If you live in Idaho and want to improve your home – either to live in or to resell – you might hire a contractor to handle a small-scale renovation project. Occasionally, disputes can develop between homeowners and contractors. You wanted a particular light fixture, and he gave you another one; he said he would complete the job in two weeks, and instead it’s taking two months; you asked him to fix your electrical system, and he caused a huge power surge.
How can you get your money back and get compensated for any damage that he caused? For small projects like the ones above, you probably only lost a few hundred or a few thousand dollars – a lot of money, to be sure, but perhaps not enough to justify the cost of hiring an expensive attorney. Idaho's Small Claims Court might be your answer.
In Idaho, small claims court allows you to sue people or businesses for up to $5,000. In small claims court, the rules of presentation and evidence are somewhat relaxed, because the court is intended for ordinary citizens, not attorneys. For small claims courts, Idaho is somewhat decentralized. Each county operates its own small claims court, each with slightly different forms and procedures. It is important to familiarize yourself with the specific instructions on your county clerk’s website.
Despite the importance of knowing the rules of your specific county, some rules are standardized across all of Idaho. The statutes of limitations are one such rule. The first step in litigation is to determine whether your claims fall within the statute of limitations period. Idaho’s statutes of limitations control the time within which you can sue. The purpose of these limits is to encourage people to resolve their claims quickly, to give individuals and businesses a sense of security.
The most common legal causes of action against a contractor tend to be breach of contract (“He promised to repaint my bedroom green, but he repainted it blue!”) and property damage (“She ruined my carpet when she was supposed to be doing plumbing work!”). Idaho has a five-year limit under Idaho Code § 5-216 for breach of contract, and a three-year limit under Idaho Code § 5-218(3). Negotiating with your contractor is smart, to a point, but do not wait for years and years before filing suit.
First of all, you will be required to pay a filing fee. The fee is slightly different in each county. In Canyon County, for example, the filing fee is $69 (as of 2015). You may pay additional fees if you want to sue multiple defendants or subpoenas (like subcontractors or witnesses to your contractor’s work).
You must sue the defendant either in the county 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 the work. Plaintiffs usually prefer to sue in their home county since this is more convenient and provides a certain degree of “home court advantage” (because the judge likely lives there also).
Next, you’ll file a Statement of Claim with the clerk (this example from Ada County). 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 the 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 owed to you; judges will require you to prove the full extent of those damages.
Perhaps the most important pitfall to avoid when writing your Claim is writing in legalese rather than plain English. Judges know the law and you do not need to delve into its finer points or cite precedent as an attorney would. Your role is to present the facts of your case clearly.
Once you've successfully filed the Statement of Claim, the court 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.
Your contractor will have an opportunity to file a document called an Answer. Like the Claim, this is a short form that allows the contractor to tell his side of the story.
A singer wouldn’t go on stage to sing to an audience without practice. Similarly, you should not walk into court unprepared. Even for experienced attorneys, standing in front of a judge is nerve-wracking. One can easily forget dates, documents, and damages.
Practice what you will say in your one to two minutes speaking to the judge by rehearsing in front of a friend or family member. Omit extraneous details. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see many plaintiffs every single day. Make the judge’s job easier by making the story short, simple, and to the point.
The evidence you present is another key aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim. In the context of home improvement contractor litigation, evidence is crucial to avoiding a he-said/she-said situation, where you and your contractor simply disagree on whether or not he properly performed the agreed-upon duties.
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 given him; 3) Any emails or letters you’ve sent to the contractor outlining your dispute; and 4) Photographs of your home before and after the construction work, especially photos that show shoddy workmanship.
Depending on circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
If you win your lawsuit, and the judge agrees with your version of the facts, 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 what you asked for.
Most business owners pay judgments fairly quickly, because they fear negative relationships with banks and lenders, not to mention destroying their reputation with potential new customers. If your contractor pays you, the case is over and you can file a Satisfaction of Judgment to tell the court.
Unfortunately, not all defendants are so willing to part with their money. If your contractor does not pay you within 20 days, you’ll need to file an Affidavit of Execution. Generally, this procedure will allow you to collect money through your contractor’s bank accounts or other assets. Speak with your county clerk about the specific procedure in your county.