All states, including Indiana, offer small claims courts. These courts allow average citizens to bring legal claims that are not worth an enormous amount of money. In Indiana, for example, most small claims courts allow you to sue for up to $3,000. There is an exception in Marion County, however, where you can sue for up to $6,000.
If you have a dispute with your home contractor, small claims court can be an invaluable resource. How can you recover this money from your contractor, without an attorney, in Indiana Small Claims Court?
It is not uncommon to have disputes with home contractors. Sometimes the contractor will use the wrong materials, for example countertops or tile; fail to complete work on the project; or finish the work in a shoddy manner. If these circumstances occur, you should first make your best effort to negotiate with the contractor outside of court. Have a conversation with your contractor about the problem – the color of the tiles, or the increased price. Was there a misunderstanding? Or was it harder than he initially expected? Give the contractor a reasonable opportunity to cure the problem.
If this basic conversation doesn’t help, try writing a letter. A letter tends to be taken more seriously than an oral complaint, especially if you note that you are “reserving all legal rights should a resolution not be worked out.” This can serve as a useful wakeup call to the contractor. Moreover, sending a letter is wise if you sue, because it can become evidence to the judge that you did your best to avoid court. You gave your contractor a reasonable opportunity to fix the error, or refund your money, rather than immediately burdening the court.
Beyond the monetary limit for Small Claims Court, Indiana has statutes of limitations on when you can file your lawsuit. The most common legal causes of action against a contractor are for breach of contract (“He said he would fix the tiles in my bathroom for $1,000 and he didn’t!”) and property damage (“He broke the water pipes in my bathroom!”). Indiana has a six-year limit under Ind. Code § 34-11-2-9 for breach of contract and a two-year limit under Ind. Code § 34-11-2-4(3) for property damage.
If you are attempting to sue a contractor who did work on your home eight years ago, you are probably out of luck. If you feel that you have a claim, do not delay.
First of all, you need to figure out where to file your lawsuit. Indiana 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 – that is, your home. Not surprisingly, most plaintiffs prefer to sue in their home county, since this is more convenient. More cynical lawyers might also believe that judges might be slightly more inclined to side with one of their own county residents, especially in a state where judges are elected.
Indiana, like all states, charges fees for filing a lawsuit. These fees vary from one county to another, but will generally be between $60 and $90. Note that the clerk will charge you an additional $10 for each defendant that you sue (for example, if you want to sue both the general contractor and a subcontractor). You can find your county clerk’s contact information on the court system’s website.
Next you’ll need to file a Notice of Claim. All counties in Indiana have variations on the Notice of Claim form. Marion County’s form is a good example, though. You can fill it out in person or download it from your county’s website and bring the completed version to court. The form asks information about both you and the defendant contractor – names, addresses, and phone numbers. You’ll also need to describe your claim, including important dates, witnesses, and other relevant information. Finally, you’ll need to indicate the amount of money damages you are claiming. Be sure that you can actually prove the full extent of those damages.
When writing your Notice of Claim form, avoid legalese. In Small Claims Court, the judge knows the fine points of the law but the plaintiff does not need to. Your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion. A small claims court plaintiff who tries to come up with a detailed legal brief with Internet research on legal precedent and statutes will often confuse the judge rather than illuminate the important facts.
After these documents are filed, 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.
Like a lawyer rehearsing for a trial, you should come to court prepared. Arguing in front of a judge is stressful. It’s easy to forget crucial 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. Small claims court judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every day. Avoid irrelevant facts. Make the judge’s job easier. Indiana’s court system actually offers helpful video programs on preparing for small claims court.
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. 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 all goes well, the judge will agree with your version of the facts of the dispute and award the damages you request. If you win, you will receive a piece of paper called a judgment, indicating that you are owed a certain amount of money.
Then comes the question of whether the contractor will follow through and pay you. If your contractor does not pay you within 30 days of the order, you’ll need to return to court and fill out an application for a “garnishment” with the clerk. The clerk will walk you through the process, but essentially, a garnishment will allow you to use the power of the Indiana court system to “attach” assets that the contractor has in the state, such as bank accounts.