Imagine that you hired a contractor to perform targeted renovations on your Jacksonville, Florida home – maybe installing new linoleum in the kitchen, a different tub in the bathroom, or turning a porch into an enclosed mud room. Now imagine that the contractor failed to perform the agreed-upon duties. He used the wrong color linoleum, reversed the hot and cold handles on the tub and damaged your bathroom flooring, or used cheap materials. Or perhaps he simply disappeared before finishing the project.
If you had paid out only a few hundred dollars, perhaps you'd be willing to “write off” the loss as a lesson learned, and resolve to put extra effort into finding a reputable contractor next time. But even a small residential construction proejct can run you a few thousand dollars -- an amount that can be too much to lose without protest.
Small claims courts can be a good place to deal with these types of disputes. For the most part, such courts allow litigants like you to pursue legal claims against businesses or individuals without needing to hire an attorney. Litigation in small claims court is also typically faster than litigation in the state’s regular court of general jurisdiction. How should you pursue such claims against your contractor in small claims court in Florida?
For a homeowner who has a dispute with a contractor, running to court isn’t usually the best first step. More often than not -- as even lawyers agree -- it's best to begin by talking with your contractor about the issue – the color of the linoleum, the workmanship in the tub installation, or the inferior quality of the materials. After reminding your contractor what was promised (perhaps by bringing out the written contract, if you have one), provide an opportunity to explain what went wrong or is holding up the completion. Is the job more expensive or complicated than anticipated? Can the contractor fix or finish it up with a little more time? (Try to get a set deadline, in that case.) Is there an issue that the two of you can work out?
If this gentler strategy doesn't yield results, put your concerns in writing. Draft a letter to the contractor explaining what was promised (again with reference to any written contract). Such a letter is likely to carry more weight than a mere oral complaint, especially if you include a sentence at the end of your letter stating that you reserve all your legal rights and remedies.
Another benefit of sending such a letter is strategic. In the event that you later go to court, such a letter can serve as evidence, showing the judge that you did your best to avoid court. Sometimes called a “good faith letter,” that you aren't lawsuit-happy, but made reasonable efforts to resolve the dispute amicably before burdening the justice system. In other words, it can serve to make you look like the “good guy.”
By contrast, you wouldn’t want the contractor to protest to the judge that he had no idea there was a problem until receiving word of your lawsuit. Most judges prefer litigation to be a last resort.
While many – maybe most – disputes with contractors can be solved through negotiation, not all can. You may essentially have no option other than to file a lawsuit. Litigants can represent themselves in Florida’s small claims courts without the need for lawyers; there are also no juries, only judges. Below are a few key things to keep in mind when you wish to begin your lawsuit.
One of the most significant limitations on Florida small claims court is that your claims cannot exceed $5,000. The primary relief requested must be monetary – that is, you must be seeking money, rather than some other form of relief, like a court order that your contractor must do further work on your home.
Florida also has statutes of limitations on when you can file suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (five-year limit under Fla. Stat. Ann. §95.11(2)(b)) and property damage (four-year limit as well under Fla. Stat. Ann. § 95.011(3)(C)). Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period.
To formally begin your case, you can file a Statement of Claim in the clerk’s office for the appropriate county. Note that each Florida county uses a slightly different form for its Statement of Claim; Brevard County’s form is a good example of the information you would be required to provide. The appropriate county could be where the defendant contractor is based, or (more commonly) where your home is located, since that’s where the harm occurred. The Florida Court System website has a convenient map of all of the counties; each one has a courthouse with a Small Claims division.
Your Statement of Claim will include a sworn statement regarding the facts of your case. Try framing it as a story, starting with the moment you and your contractor agreed to the scope of work. Do your best to avoid legal jargon or citations to statutes and legal treatises. You aren't expected to know or set forth the law in the same way a lawyer would. In small claims court, it is the judge’s job to know the law; your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion.
Once you've filed the Statement of Claim, 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.
Filing a lawsuit in Small Claims Court is not free. Florida’s counties are extremely decentralized, in terms of how they charge filing fees. Most counties charge fees based on the size of the plaintiff's claim. Again, looking at Brevard County as an example: Claims between $1 and $100 cost $55; claims between $101 and $500 cost $80; claims between $501 and $2,500 cost $175; and claims between $2,501 and $5,000 cost $300. Each county may update its fees annually, so check your county’s website for the current fee schedule.
Before you appear in Florida small claims court for your trial date, it is crucial to prepare. Going to court can be stressful, and it’s natural to get nervous when speaking to a judge – especially with the person you're suing, that is, contractor, standing next to you.
A good way to prepare is to explain your claim to a friend or family member, trying to get your statement down to roughly one or two minutes. Keep it simple and direct. Small claims court judges have large caseloads and hear dozens of disputes every single day, many of them filled with anger and irrelevant details. You can set yourself apart by calmly and clearly explaining the key facts.
A second important aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim will be the documentary or other evidence you present. Without such evidence, you and your contractor will be simply playing a verbal tug of war as to whether or not he properly performed his duties.
The most important evidence for you to present will likely include: 1) Any written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for his performance, and the amount you were to pay at various stages of completion; 2) Any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already given; 3) Any emails or letters you sent to the contractor outlining your dispute; 4) Photographs of your property before and after the construction work, especially photos that show shoddy workmanship. In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to Florida small claims court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
One of the most frustrating aspects of small claims court (in Florida or elsewhere) is that even if you “win” your case against your contractor, you will essentially receive a piece of paper (called a judgment). Honorable contractors will accept that they’ve lost in court and will pay you the amount the judge ordered; this is especially likely to occur if the contractor is local, and knows that it needs to continue attracting customers in your community and maintain good relationships with local banks and lenders. But not all contractors are so professional in their dealings. You will have to be the one to chase after the contractor and enforce that judgment if the contractor pay up in a timely way. Enforcing a judgment can be time-consuming and expensive.
Florida’s court system provides resources on collecting judgments. If the contractor fails to pay you, you will need to return to court to file additional paperwork. The judge might set a schedule for payment that will be reasonable for the contractor (for example, if cash flow is an issue). Alternatively, the judge might order that the contractor’s bank accounts be garnished.