For Iowa homeowners looking to increase the worth of their home, or just increase its appeal, small-scale renovations can do wonders. Whether it’s installing new kitchen tiles, fixing the bathroom sink, or recarpeting the living room, these types of projects can add significant value, often for just a few thousand dollars. However, they typically involve hiring a contractor -- and that can lead to disputes.
Imagine that you found the contractor’s name online, met with him, negotiated a price of a few thousand dollars, and signed a quick contract. Now imagine that the contractor failed to perform his duties. He used low-quality materials, unevenly installed the carpet, or used the wrong texture tile. Or perhaps he left your home before the project was finished because he got a more lucrative job.
Because the contract was for only a few thousand dollars, the expense of hiring an attorney to litigate your case would probably not be cost-effective. You might end up paying the attorney as much (or more!) than you would receive on your claim. Fortunately, Iowa’s Small Claims Court provides an easy way to sue a person or business without needing to hire a lawyer. The procedures and rules are simplified, designed for use by average Iowans.
It might sound counterintuitive, but you should try to settle your case before you sue. Running to court isn’t always the best first step. Beyond the fees associated with suing, lawsuits are also an investment of time and energy that you might prefer to spend elsewhere. Therefore, do not file your lawsuit the second a dispute develops.
Begin by having a conversation with your contractor about the issue – the color of the paint, the quality of the materials, or the shoddy or incomplete work. After reminding your contractor what was promised (with reference to the written agreement, if you have one), give an opportunity to explain what prevented a satisfactory completion. Is the job more expensive or complicated than anticipated? Does the contractor need more time? Is there an issue that can be worked out between you?
Talking won’t always get a contractor's attention. Try sending a demand letter. Write a letter to the contractor explaining what was promised (again with reference to any written contract). For businesses, a letter carries more weight than a mere oral complaint. They've probably heard grumbling from customers before, and much of it unjustified. But a letter shows that you're serious; especially if you include a sentence at the end stating that you reserve all your legal rights and remedies.
These letters are also a useful “Exhibit A” in court. Sometimes called a “good faith letter,” they demonstrate to a busy judge that you made reasonable efforts to resolve the dispute amicably before burdening the justice system. In other words, a demand letter can serve to make you look like the “good guy.”
While many – maybe most – disputes with contractors can be solved through negotiation, not all can. Sometimes you’ll need to file a lawsuit. Litigants can represent themselves in Iowa’s small claims courts without the need for lawyers. There are also no juries; instead, judges resolve lawsuits for money damages not exceeding $5,000. There are a few important things to keep in mind before you begin your lawsuit.
Small claims court offers many advantages, in terms of ease and speed compared to full district court. However, there are limitations. One of the most significant limitations is that your claim cannot exceed $5,000. Also, 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.
Iowa also has statutes of limitations on when you can file suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (ten-year limit under Iowa Code § 614.1(6)) and property damage (five-year limit under Iowa Code § 614.1(4)). Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period.
Iowa Small Claims Filing Process
To formally begin your case, you must file a Notice and Petition for Money Judgment in the clerk’s office for the appropriate county. 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 state government provides a map of the counties, if you are unsure.
Your petition is a sworn statement regarding the facts of your case. You can frame it as a story, from the moment you and your contractor first agreed to the scope of work. Avoid legalese or citations to statutes and legal treatises. There is no expectation that you know the finer points of the law. That's the judge’s job. 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 attempts to write a detailed legal brief with Internet research on legal precedent and statutes will confuse the judge rather than illuminate the important facts. You are not a lawyer, and should not pretend to be one.
Once the petition is filed, you will send a copy to the defendant contractor, usually through a process server. Your contractor will have the opportunity to file a document called an Answer, where he can refute your claims. If he does not respond, you can file an Application for Default. This essentially means that he has conceded, since he hasn’t replied, and you win by default (sort of like in sports, if the other team doesn’t show up). If he does reply, the court clerk will mail you both a date to appear in court. This will be the date when you each orally present your case to a judge.
Filing a lawsuit in Iowa Small Claims Court is not free. Filing your petition will (as of 2015) cost $85, although this fee may change from year to year. There may also be additional fees, such as the cost of subpoenaing witnesses or suing multiple defendants. It is generally smart to budget a few hundred dollars for these sorts of fees, which are an investment in your case.
When you appear in court for your trial date, it is crucial to be prepared. First, be mindful of your attire. Although you are not a lawyer and do not need to wear a suit, you also should not wear jeans or a ripped T-shirt. Business casual attire is certainly appropriate, sending a message that you are a serious, responsible individual.
You should also prepare your statement. Court is a stressful environment, and it’s natural to be nervous when speaking to a judge – especially with the contractor standing next to you. Practice is key. A good way to rehearse 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. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoid irrelevant facts.
A third 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) proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already given him; 3) 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.
Depending on circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
One of the most frustrating aspects of small claims court, whether in Iowa or elsewhere, is that even if you “win” your case against your contractor, you essentially only receive a piece of paper (called a judgment). Honorable contractors will see that they’ve lost in court and will pay you what the judge ordered; this is especially true if the contractor is local, and knows that it needs to operate in your community and have relationships with local banks. If the defendant pays you, you can file a Release and Satisfaction of Judgment, officially terminating the case from the court’s docket.
But not all contractors will pay so readily. It remains your responsibility to enforce that judgment if the contractor doesn’t willingly pay. If your contractor fails to pay you within 30 days, you’ll need to return to court and fill out additional paperwork called the Notice of Garnishment. This will give your contractor one final chance to pay; after that, the court will allow you to retain a third-party collections agency to attach assets that the contractor may hold, from personal property to bank accounts. Enforcing a judgment can be time-consuming and costly, and you will need to decide how much you want to invest in the process.