Let's say you own a beautiful home in Urbana, Illinois. You wanted to do some minor renovations on the bathroom, retiling the floor and shower. You found a contractor, hired him, and let him go to work. But then, perhaps he left half-way through the job, after you'd made a substantial up-front payment. Or worse, he finished the job, but did so with the wrong tiles or substandard materials.
This type of project probably cost you several thousand dollars – not enough to hire an attorney, but still enough that you don’t want to give it up. Can you recover this money from your contractor in Illinois small claims court?
Just because you have a dispute with your contractor doesn’t mean you should run to small claims court. Nolo has some advice on the best first step when considering your options. Starting with a conversation with your contractor about the problem is probably the best idea – the quality of the materials, the shoddy workmanship, or the lack of completion. Give the contractor the benefit of the doubt. Is there a reason the project went wrong? Did he misunderstand the assignment? Or was it harder than initially expected? Perhaps, with a little more time, the contractor would be able to cure the issue.
If your contractor still doesn’t offer to fix the problem, write a letter. This letter should reference the written contract, if you have one, and note that you hope to resolve this matter without the need for a lawsuit. Often, this sentence alone will get the contractor’s attention and bring him to the table.
Also, sending a letter is strategically smart if you eventually litigate, because it can serve as evidence to a judge that you did your best to avoid court. You gave your contractor every opportunity to fix the error, or refund your money, rather than burdening the justice system.
Many disputes with contractors can be solved through negotiation and mediation, but some will require a court. In Illinois, what distinguishes Small Claims Court from “regular” court is that Small Claims Court only hears disputes over $10,000 or less. Moreover, there are no lawyers – you are permitted, even expected, to represent yourself.
Illinois requires that you 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 – i.e. your home that was supposed to be repaired. In most cases, it will be more advantageous and convenient for a homeowner to sue in his or her “home” county.
Illinois has statutes of limitations, which set a sort of deadline on when you can file suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (ten-year limit under 735 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/13-206) and property damage (five-year limit under 735 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/13-205). Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period. If it does not, your suit may be barred.
An Illinois small claims action begins by paying the clerk of the court a filing fee and filing a summons and a complaint.
Every county in Illinois has a slightly different form; Cook County’s form is a good example. You’ll need to include (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.
Avoid legalese. There is no expectation that you know the law in detail. That's the judge's job, in Small Claims Court. Your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion. More often than not, a small claims court plaintiff who tries to come up with a detailed legal brief with Internet research on legal precedent and statutes will confuse the judge rather than illuminate the important facts.
Once your Complaint is filed, 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.
Like a performer rehearsing for a play, you should rehearse for your appearance in small claims court. Standing in front of a judge can make anyone jittery. It's easy to forget key information like dates, promises made, and payments.
Rehearse by explaining 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. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoid irrelevant facts. Make the judge’s job easier.
A second important aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim will be the evidence you present. 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 his 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 his 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.
In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
If you win your case, the judge will order that the contractor pay you a certain amount of money. Most contractors will see that they’ve lost in court and will pay you what the judge ordered.
However, if after 30 days you have not been paid, you may bring what are known as “collection proceedings.” Most counties in Illinois actually offer a Collection Advice Desk in their Small Claims Court building. Speak to the clerk there about your specific situation, and he or she will guide you through the appropriate paperwork.