Let's say you hired a contractor to do some renovations on your Ann Arbor home – perhaps new pipes in the kitchen, a shower to replace the old tub in the bathroom, or repainting the garage. Now imagine that the contractor failed to perform his duties. He used low quality piping, unevenly installed the tiles, or used the wrong color paint. Or perhaps he failed to complete the project entirely, leaving before the project was complete. If you had only spent a few hundred dollars, perhaps you would “write off” the loss as a lesson learned. But the scale of these types of projects, while not be huge in the grand scheme of residential construction, still likely cost you a few thousand dollars. For most people, that loss is too large to take lying down.
Small claims courts are generally a good mechanism for dealing with these types of disputes. For the most part, such courts allow litigants like you to pursue legal claims against businesses or individuals without needing to hire an attorney. Litigation in small claims court is also typically faster than litigation in the state’s regular court of general jurisdiction. How should you pursue such claims against your contractor in Small Claims Court in Michigan?
When you have a dispute with your contractor, 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 materials, or the shoddy work. After reminding your contractor what he promised (perhaps with reference to the written contract, if you have one), give him an opportunity to explain what the problem is. Is the job more expensive or complicated than anticipated? Does he need more time? Is there an issue that can be worked out?
If this softer strategy gets you nowhere, put your concerns in writing. Write a letter to the contractor explaining what he promised (again with reference to any written contract). Often, a 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. Moreover, sending a letter is strategic if you eventually litigate, because it 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.” By contrast, you wouldn’t want the contractor to be able to tell the judge that your lawsuit was the first time he ever heard that there was a problem with his work; judges generally prefer litigation to be a last resort.
While many – maybe most – disputes with contractors can be solved through negotiation, not all can. Sometimes you’ll need to file a lawsuit. In Michigan, Small Claims Court is a specialized part of the general District Court where litigants can represent themselves without attorneys. There are a few important things to keep in mind when you wish to begin your lawsuit.
One of the most significant limitations on Small Claims Court is that your claims cannot exceed $5,500. Under M.C.L. 600.8408, if you file your claim in Small Claims but realize it exceeds that limitation, you can remove it to District Court, where the court has broader authority. Michigan also has statutes of limitations on when you can file suit. The two most common causes of action against contractors are breach of contract (six-year limit under M.C.L. 600.5807) and property damage (3-year limit under M.C.L. 600.5805). Before filing, make sure that the contractor’s error or breach occurred within that period.
First, filing a lawsuit in Michigan Small Claims Court is not free. The cost is $25 for claims up to $600, $45 for claims over $600 up to $1,750, and $65 for claims over $1,750, up to $5,500.
Since you are the person bringing the lawsuit, you are responsible for paying the fees. In other words, if you wish to sue your Michigan contractor for $3,000 because he failed to complete a project on your home, you’ll need to come to court with $65.
To formally begin your case, you’ll need to file an Affidavit and Claim Form with the clerk’s office. This form (also called the DC 84) can be filled out online, but must be physically brought to the clerk.
Your affidavit is a sworn statement explaining the facts of your case. You can frame much like a story, starting from the moment you and your contractor first agreed to the scope of work. Generally, you should avoid legalese or citations to statutes and legal treatises. There is no expectation that you act like a lawyer. Rather, in Small Claims Court, it is the judge’s job to know the details of the law; 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.
Once the Affidavit and Claim Form is filed, the clerk will send a copy of the Affidavit and Claim Form 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 can be stressful, and it’s natural to be nervous when speaking to a judge – especially with the contractor standing very near 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, then ask your friend to raise questions. 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 is 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 performance, and the payment agreed upon; 2) Any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already given; 3) Any emails or letters you’ve sent to the contractor outlining your dispute; and 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.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Small Claims Court is that even if you “win” your case against your contractor, you essentially receive only 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; especially if the contractor is local, and knows that it needs to maintain a good reputation in your community and have strong relationships with local lenders.
But not all contractors are so upright. It's your responsibility to enforce the judgment if the contractor doesn’t willingly pay. Enforcing a judgment can be time consuming and costly.
Michigan’s court system provides resources on collecting judgments. If the contractor fails to pay you within 21 days of the judgment, you will need to return to court to file additional paperwork. The judge might set a schedule for payment that will be reasonable for the contractor (for example, if cash flow is an issue). Alternatively, the judge might order that the contractor’s bank accounts be garnished.