You live in an older house in Bethesda, Maryland, and have decided that the exterior needs a little sprucing up. You hire a contractor to install new windows and repaint the outside walls. You agree on the type of glass, the color of the paint, the total cost, and the schedule. At first, everything seems to be going well. But after working for a few weeks, and collecting your full deposit, the contractor disappears. Only about half of the exterior is painted. Upon closer inspection, you also see that he installed a cheaper kind of glass than you had agreed upon.
What can you do in this situation? The cost of this job was likely a few thousand dollars – an amount that might quickly get eaten up by attorney fees if you hired one. But the money is also too much to leave on the table. Maryland’s District Court (more commonly known as small claims) allows you to sue your contractor to recover your losses.
Like all states, Maryland has a small claims court, which it refers to as “District Court.” There, parties can sue for up to $5,000 in damages.
Lawsuits in small claims court can only be for money, meaning you cannot sue your contractor to force him to complete work on your house; the judge does not have this power. Moreover, there are no juries present in Maryland's district c court, only judges. The rules of evidence and procedures are more relaxed, aimed at non-lawyers. This means that you do not need any legal training to file a lawsuit here, although some basic writing and public speaking skills will be helpful.
Avoiding court might seem like counterintuitive advice for an article on suing in small claims court, but it's actually a highly strategic approach. All litigation – even in Maryland’s consumer-friendly small claims court, where procedures are relatively easy – is time-consuming and stressful. If you can negotiate an arrangement with your contractor without proceeding to court, you will both likely be better off.
Begin with a firm discussion with your contractor about the situation. Refer to relevant portions of the written contract or agreement, if you have one. Remind the contractor what was promised, and inquire as to the problem – are materials more expensive than originally thought? Is the job more complex? What would the contractor need in order to complete the project as promised?
If this approach doesn’t lead to results, try writing a positional letter, sometimes called a demand letter. Such a letter tends to be taken more earnestly than an oral complaint, particularly if you note in writing that you are “reserving all legal rights should a resolution not be worked out.”
Your demand letter can later be used as evidence that you did your best to avoid court, which busy small claims judges will appreciate. You gave your contractor a reasonable chance to fix the error, or refund your money, rather than burden the court system. The letter also offers a convenient place in which to lay out all the facts, dates, and money amounts in dispute so far.
Too often, homeowners will wait to sue. The months and even years tick by as the forget to file; or perhaps hold off during protracted negotiations; or simply wait until they need the money. Acting quickly is important. Maryland’s statutes of limitations control the time within which you can file your lawsuit.
Typically, the most common legal causes of action against a contractor are breach of contract (“She said he would repaint my garage blue, and she repainted it pink!”) and property damage (“He broke my air conditioning system when he was supposed to be doing electrical repairs!”).
Maryland has a three-year limit under Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. Code § 5-101 for breach of contract as well as a three-year limit under Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. Code § 5-101 for property damage. If you believe you have a claim, don’t delay in filing.
Maryland requires that you sue your contractor either in your home county (i.e. where your home is -- the home that was the subject of the contract) or in the county where your contractor’s office is. Maryland offers aconvenient packet for filing a claim.
On Page 6 of that packet, you’ll find the Complaint form. This is the central document of your small claims filing. You’ll need to provide names, addresses, and phone numbers for both yourself and the defendant contractor (or his business entity name). You’ll then need to describe your claim and state the amount of money you believe you are owed. Don’t exaggerate beyond what you can prove based on your contract or other evidence; you will need to prove every dollar of those damages.
The county clerk will charge certain fees in connection with the filing of a lawsuit; you can review Maryland’s fee schedule online. Generally, a complaint will cost $28 (as of 2015), with additional fees for the number of defendants that you sue (for example, if you sue multiple contractors or subcontractors).
Once the Complaint is filed, you’ll need to “serve process” on the defendant. (Deliver a copy directly to him or her.) You can do this by certified mail, or more commonly, by hiring a process server or sheriff. Note that there are additional fees associated with each method of service, but regardless of which you choose, you’ll need to file proof with the court that the defendant was actually served.
The biggest mistake you can make is to come to Maryland small claims court unprepared. Arguing in front of a judge is stressful, even for experienced businesspeople. It’s easy to forget dates, documents, and details. Practice what you will say by rehearsing your claim in front of a friend or family member. Keep it simple, like a story, and try not to speak for more than two minutes. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every single day.
A second important aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim will be the evidence you present. In home-improvement litigation with a contractor, 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 performance, and the payment agreed upon; 2) Any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already paid; 3) Any emails, letters, or other correspondence you’ve sent to the contractor regarding facts or arguments relevant to your dispute; 4) Photographs of your home before and after the construction work, especially photos that show shoddy or inadequate workmanship.
In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
If the judge agrees with your version of the facts, and that the law protects you in such circumstances, 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 it.
Usually, business owners pay judgments immediately, in part because they fear negative relationships with banks. However, your contractor might not be so forthcoming with your money, particularly if he’s not located in the community.
If your contractor does not pay you within 30 days, you’ll need to return to the Maryland court and fill out an application for a Writ of Garnishment. This will allow you to “attach” bank accounts or other assets that your contractor has; note that this will typically cost additional fees. Discuss the appropriate procedure with your county clerk, who will be able to provide you with any additional paperwork.