Georgia’s Small Claims Court, also referred to as Magistrate’s Court, provides a convenient way for homeowners to file suit against bad contractors. While some lawsuits against contractors are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and require hiring a lawyer – as would be the case with faulty home construction – other contractor lawsuits are too small to make hiring an attorney worth the money. For example, a small painting job or bathroom renovation might cost only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. If your contractor abandons the project or breaches your contract, small claims court provides a convenient way to sue for these dollar amounts.
Georgia’s small claims courts are courts of “limited jurisdiction,” which are empowered to hear civil claims of up to only $15,000. 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). The two 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 your contractor begins to develop, do not immediately run to small claims court. Nolo has some advice on the best first step when considering your options at this juncture. First, you'll want to have a conversation in which you make the contractor fully aware of the problem, and ask for his perspective on the quality of the materials, the shoddy workmanship, the lack of completion, or whatever other issues you've identified. 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 still doesn’t offer to fix the problem, write a demand letter. Such letters are often taken seriously, since they are more formal than a mere oral complaint. They 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 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.
Finally, you should also consider utilizing Georgia’s mediation services. The court can provide a neutral third-party mediator whose job is to facilitate a negotiation and settlement between you and your contractor. Often, this takes less time and stress than a trial.
Negotiation won’t always succeed. If your contractor is stubborn, or thinks he can get away with his actions (or inactions), you may need to file your lawsuit. How do you do this? First of all, you will be required to pay a filing fee. The filing fee is $51.50, with an additional $35 to serve the defendant with a copy of the lawsuit and $35 for each additional defendant you sue (e.g., subcontractors or designers).
Next, to initiate your lawsuit, you will fill out the “Statement of Claim” form (slightly different in each county). 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. Your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion.
Once your lawsuit is filed, the clerk will send a copy to the defendant contractor, who then has 30 days in which to file a document called an Answer. This will essentially give the contractor's side of the story.
From there, the clerk will send you both 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. The contractor must be served with the papers at least ten 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 state laws known as statutes of limitations. These apply to all claims in Georgia, and are designed to give defendants legal certainty after a certain number of years.
The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (six-year limit under G.A. § 9-3-24) and property damage (a four-year limit under G.A. § 9-3-32). Be sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period. If it does not, even a sympathetic judge would be forced to dismiss your case.
Getting nervous in court is normal, whether you’re an experienced trial lawyer or a plaintiff in a small claims case. The courtroom is often crowded, the judge asks pointed questions, and your adversary is there to contradict you. While you can’t prevent nervousness or stress, you can make sure you’re fully prepared. Practice by explaining your case to your friends or family members in just a few minutes, while including all the relevant facts and details. Exclude any extraneous information that might confuse the judge. Simple narratives tend to work best.
Beyond your oral presentation, you should come to court with any relevant evidence. In the context of home improvement contractor litigation, that might include: 1) written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for performance, and the payment agreed upon; 2) proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already handed over; 3) emails or letters you’ve sent to the contractor outlining your dispute; and 4) photographs of your home before and after the construction work, particularly photos that depict sloppy workmanship.
Remember, your presentation also matters. Even though Georgia’s small claims court is designed for “average people,” it doesn’t hurt to wear a collared shirt and long pants. Also consider putting all of the papers and documents into a binder. If you look organized, the judge will surely take notice.
You’ve gone through all the work of filing your lawsuit and going to trial, and now you’ve won. Unfortunately, winning in court will get you nothing more than a piece of paper, called a judgment, in the amount of money that the judge has decided.
Most contractors will see that they’ve lost in court and will pay you. But some will not – either because they do not have the cash on hand, or because they think they can get away with it. Georgia’s Judiciary offers a helpful guide for this situation called “Collecting Your Judgment,” outlining some of the challenges and approaches you can take.
If the contractor fails to pay the debt within ten days, you will need to fill out a form called a Garnishment Application. After another proceeding before the judge, this will allow you to attach certain assets held by your contractor, like bank accounts or trucks, in the amount of the judgment. Often, the prospect of vigorous collection will scare the contractor into paying the judgment.