years of negotiation have gone by. This can be a fatal move.
After making sure that you’re within the limitations period, you’ll need to go through the full filing procedure. First, 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 – typically, your home county, where the contractor was supposed to do the work. Most plaintiffs prefer to sue in their home county, since this is more convenient and provides a certain degree of “home court advantage.” For a list of all of Connecticut’s small claims courthouses, view the full list on the Connecticut Judiciary website.
The county clerk will charge fees when you file your lawsuit, currently (as of 2015) set at $90 by statute. You’ll need to pay additional fees if you want to subpoena witnesses, or sue additional defendants (such as subcontractors or architects). Nolo advises setting aside a few hundred dollars to finance your lawsuit – including the costs of printing evidence or buying binders for the court.
Note that you may want to sue your contractor both individually and in his corporate form (i.e. Bob as an individual, and also his company Bob, LLC). To find out the specific company name and headquarters, you can contact the Connecticut Secretary of the State at 860-509-6002.
Next, you’ll file a Summons and Complaint with the clerk. You can fill out that form in person or download it and bring the completed version to court. (A typed version will look more professional and will also make it easier for the judge to read). Connecticut’s Judiciary offers a helpful slideshow to help you fill out the form correctly.
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 the amount of damage claimed, since judges will require you to prove the full extent of those damages.
Once this paperwork is filed, you will need to have the contractor “served with process,” which essentially means that a third-party process server company will physically bring him a copy of the lawsuit. Connecticut provides a helpful guide on the correct way to do this. Note that improper service on a defendant is grounds for dismissal of your lawsuit.
Next, 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. You must file with the court an affidavit of service, proving that the defendant was served. He will also have an opportunity to send an Answer to the court before the trial, which is similar to the Statement you wrote, except from the contractor's perspective. He will likely deny what you’ve said, and might even allege that you failed to pay or made unreasonable demands.
Judges in the Nutmeg State are smart. They will likely ask you pointed questions. You must arrive at court knowing your case backwards and forwards – the date of every email, the amount of every invoice, and the day-to-day events that resulted in the breakdown of your relationship with your contractor.
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 or speculation about things like the contractor's motives.
You should also bring physical evidence to court. In home-improvement litigation with a contractor, the most important evidence normally includes: 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.
“Winning” for you could mean that the judge awards you 100% of the damages you asked for, or it could mean that the judge awards you a portion of those damages. Either way, you’ll receive a judgment, which is essentially an order that the defendant contractor pay what the judge determined the contractor owes you.
Typically, business owners pay judgments readily, in part because they fear negative relationships with banks and lenders, and bad reviews from customers. However, your contractor might not be so forthcoming.
If the contractor fails to pay you within ten days, you’ll need to return to court and fill out more paperwork, specifically an Application for Execution on Property. This will allow you to “attach” (in other words, lay claim to) assets held by the contractor in bank accounts, to the extent that the contractor has any. Note that you will need to hire a private collection agency for this process. You will need to make a financial decision about whether the money is worth pursuing, if your judgment amount is relatively low.