Maine, like all charming New England states, has many old homes in need of love and care. Imagine that you live in such a home, and hire a local contractor to perform upgrades – perhaps to the electrical system, air conditioning system, kitchen, or bath. You find someone, sign a contract, and he gets to work. But then, after you’ve already paid a substantial portion of the fee, you discover that the contractor's work is faulty, or that he has failed to complete the entire job.
Since the project was relatively small-scale, it only cost you a few thousand dollars – too little to make it worth hiring an attorney. How can you recover your money? If you have a claim against your contractor for less than $6,000, Maine’s Small Claims Court (sometimes referred to as District Court) may be the answer.
Not all disputes are worth suing over. Sometimes you might decide to cut your losses, particularly if you think your contractor is insolvent, or if you’ve lost only a small amount of money. If you do want to recover some funds, though, even most lawyers will agree that running to court isn’t always the best first step.
More often than not, you should begin by having a conversation with your contractor about the issue – the color of the paint, the quality of the tiles or other materials, or the shoddy or unfinished work. After reminding your contractor what he promised (with reference to the written contract, if you have one), give him an opportunity to explain what's going on. Is the job more expensive or complicated than anticipated? Does the contractor need more time to finish (and can he give you a specific schedule for completion)? Is there an issue that can be worked out?
If this strategy does not bring the contractor to the table, put your concerns into written form with demand letter. Such a letter to the contractor should explaining what was promised (again with reference to any written contract). Often, a demand letter carries more weight than a mere oral complaint. This is especially true if you include a sentence at the end of your letter stating that you reserve all your legal rights and remedies.
An added benefit to sending a demand letter is strategic. If you eventually litigate, the letter can serve as evidence to a judge that you did your best to avoid court. Sometimes called a “good faith letter,” it demonstrates to a busy small claims court judge that you made reasonable efforts to resolve the dispute amicably before burdening the justice system. In other words, it can serve to make you look like the “good guy.”
The majority of disputes can be resolved through negotiation, either orally or by letter. But not every conflict is so easily fixed. Sometimes you’ll need to file a lawsuit. There are a few important things to keep in mind when you wish to begin your lawsuit. Remember that even after you file your lawsuit, there is no reason to stop negotiating. Indeed, your leverage has increased, since now the contractor sees that you are not willing to sleep on your rights. If the case settles before the trial date, you can notify the Maine court system by following its online instructions.
Maine’s Small Claims Court is empowered only to hear cases where the plaintiff is suing the defendant for less than $6,000. If your dispute against your contractor is worth more than that, you'll need to give up on the overage in order to sue in small claims court.
Maine also has strict statutes of limitations (essentially, time deadlines) on when you can file suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (six-year limit under 14 Me. Rev. Stat. § 752) and property damage (also a six-year limit under 14 Me. Rev. Stat. § 752). Do not wait seven years or more before filing your claim, or you will find yourself kicked out of court – even if your contractor did everything you accuse him of doing.
Filing a lawsuit in Small Claims Court is not free. Generally (as of 2015), it costs $50 to file the action, and an additional $15 for each defendant you sue (for example, if you sue subcontractors in addition to the general contractor). There might be additional fees along the way for subpoenaing witnesses or docketing judgments. The good news, however, is that the court might order your contractor to reimburse you for these fees if you win your case.
To formally begin your case, you’ll need to file a Statement of Claim with the clerk’s office. You can do this either in the county where the dispute arose, or where your contractor has his office. Typically, this is in your home county, though can view a listing of all of the courthouses in Maine here.
This Claim form can be filled out online, but must be physically brought to the court. (Typing it will make it look more professional, particularly if your handwriting isn’t clear).
Your Statement is a sworn document 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. Try to avoid speaking in legalese or weighing it down with citations to statutes and legal treatises. There is no expectation that you know the law in the same way a lawyer would. Rather, in small claims court, it is the judge’s job to know the law; your job is to present the facts of your case in a clear and compelling fashion.
Once the Statement is filed, the clerk will send a copy of the Statement to the defendant 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.
When you appear in court for your trial date, it is crucial to be prepared. 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. Judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day. Avoiding irrelevant facts and speculation will make the judge’s job easier.
A second important aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim will be presenting relevant, convincing evidence. Without it, you risk getting caught in 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:
written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for performance, and the payment agreed upon
If appropriate, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe or explain elements of the story to the judge.
Maine’s court system provides resources on collecting judgments. If you win your lawsuit but the contractor fails to pay you within 30 days, you will need to return to court to file additional paperwork.
Maine has a unique process known as a Disclosure Hearing. As the winning plaintiff, you’ll file a form called a Request for Disclosure Hearing. This forces the losing defendant to come into court and discuss, under oath, how he or she plans to pay you. This is typically done before the judge.
If the contractor then fails to pay, the court will work with you to attach any assets or property held by the contractor in the amount of your judgment. Note that additional fees will apply for these judgment collection proceedings.